The moment David “Cobra” Clemente heard about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, he grabbed his red beret and red Guardian Angels jacket and raced over.
“I suited up and went straight to Parkland,” said Clemente, 59. “I had my guys meet me there.”
Clemente and two fellow members of the all-volunteer Broward County, Fla., Guardian Angels have put their lives on hold to conduct safety patrols at the school every day since the shooting — from about 6 a.m. until afternoon dismissal around 3 p.m.
Clemente, who has worked in the security field for decades, had been saving money over the years for a rainy day. Children being killed not 10 minutes from his home was a storm.
“If anything happens in that school, I’m coming in that door,” said Clemente, who does not carry a weapon, but at six feet tall and 300 pounds is an imposing figure. “Anybody who looks like they don’t belong there is going down on the floor, I’m taking them down. … We’d protect these students with our lives.”
Clemente and the two other Guardian Angels — Romero “Black Cat” Davis and Mark “Yankee” Munic — spend their days walking or biking the grounds, escorting students to the building upon request, parents say, and helping traumatized teens feel safe.
Nobody tells them to be there, and they don’t get paid for it. They show up each day because they think it’s the right thing to do.
Clemente said the reason their patrols are effective is because they are there day in and day out for the community, which is raw after 17 people were killed in the shooting. “We don’t just come in and do one patrol or two patrols and leave,” he said. “That’s not what we do.”
The Parkland parent community has embraced them, buying them a tent as a “command center,” and bringing them breakfast and lunch, often homemade, every day. There is also a jar where parents sometimes drop in cash to support them. “They are there every day without an agenda except to protect the kids,” said Jon Faber, a father of two boys at the school. “They have their finger on the pulse of the school.”
The Guardian Angels work separately from local law enforcement officers who are detailed to the school for protection — one of whom was scorned for staying outside the building during the shooting rather than running in to help.
Clemente said he’s been at the school enough to know many of the students by name, and he gets high-fives and gratitude from students and parents every day. Sometimes students bring them homemade cookies or cards to say thanks. And they get hugs, lots of hugs.
The Guardian Angels is a nonprofit group of volunteers that started in 1979 doing safety patrols in New York City. Clemente was a Guardian Angel in New York and started a Broward County chapter when he moved to Florida five years ago. He had never patrolled Parkland before, because in such a safe community, there was no need.
He and his fellow Guardian Angels are trained in protection and take weekly martial arts classes, he said.
The trio was recognized by the city of Parkland with a certificate of appreciation from the mayor and city commission. They also got a certificate of appreciation from Broward County. “Thank you for being here for us when we needed you most,” Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky said.
Clemente said that over the past few months, he’s become so close to the community that it’s like he’s protecting his own family. He added that his service to the school is “something every single human being should do in the first place.”
“The kids have been through too much trauma,” he said. “If I bring a pinch of hope to these kids, I am doing my job.”
And, of course, keeping them safe is his No. 1 priority.
“The president has his Secret Service, and the Parkland students got their Guardian Angels,” he said.