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PARKLAND (CBSMiami) – Ray Feis can’t pass by a single building or street in Coral Springs without thinking of his brother, Aaron. The memories are everywhere, the loss raw, the questions agonizing.
“He was more than a big brother,” said Ray Feis. “He was my protector. He was a father figure in a sense. He was the person that you always knew you could go to.”
Aaron Feis was a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School alumnus, a security guard at the school and a football coach for nearly two decades.
“His main goal was to make sure that every kid was able to live up to their full potential,” said Ray Feis. “And he was willing to do whatever he had to, from making sure kids had lunch, buying them shoes, making sure they got the tutoring they needed, rides to and from school.”
His colleagues and friends say Aaron Feis died as he lived, putting others before himself, jumping into a hail of bullets to protect his students.
“What my brother did, what Coach (Chris) Hixon did and what Coach (Scott) Biegel did— that’s who those guys were,” said Ray Feis. “That’s what a coach is. What they did that day was no different than any other day— making sure the kids were safe and caring about them, wanting them to be able to have a future, no matter what they had to do.”
As multiple agencies investigate what led to the shooting, and which parts of the system failed, Ray Feis says he has been waiting for more information to come out before speaking publicly. Now, he says, he is “getting tired of seeing people pass the buck.”
“You have an individual with documented mental health issues, and nobody wanted to do the right thing,” he said, referring to confessed shooter Nikolas Cruz. “And I’m not talking about just on that day. I’m talking about from the first time he stepped foot on a school campus. There’s school psychologists, there’s administrators, there’s other law enforcement professionals, there’s all kinds of other people that have had encounters with him before he ever went to Stoneman Douglas High School, and he just kind of kept getting passed over.”
Though Ray Feis says he does not agree with the Parkland students-turned-activists that guns are the problem, he says he does admire them for taking action, and “doing something.” He is in favor of the legislation enacted at the state level in the aftermath of the shooting, which allows law enforcement to take away people’s guns if they pose a threat to themselves or others. Ray Feis says he also wants to see schools hardened. He said he believes Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel and Broward County Superintendent Scott Israel should step aside, at least temporarily, because despite his support for educators and law enforcement, they are ultimately the ones responsible for what he sees as a failure in leadership and duty that day. Most of all, he says, he wants more attention focused on mental health, so more potential shooters do not slip through the cracks.
In fact, Ray Feis says his brother tried to get Cruz help.
“I do know that my brother brought him into internal suspension multiple times, more than a dozen times,” he said. “I know he tried. And I know there were other people on campus that tried. But when you have things such as the PROMISE Program, and other incentives that the School Board has put in place, the teachers and staff don’t have the amount of backing that they actually need to have these policies play out how they should.”
The PROMISE program is a controversial intervention program in Broward County schools, intended to prevent young offenders from entering the judicial system, providing alternatives to arrests for misdemeanor offenses. Cruz was reportedly recommended for the program for a vandalism offense, but did not complete it. He had a long list of infractions before the shooting that arguably would not have resulted in his arrest, including vandalism, profanity, breaking the rules on the bus, fighting, being disruptive, disobeying staff and bringing prohibited items to school.
“It all depends on how you look at it,” said Ray Feis. “What were the banned items? What was the vulgarity? I know for a fact that he had swastikas drawn on his bag. If you have someone who is repetitively doing things like this, they need help, and they need to be removed from that situation and get the help that help they need, as opposed to be removed from the situation and just placed with someone else, so they can be that person’s problem.”
Ray Feis admits, some days, he does not have a lot of hope.
“I’m very angry, extremely angry,” he said. “But there’s nothing that I can do about it at this point. All I can do is try to get the word out about what I believe needs to be done, so this doesn’t have to happen again.”
He has endorsed Richard Mendelson, a psychologist and one of his brother’s best friends, who is running for the Broward County School Board.
For now, Ray Feis says he is focused on making sure his sister-in-law is taken care of, and that he is always there for his niece. When the nine-year-old asks him questions, he tells her, “Your daddy did something that no other person would do. He made sure more kids came home, and you just have to be proud of that, because not too many people would do that in the world today. He did something that other people who were trained to do, refused.”
Ray Feis says his niece does not ask him why her daddy is not coming home, but rather, “How do we make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else’s daddy?”
The fallen coach’s spirit is perhaps best embodied by the young lives he saved.
“All I can do is think about him and smile, even when I’m sad, even when I’m upset,” said Ray Feis. “And just be grateful for the relationship that I did have with him, and for all the time I had with him that no one else did.”