School districts and state and federal policymakers need to take a multi-pronged approach involving mental health, gun safety, and security measures to ensure that tragedies like the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., aren’t repeated.
That was the message Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina was one of 17 killed in that attack, delivered to a virtual audience at a federal school safety summit Thursday.
“As a nation, we must come together to take action before tragedy strikes,” Montalto said.
He spoke on the final day of an inaugural three-day school safety event hosted by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency that focused on physical safety, violence prevention, and cybersecurity.
There have been 40 school shootings this year that resulted in injuries or deaths, the most in a single year since Education Week began tracking such incidents in 2018. Those incidents range from mass shootings to community violence that has spilled into stadium parking lots during Friday night football games.
Montalto is the president of Stand with Parkland, an organization founded by family members of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to influence school safety debates and encourage action.
His remarks came the day after the gunman, a former Stoneman Douglas student who was 19 at the time of the attack, was formally sentenced to 17 consecutive life sentences for the killings. That action followed two days of emotional courtroom statements by families, many directed at the gunman.
“This is a club no one wants to be in,” Jennifer Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, died in the shooting, said in court Wednesday.
Stand With Parkland urges action in three areas: responsible gun ownership, school safety enhancements, and mental health screenings and support.
“All three of these things push and pull on each other when it comes to school safety, and each of them failed in this [Parkland] tragedy,” said Montalto.
He lamented further safety failures before and during the Uvalde, Texas, shooting, in which 19 children and two teachers were shot and killed in conjoining classrooms during a fumbled police response.
Addressing mental health, physical safety
Stand With Parkland supported the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, a bill President Joe Biden signed into law June 25 in response to the Uvalde tragedy.
- Provided $300 million in new funding through the STOP School Violence Act, a federal grant program created after the Parkland shooting to help fund school safety and student support efforts.
- Codified a federal clearinghouse of school safety “best practices”.
- Included measures to make it easier for schools to bill Medicaid for student mental health services.
- Included $1 billion to recruit and train more school psychologists, counselors, and social workers.
- Provided $240 million for violence prevention programs.
- Introduced new restrictions on gun sales, including an “enhanced screening process” for buyers under 21, and support for state “red flag laws” that allow courts to limit an individual’s access to firearms if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others.
Montalto encouraged schools to take advantage of new resources and to review current procedures to keep students safe. And, while security equipment can be costly, schools should also take simple steps, like ensuring students have space to gather in corners that aren’t visible from windows in their classrooms’ doors during lockdown drills, he said.
Other speakers, including representatives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and state school safety officials, at the event said schools should balance security with creating environments where students feel safe and supported. District leaders should also put as much effort behind ensuring that existing safety equipment is maintained as they do in adding new facilities upgrades, speakers said. The speakers praised districts that conduct school security assessments, create comprehensive planning teams, and make ongoing efforts to evaluate policies and training.
“I am the face of school security’s failure,” Montalto said. “Please, learn from my experience. It happened to my family in Parkland, and it can happen to your community, too.”