Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

We Lost Family at Parkland. You Should Learn From Our Personal Tragedy

Basic security steps could have prevented the murder of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School
By Tony Montalto, April Schentrup & Debbi Hixon — February 11, 2020 5 min read
Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina Montalto was killed in the Parkland shooting, stands on Capitol Hill this month.
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Valentine’s Day is a tough day for us.

On February 14th two years ago, a 19-year-old male, widely known to be troubled and dangerous, walked effortlessly through an unlocked and unmonitored gate into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. A campus security monitor, who recognized the former student as “crazy boy,” decided not to confront the trespasser or call for a lockdown. There was some kind of communication with other campus monitors about the suspicious teen on campus, but, unfortunately, the one security monitor closest to the intruder chose to hide in a closet, instead of alerting the school of imminent danger.

Seventeen people were murdered that afternoon, including our beloved family members: the popular athletic director Chris Hixon, 49, who tried to disarm the gunman and protect students; Gina Montalto, 14, a straight-A student who was working on a project in the hallway; and Carmen Schentrup, 16, a National Merit finalist, who was sitting in her AP Psychology class.

We hope you will join us in demanding that our leaders in Washington, D.C., our state capitols, our school districts, and each school building take action to help prevent tragedies.

After that senseless slaughter of students and staff, we and the family members of other victims formed Stand with Parkland – The National Association of Families for Safe Schools with the mission to help prevent the next mass shooting in America’s schools. We work with both Democrats and Republicans at the local, state, and national levels, and we focus on three pillars: securing our schools, improving mental-health screenings and support programs, and promoting responsible firearms ownership.

It takes political courage to do this work and a desire to push through the partisan challenges and find solutions that can benefit all citizens. Following these all-too-frequent mass shootings, urgent calls for action invariably get bogged down in divisive debates. Each side runs to its corner, and public safety concerns go unheeded. SWP is helping to break this cycle. We are a voice for all ideologies and political stripes, and we are focused on finding common ground and compromise. And we have seen and continue to see positive results as the outcome of our work.

April Schentrup, who was in Washington this month, lost her daughter Carmen Schentrup in the Parkland shooting.

Within two months of our horrific personal losses, several bipartisan federal bills were passed by Congress and signed into law by the president. These include: the Fix NICS Act, which encourages state and federal agencies to share information to secure more thorough background checks on firearms purchases; and the STOP School Violence Act, which funds the development and operation of evidence-based school threat-assessment and crisis-intervention teams. It also provides grants to schools so they can improve campus security. And, in 2018, Florida passed a bipartisan “red flag” law that respects due process, yet allows law enforcement to remove firearms from people the court has deemed dangerous to themselves or others. And, now, 17 states and the District of Columbia have adopted similar laws, and several red-flag bills are currently in motion in the U.S. Congress.

We believe the best way to stop the next school shooting is to be proactive about prevention. For example, instituting behavioral threat-assessments and follow-up case management can get kids the help they need before tragedy strikes again. According to the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, which studies and develops prevention guidance for targeted violence in America, school shooters show many warning signs, including announcing their threats on social media, telling others in person, or writing out their plans. NTAC has free training available for your school district. We urge you to call them. (One of the bipartisan bills before the U.S Congress right now supports increased funding for NTAC. It is called the Eagles Act, named after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school mascot.)

If you’re wondering how you can jump start a conversation in your community about school safety, SWP has developed five questions for parents, families, and school district employees to consider. They are:

1. Does the school have an active-shooter policy?

2. Does the school train all staff members for active-shooter scenarios?

3. Does the school have a single point of entry (access control) during school hours? (Our nation’s schools need to be welcoming, but we must know who is on the campus.)

Debbi Hixon's husband, Chris Hixon, was killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

4. Is there a way students and staff can report threats?

5. How are parents notified when a threat has been made to the school?

Educators and administrators should be prepared to tackle these questions:

  • Can teachers or non-administrative staff call a lockdown when an emergency arises? How should the staff and students alert the school community of an emergency? Everyone on campus needs to be empowered to make the call. Any delay could be tragic. The security staff in Parkland were confused on when to call a lockdown at a time when decisive action was needed.
  • Has your school thought through what happens when rifle fire occurs in a school? Did you know that this sets off fire alarms? Administrators need to think about these details because those evacuating for a fire alarm could be heading into the path of a shooter.
  • Does your school have one administrator assigned to the school’s safety or active-shooter preparedness? Assigning this important role to one person is not enough. Every administrator must know what to do in an emergency, and they must ensure that their staff are trained. When it comes to safety, everyone must be prepared, and everyone must take part in that preparation.

Firearms are the second leading cause of student deaths, which is a key reason why planning and practicing age-appropriate active-shooter drills on campus is essential. They are key to stopping, or at least limiting, the potential damage a mass shooter can cause. We think nothing of having students practice sports, band, math, and fire drills until they are confident of their performance. We should think of these drills in the same way.

So many basic safety steps could have prevented the murder of 17 wonderful souls at their high school on Valentine’s Day, 2018. That reality is heartbreaking for us, and we want to prevent that devastation in your community.

We must come together as a nation to improve campus security to protect our students, their teachers, and the school staff. We hope you will join us in demanding that our leaders in Washington, our state capitols, our school districts, and each school building take action to help prevent tragedies like those at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Sandy Hook, and Columbine.

As the second commemoration of the Parkland tragedy approaches, Stand with Parkland – The National Association of Families for Safe Schools offers this advice and a plea to every school employee, parent, and student: Hug your loved ones extra tight and become engaged in making your schools safer.

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