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School Climate & Safety

Parkland Students Want to Know: Will the Shooting at Their School Change Gun Laws?

By Evie Blad — February 16, 2018 7 min read
Kashiya Biggs, 17, facing left, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, weeps with her friend, Lex Reynoso, 16, as the names of deceased victims are read during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting at the school in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 15.

Parkland, Fla.

Students and community members grieving the largest mass shooting at an American high school express a common sentiment that’s as much a challenge as it is a prediction: Nothing will change.

The prediction: Politicians who right now express sympathy and call for safer schools will follow a familiar pattern after school shootings by letting what happened in the South Florida community fade from the headlines without making meaningful changes to gun laws.

The challenge: Don’t let that happen this time.

Police say Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old student who’d been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took an Uber there Wednesday, carrying a powerful AR-15 rifle and extra rounds of ammunition. He made his way to Building 12 on the 3,300-student campus, where freshman classes are concentrated. Taking advantage of the movement created by a fire alarm, Cruz opened fire in the hallways and classrooms, killing 17 people and wounding 15 others, court documents say.

The FBI said on Friday that it had failed to properly investigate a January tip from someone close to Cruz, who said he was concerned about Cruz’ “disturbing social media posts” and “desire to kill people.”

Now grief and anger are driving students in Parkland to ask tough questions of the adults responsible for protecting them.

See Also: The Parkland School Shooting: Complete Coverage

“I want them to know this could happen anywhere,” said Michala Christie, 14, a freshman who heard the gunman banging loudly on her locked geography classroom door as she waited inside. Two of her friends were killed: Alex Schachter and Gina Montalto.

In the two days since the shooting, many students are frustrated at the expectation that nothing will change. They point to Congressional debates over gun restrictions that followed the deaths of 20 1st graders and six educators in the 2012 school shootings in Newtown, Conn., and ended with no new laws.

Some students are asking if it’s too easy to enter school buildings, as Cruz did. Some want to know if their peers have adequate access to mental health resources. And some are questioning whether adults really understand the pain they are feeling.

‘It Happened in Parkland’

In this city of 30,000 residents, the shootings’ immediate effects were everywhere.

Radio DJs broke in between pop songs on Friday to announce locations for blood drives. Streets that lead to gated communities were blocked off by police cars. Sheriff’s cars were parked outside every school, meant to provide reassurance to anxious parents.

At a vigil Thursday night in a city park, hundreds of people lifted candles, struggling to hear the prayers of rabbis and ministers over sounds of news helicopters swirling overhead to record the scene.

Many of the students and teachers who gathered there were seeing each other for the first time since the shootings, cutting through crowds to embrace one another in long hugs without saying a word.

“Don’t tell me there’s no such thing as gun violence,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jamie was killed. His voice got louder as it cracked. “It happened in Parkland.”

The crowd later broke into chants of “No more guns!”

Within hours of the shootings, a vocal group of teens, joined by Broward County district Superintendent Robert Runcie, began calling on lawmakers to rethink gun laws. They’ve stood before countless TV cameras to make impassioned pleas. They’ve barraged social media, some of them tweeting directly to President Donald Trump.

Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie speaks during a news conference on Feb. 15, near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed the day before in a mass shooting.

“Now is the time for this country to have a real conversation about sensible gun control,” Runcie said at a news press conference, surrounded by state leaders, including Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, who have opposed changes to Florida’s gun laws. “Our students are asking for this conversation.”

Among other things, students have questioned why, under Florida law, Cruz was able to buy an AR-15, a semi-automatic weapon, but not a handgun. And they’ve questioned why there aren’t more restrictions on guns for people who are mentally ill or intent on harming others.

David Hogg, 17, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, recorded his classmate’s reactions and thoughts about guns on his cellphone as they sat locked in a darkened classroom during the shooting.

“If I was going to die, I was going to die telling a story,” said Hogg, who said he biked back to the school after the shootings to “get some b-roll.”

He wanted to share his videos, he said, to let people know what’s at stake if gun laws don’t change. Over the last two days, his demands for change have appeared in nearly every major news outlet.

“We’re children,” he said, pushing for new gun laws in a CNN interview Thursday. “You guys are the adults.”

But some Parkland students have a different point of view.

“You outlaw guns, it just creates higher demand for it,” senior Brandon Minoff said in an interview with MSNBC. “I think it has to do with mental health, though.”

While Trump has steered away from discussing guns in his response to the shootings, Gov. Scott, a Republican, has committed to discussing proposals with state lawmakers.

“If somebody is mentally ill, they should not have access to a gun,” Scott said in a news conference Thursday, standing next to Superintendent Runcie.

Additionally, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and members of Congress have called for hearings on school safety.

‘Stuff Like This Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Happen’

Michala Christie, the freshman who survived the shooting, said her classroom is on the third floor of Building 12, in one of the areas police say Cruz targeted. As police walked her classmates out of the building, they urged students to look straight ahead so they didn’t see the scene around them. But she made the mistake of turning her head.

“I saw streaks of blood on the walls and on the floor and holes in the windows,” Michala said Thursday night as she huddled with grieving friends, many of whom said they didn’t understand why Cruz was allowed to enter the building at all. Some teachers have said Cruz had a long disciplinary history with the district, and some said teachers at the high school had been warned not to let him enter with a backpack.

A woman places flowers at one of 17 crosses placed for the victims of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla.

Court documents say a campus monitor saw Cruz enter the building Wednesday carrying a black backpack and duffel bag and “recognized him as a former troubled student.” The monitor radioed a co-worker to warn him Cruz was “walking purposefully” toward the freshman building, the documents show. Within a minute, the monitor heard gun shots.

“Stuff like this shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” said a sophomore who said the building was “way too open.” She did not want to be named. “There should not be lives lost in schools like this.”

School safety experts say controlling who can get inside buildings is one of the most important things schools can do to ensure student safety. Many elementary and middle schools limit access to a single set of locked doors that can only be opened with permission from staff. High schools, which are larger and give students more freedom to move around, can be more challenging to secure.

Runcie told reporters that Douglas High School is secure, but access was less restricted because Cruz entered toward the end of the school day, when many students were moving about the campus.

Parkland residents said the school is known for not having problems with security or student discipline. An armed school resource officer works at the school, but was not in Building 12 at the time of Cruz’s attack.

The fear that followed the attacks has spread to surrounding schools and districts.

Lucy Rivas and her daughter Valeria, 16, drove to Parkland from Boca Raton on Friday to see a growing memorial to the victims. Rivas let her daughter stay home from school after a sleepless Thursday.

“It was so surprising to me, how easy it was,” she said of Cruz’s ability to walk into the high school. “Anybody can go in.”

Do the Adults Understand?

Syd, a freshman at nearby North Broward High School who did not want to share her last name, said she and her classmates wore red shirts Thursday, wearing Douglas school colors in honor of the victims.

“Seeing all of those people in red let me know that they really care about this,” she said.

Syd’s friends at Douglas High were in the areas most affected by the shooting. Talking to them about what they saw and the classmates they lost, and seeing images of students huddled in closets and under desks in her Instagram feed has filled her with anxiety and fear of copycat attacks.

That anxiety turned to panic Thursday when someone at her high school mistook a popping noise at a nearby construction site for a gunshot, sending the building into lockdown. Walking through the gym at the moment the lockdown was called, Syd was pulled into a boys’ locker room, where all of the images from Douglas High cycled through her mind.

She said she’s not quite sure adults can imagine the trauma some students are experiencing, trauma that’s pushing many of them to ask questions and push for change.

“I think [that] they think they understand,” Syd said. “But I don’t even understand what they went through, and they’re my friends.”

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