School Climate & Safety

Parkland Victims’ Families Have Pushed for Change. Here’s What They’ve Accomplished.

By Evie Blad — March 23, 2018 5 min read
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Since the Parkland, Fla., school shooting last month, student activists have received much attention for their passionate calls for changes to the nation’s gun laws. That’s in part because thousands of their peers have heard that call, planting the seeds of what could be a new national youth movement.

But another group from Parkland—the families of the 17 victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—has also pushed for change. And that group has already seen success in pushing for school safety compromises at the state and federal level.

Lawmakers credit support from the victims’ families for passage of the STOP School Violence Act, a safety bill President Trump signed into law as part of federal spending legislation Friday, and for the enactment of a Florida safety bill that included school safety measures and some changes to the state’s gun laws—albeit more modest changes than some of the student protestors are pushing for.

GOP Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted about the families Thursday night, praising them for support of the federal bill, which was also championed by families of the 2012 Newtown, Conn., school shooting before the one in Florida took place.

“At the federal level, the STOP School Violence Act is the first step in a long journey to improve the safety of our students and teachers at school,” the families wrote in a letter to congressional leadership about the bill. The legislation funds school security and measures like threat assessment, which helps schools identify and intervene with students at risk of violence, anonymous reporting systems, and violence prevention training for teachers and students.

The families also pushed for the passage of the Fix NICS Act, which encourages more complete information in the federal background check system used for gun purchases. That bill was also signed into law as part of the spending package.

‘We Don’t All Have to Agree’

The most outspoken relatives of the Stoneman Douglas victims have various positions on gun laws.

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime, 14, was killed in the shooting, has called the measures passed since that day a good starting point. But he’s also pushed passionately for gun reform.

Ryan Petty, who lost his daughter Alaina, 14, has expressed concerns that the student activists’ calls for gun-law changes, many of which have failed in Congress previously, might distract from school safety measures that are more broadly supported and could be more quickly achieved.

“Policy and political action ought to take their cues from this American majority,” Petty told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee March 14. “We don’t have to all agree on guns—and we won’t. But we can agree on the most fundamental things.”

He said he didn’t want to speak of “the media-fed, activist-inflamed, and politically aggravated din of the past month,” focusing instead on solutions “that are inclusive rather than divisive.”

Meanwhile at the state level, Florida legislation known as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Safety Act represented a compromise for many of the victims’ families, and for most of the lawmakers who eventually voted in support of it. Many of the bill’s provisions were supported by some groups and raised concerns for others:

  • The National Rifle Association has already sued over a part of the bill that raised the minimum age for all gun purchases in the state to 21. The bill’s gun provisions also include a so-called “red flag law” that allows courts to seize guns and restrict firearms purchases for people who are deemed a threat to themselves or others, a ban on bump stocks, and a three-day waiting period for gun purchases. Collectively, those are the biggest changes in the state’s gun laws in years.
  • Teachers groups opposed the bill’s creation of the “Aaron Feis Guardian Program,” a voluntary program through which school employees could be trained and armed. It’s named for a Parkland football coach who was killed in the shooting and who’s been called a hero for his actions to shield students during the attack. Supporters of the measure said it would help to “harden schools.”
  • The bill created a commission to “investigate system failures in the Parkland school shooting and prior mass violence incidents, and develop recommendations for system improvements.” It also established a program “to assist school personnel in preparing for and responding to active emergency situations and to implement local notification systems for all Florida public schools.”
  • The bill’s $400 million for school mental health services and security measures, including metal detectors and the placement of at least one police officer in every school, raised concerns from some civil rights groups, who are concerned about how school police interact with black and Latino students.

But the compromise represented a good starting point for many of the families.

“As families, we came from different backgrounds and we hold a variety of viewpoints; yet we united around this simple idea: our children and teachers should be safe at school,” a statement from the families read. “We rallied to the battle cry: This time must be different!”

Photo: Florida Gov. Rick Scott signs the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act in his office at the state Capitol in Tallahassee on March 9. Scott is flanked by parents of several of the victims of the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland. --Mark Wallheiser/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.