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Parkland High School Shooting Generating Change In Florida

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri
The Florida Channel
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri chairs the saftey commission looking into the Parkland school masacre.

Past gun violence produced few lasting changes in Florida, but the Parkland mass shooting has prompted swift new laws and a high-profile committee that is generating action.

When 14 students and three staff members were gunned down Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School near Fort Lauderdale, the state quickly raised the age for buying a rifle from 18 to 21, tightened other laws and formed a panel to investigate shortcomings in law enforcement and at the school — prompting personnel changes even before filing its initial report.

"We are starting to get some accountability" because of the commission's work, said Democratic state Rep. Jared Moskowitz, who represents the school's home city of Parkland and pushed for the commission's creation. He said its preliminary report, which is due to Gov. Rick Scott, incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature by Jan. 1, will give lawmakers "a rubric" for changes needed to prevent further school shootings.

That's a departure from two years ago, when the Legislature never formed an investigative commission and laws went unchanged after a gunman killed 49 people — mostly gay men — at Orlando's Pulse nightclub. A task force formed after the 2012 fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman similarly produced few changes.

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando-area Democrat who is gay, said the Legislature's Republican majority refused to call a special session after Pulse and his efforts to get funding for a memorial equal to the allocation for Stoneman Douglas' failed. House leaders have indicated that may change in the 2019 session, he said.

This time, unlike the Pulse massacre or the music festival shooting on the Las Vegas Strip in late 2017, the slayings happened on state property and involved schoolchildren. As with the Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut in 2012 that prompted a state ban on assault rifles, the Parkland incident spurred lawmakers and state officials into action.

School isn't a choice and shootings on school grounds resonate with everyone, said Adam Lankford, a University of Alabama criminology professor who researches mass shootings.

"By law you have to send your kids to school," he said. "People can say to themselves, 'Well I don't go to nightclubs,' but everyone's kids go to school. ... Same thing with Vegas. A lot of people don't go to concerts on the Vegas strip. That's a different world to them. But everyone can relate to the school situation."

State Senate President Bill Galvano said government has a higher responsibility to respond when the victims were under government care than if they were on private property. He acknowledged that commissions often are set up in lieu of legislative action but this one clearly was intended to generate legislative action.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission's 15 members — high-ranking law enforcement, education and mental health officials, a legislator and the fathers of two slain students — say they are motivated to honor the massacre victims.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the panel's chairman, said its stature comes from being "very fact-based in our investigation."

"That has given people credible knowledge and we don't even have our report out," he said.

The panel began meeting in April with presentations on school safety, student diversion programs, police communications and mental health laws. The panel's investigators interviewed school officials and teachers, students, law enforcement officers and counselors who worked with suspect Nikolas Cruz.

That slowly built until two weeks ago, when a presentation by detectives laid out what allegedly happened before, during and after the shooting. That included concerns about Cruz's behavior when he attended Stoneman Douglas in 2016, his actions on Feb. 14 and the response by individual law enforcement officers, including some Broward deputies who appeared to freeze. The panel had privately viewed graphic security video taken during the shooting.

"Videos that I can never, frankly, unsee; things that I will have to live with the rest of my life," said Democratic state Sen. Lauren Book, a panel member who represents Parkland. "But that is only half of what (the victims') families are going through."

Two Broward County sheriff's officials are off their jobs and four school administrators were reassigned after allegations of malfeasance at the Nov. 15 presentation.

Tony Montalto, president of Stand with Parkland, which represents the families of the slain, said the commission has done a good job, but it is frustrating that high-ranking officials, including School Superintendent Robert Runcie and Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, remain in office.

"When you see the evidence that was presented and see so many parts failed at different levels in those two organizations, you have to turn not only to the people who failed to do the job, but to the leaders," said Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina died in the shooting.

Cruz, now 20, has pleaded not guilty, but his lawyers have said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.