Stoneman Douglas Commission Discusses Casualty Notification Process After Shooting

Apr 10, 2019

The state commission that is investigating the Parkland school shooting met on Wednesday with families of victims of the massacre to discuss their traumatic experiences of finding out about their loved ones’ fates after the shooting.

During the emotional revisit of the aftermath of the massacre on February 14, 2018, the families criticized the process of waiting for as long as 12 hours to learn whether their spouse or child had died during the shooting. They called on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission to create a formal procedure to make the notification process after shootings less tortuous and more empathetic.

Another shooting is "gonna happen again,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime died during the massacre. “And so hopefully before it does happen again, you’ll put a priority on getting out the best practices on how to deal with this part.”

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, law enforcement directed families of students still unidentified to a Coral Springs Marriott. The hotel turned into a command center where witnesses gave statements to detectives and FBI agents.

The family members on Tuesday described the process as haunting and chaotic. While some parents soon learned that their children were identified and survived, others waited for hours for a final confirmation from law enforcement.

Some families began learning via social media and other communications that their loved ones may have died. Debbie Hixon, whose husband, Chris, was the school's athletic director, said she threw her cell phone across the room when she learned from text messages that he was killed. 

The process then grew more traumatic as homicide detectives began calling families into small rooms one at a time to finally give them the news. Families, who had still not received confirmation and were outside the room, soon started to hear screaming and crying inside. 

“That night in the Marriott when we were sitting in the room for hours—[my wife] Gina and I will always remember that as an emotional endurance test from hell,” said Tom Hoyer, whose son Luke was killed. He and his wife ultimately learned of the news at 1 a.m. after the shooting ended before 2:30 p.m. the previous day. 

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said the delay in the notification process likely stemmed from law enforcement’s need to process the shooting scene and confirm casualties before notifying the parents. Law enforcement would risk providing inaccurate information if they contacted the families any sooner.

But family members, including Hixon, told him they would have preferred to hear some possibly inaccurate information than wait hours with no information.

“I get what you’re saying because you don’t want to tell someone someone’s gone and then find out later” it’s not true,” she said. But “I would have rather had somebody say there’s a chance” he died, “so I could start to process.”

Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina died during the shooting, added that law enforcement must provide more resources to comfort families during the traumatic time. 

"Somebody needs to be in the room with the families," he said. "We need to deploy counselors and victims' advocates immediately." 

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the commission, said the Broward Sheriff officers involved in the notification process were "trying to do the best they could with what they had to work with." He said there is no right way to carry out the notification process, but added the commission will try to recommend methods to make the procedure more empathetic for families.