Parents, bipartisan congressional group tour Parkland school shooting site in push for solutions
Members of Congress, families of survivors and county and state officials this morning toured the building where 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, in an effort to push for federal bipartisan action on gun control and school safety.
The tour preceded a court-ordered reenactment of the shooting that stems from a lawsuit victims and their families filed against former school resource officer Scot Peterson. A jury found Peterson not guilty earlier this year for failing to confront the shooter.
Jared Moskowitz, a Democratic congressman whose district includes Parkland, invited his colleagues to tour his alma mater after a request from Max Schachter, who lost his son in the 2018 shooting. They included Jamaal Bowman, of New York, as well as Florida U.S. representatives Carlos A. Gimenez, John Rutherford and Frederica Wilson.
“I walked through that building a month ago and I came out of there and I was angry. I said, I have to have every member of Congress walking through this building,” Schachter said Friday.
After the shooting the Florida Legislature passed historic gun control and school safety legislation spearheaded by Moskowitz, who at the time led a group of state lawmakers through the school building.
“The basic premise was, whatever we did, whatever we passed, if it wouldn't have stopped what happened then the bill fails, and that's why it was so comprehensive,” Moskowitz told the roundtable group Friday. “And it was just a basic principle I had in my mind, which is — we’ve got to be able to tell parents in this country that when they drop their kids off at school, they get to pick them up.”
That 2018 tour led to legislative changes that included raising the minimum age to buy a gun in the state, implementing red flag laws and a 3-day waiting period to purchase a gun.
Moskowitz has since led several tours through the building which, for the most part, has remained untouched from the day of the shooting. There is still dried blood in hallways and classrooms, while books and Valentine’s Day decorations are scattered throughout. The building was used as evidence in the criminal trial of the shooter, when jurors walked the building, as well as in Peterson’s trial.
Moskowitz was joined on Friday by congressional colleague U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who represents the 25th District, including parts of Miami-Dade, Collier and Hendry Counties.
“I just hope that ... while we have very strong feelings on a number of things, that we can put some of those aside to reach that consensus in the middle to continue to do the things that we know work and that we know we can get bipartisan support for,” he said.
Diaz-Balart, a Republican, and Moskowitz fall on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to things like gun control, with Diaz-Balart calling some measures “radical” last year.
"We must not lose sight of the real issues. Instead, Congress should focus on effective solutions that fund school resource officers and mental health, harden school safety measures, close loopholes in school security, better equip law enforcement to address threats from an active shooter, and enforce laws that prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands,” he wrote in a statement in June 2022 when Democrats were pushing for an assault weapons ban.
Moskowitz on the other hand has received an F- rating from the National Rifle Association. The pair hopes that working together, and seeing the school building together, can help other politicians see that bipartisan collaboration is possible.
“We all have to kind of take a step back and put aside those issues, which might be the ones that get all the headlines, but that we know are very difficult to get bipartisan support on,” Diaz-Balart said.
The pair co-sponsored a bill, dubbed the Eagles Act, on the fifth anniversary of the shooting. The bill is named for the school’s mascot and seeks to expand the Secret Service National Threat Assessment program to schools, workplaces and houses of worship.
The National Threat Assessment Center was established by the Secret Service in 1998 to develop evidence-based indicators of various types of targeted violence. The bill would expand research, information-sharing and training on behavioral threat assessment.
Family members tour the building
Family members of the victims also joined the tour and roundtable discussion that followed at a nearby hotel. They included Tony and Jennifer Montalto, Lori Alhadeff and Debbi Hixon, as well as Schachter. Families were able to walk through the building and retrieve items left by their relatives after the criminal trial of Peterson ended in June.
Schachter made opening remarks to the media before the closed-door roundtable discussion.
“They saw the aftermath of what happens when you don't prioritize safety and security,” Schachter said of the group who toured the building. “Safety has to come before education. You cannot teach dead kids.”
Tony Montalto, who lost his daughter Gina in the shooting, echoed the call for bipartisan action on gun violence prevention and school safety.
“As you'll notice, it's a bipartisan group. That is the only way we are going to pass lasting and meaningful legislation in Congress that will make our students and our teachers safer,“ he said during a press conference following the roundtable discussion.
The building is scheduled to be destroyed after the tour and reenactment, marking the end of five painful years for students and survivors — although no timeline has been released by the school board, who own the building. Alhadeff, who is also chair of the board, said she wants more lawmakers to come and see the building, something that could delay the demolition.
“It's so painful to be able to see the bullet holes in the wall, the glass on the floor, the blood where my daughter, Alyssa, was tragically murdered that day in Room 1216,” she said. “But I have hope. I have hope that after today, the congressman and congresswomen will go back to Congress and take action.”
As part of the lawsuit against Peterson, ballistics experts were due to fire more than 100 shots inside the 1200 building Friday afternoon for a reenactment of the 2018 shooting.
Technicians were set to be outside the three-story classroom building recording the sound of the gunfire, seeking to capture what Peterson heard during the six-minute attack.
Peterson — who worked for the Broward Sheriff’s Office, also targeted in the lawsuit — says he didn’t hear all the shots and couldn’t pinpoint where they were coming from because of echoes. He got within a few feet of the building’s door and drew his gun, but then backed away and stood next to an adjoining building for 40 minutes, making radio calls. He has said he would have charged into the building if he knew the shooter's location.
Families of the victims bringing the lawsuit contend Peterson knew Cruz’s location, but retreated out of cowardice and in violation of his duty to protect their loved ones. They are suing for an unspecified amount of damages.
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.