Anguished parents plead for school safety changes

After hearing the impassioned pleas of parents whose children were murdered, key legislative panels Tuesday approved sweeping school-safety measures.

Those measures would allow specially trained teachers to bring guns to class, raise the age from 18 to 21 to purchase rifles or other long guns and create a commission to explore failures leading up to the massacre this month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

About 40 parents from Parkland, the affluent Broward County enclave where the nation’s second-worst school shooting occurred Feb. 14, traveled to the Capitol to share their stories and requests with lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott as the Legislature rushes to pass a school-safety bill before the annual session ends on March 9.

Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex was among 17 people slain at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, strained to choke back tears as he begged lawmakers to act.

“I’ve never been an outspoken person. I never wanted to be in this situation. But I’m pleading with you to put your differences aside. It’s time to learn to compromise and help make our schools safe again,” Schachter, comforted by his father, Steve, told the House Appropriations Committee. “We owe it to all these students. You owe it to me and you owe it to all those 16 other families.”

The legislation approved Tuesday by House and Senate appropriations committees includes money for early mental health screening and services as well as additional school resource officers, raises the required age from 18 to 21 and imposes a three-day waiting period to purchase long guns, and would give law enforcement officials the ability to remove guns from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

“The components of the bill would have saved my little boy Alex, and if we had had these measures in place I would not have had to bury my son next to his mother,” Schachter told the committees. “I’m willing to compromise. Are you?”

Schachter’s testimony reduced Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, to tears.

Critics of the legislation, including a union representing teachers and many Democrats, say it doesn’t go far enough because it lacks a prohibition on assault-style guns like the one used by 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz to mow down 14 students and three faculty members at the Parkland school.

Gun-rights groups, such as the National Rifle Association, also oppose the legislation, arguing that it includes new gun restrictions that punish gun owners for the actions of Cruz, who had a lengthy history of mental health problems.

“We have long supported keeping guns out of the hands of those who have dangerous mental illness. We do not support gun control provisions of this bill. These provisions are nothing more than an attack on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding people,” Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association’s influential Florida lobbyist, said.

The measures would allow law enforcement officers to seize guns from the homes of people who are being involuntarily committed for mental health treatment under the Baker Act, or to seek a “risk protection” order from courts that would allow authorities to remove guns from people who are a potential danger to themselves or others and who have made a “credible threat of violence” against another person.

The proposals also contain $1 million for a memorial dedicated to the 17 victims of the mass shooting, nearly $30 million to raze and rebuild the freshman building where the shooting took place, and money --- $100 million in the Senate plan, and $67 million in the House measure --- to fund school districts’ mental health screening and services programs. Also, the plans would create an “Office of Safe Schools” within the state Department of Education.

In an election year, the legislation pits Republicans, who dominate both chambers in the Legislature, against the NRA and Hammer, who for years have used Florida as a model state for Second Amendment legislation. Democrats also could be at risk for failing to vote against proposals that do not include a ban on assault weapons.

But House budget chief Carlos Trujillo said lawmakers need to consider if the plan is “in the best interest” of the state.

“Does this make one child safer? Does this make one school safer? If the answer is yes, then damn the consequences. If that means your base is upset, or than means a special interest group is upset, I am willing to live with those outcomes,” Trujillo, R-Miami, said.

In the days following the mass shooting, lawmakers have heard from a steady stream of parents, children, educators and others --- including dozens from the Parkland community on Tuesday --- whose demands have included a ban on assault weapons.

But many parents on Tuesday viewed the legislation, now headed to the House and Senate floors for full votes, as a positive, if preliminary, step forward. The House Appropriations Committee voted 23-6 to approve its measure (PCB APC 18-06), while the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 13-7 for its version (SB 7026).

“The entire world is begging you to stand up and fix this problem, like we tell our children don’t be bullied into doing what everybody else is doing or wants you to do,” a sobbing Parkland parent Randi Weisselberg told the House committee. “For our children, do whatever it takes to stop this. And I am in favor of this bill to be started because it gets something going. Remember, your city could be next. And trust me, you don’t want to live this nightmare.”

The House and Senate bills include a controversial “school marshal” provision that would allow teachers or administrators who receive special training, are deputized by the local sheriff and have concealed-weapons licenses to bring guns to schools, if school districts approve.

Democrats on both committees made futile attempts to strip the “marshal” program --- opposed by the PTA, the union representing teachers, and many of the parents who spoke on Tuesday --- out of the proposals, both dubbed the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.”

“If teachers were allowed to carry weapons in school, they could easily cause additional chaos and fatalities. … Chaos could cause confusion, confusion could cause additional avoidable tragedies,” said Linda Schulman, whose son, Scott Beigel, died protecting students from a hail of bullets.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Annabel Claprood, a 16-year-old who was in the freshman building during the shooting, said the thought of having guns in the classroom frightens her.

“No matter how much practice you have, it’s not anything compared to the real thing. I’ve done drills, but I did not have the feelings that I felt sitting on the floor crying because there was a mass shooter two seconds away from me,” she said. “My fear is the gun. Not the person. Because if there was no gun, the person wouldn’t have the gun to do anything with it.”

But House Rules & Policy Chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, defended the marshal program, saying it was a last resort if all other measures, such as mental health intervention, didn’t work.

“If all of it failed, we are giving the opportunity for people like Coach Feis to be able to instead of using his body, to be able to use special training to defend as the last line of defense,” Oliva said, referring to Aaron Feis, an assistant football coach at Marjory Stoneman Douglas who died shielding students.