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The nation’s top education leader toured the site of the Parkland mass shooting Monday, praising the community’s effort to make schools safer while blasting the complacency he sees elsewhere.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said it shouldn’t take more tragedies like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, which left 17 people dead, for schools, government officials and communities nationwide to demand action.
“What does it take for us to move if children dying is not enough?” Cardona said Monday in a news conference at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott in Coral Springs. “I’m tired of the rhetoric. I’m tired of thoughts and prayers. Do something.”
He said the bipartisan “Safer Communities Act,” the first major federal gun safety bill passed in nearly 30 years, has provided $2 billion to help reduce gun violence, “but we need to do more.”
Cardona toured the building Monday morning with another top Biden official: Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. They were joined by Broward school district officials, family members of victims and U.S. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Stoneman Douglas alumnus who has organized two previous tours that included mostly fellow members of Congress.
During an afternoon roundtable discussion, some of those directly impacted by the Parkland tragedy, as well as mental health and public safety officials, described the trauma the tragedy caused and the failures both before and after the shooting happened.
“People need to realize we’re all vulnerable. And the reason the needle doesn’t move enough is because people haven’t accepted that,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chaired a state commission that investigated the Parkland tragedy.
He said people convince themselves a tragedy will happen somewhere else and they may not like the solutions being offered.
“What I say to that it’s not what you like, it’s not what you want. It’s what can you live with?” Gualtieri said. “I don’t know about you, but I can’t live with dead kids. So people need to get over it.”
Tom Hoyer, whose son, Luke, died at Stoneman Douglas, said another failure was the lack of communications between different agencies that dealt with the killer, a former Stoneman Douglas student who was still enrolled in the district. Hoyer said the student had more 40 interactions with law enforcement, more than 60 disciplinary infractions with the school district and numerous interactions with a mental health agency.
“All those organizations individually were concerned, but they never connected the dots,” Hoyer said.
The district mental health resources were also inadequate after the tragedy happened, said Stacey Lippel, a Stoneman Douglas language arts teacher who was injured during the shooting. She said the therapists were not trained to deal with trauma.
“They were not equipped to handle the severity of the trauma, and so instead you felt neglected. The impact was huge,” Lippel said. “Many of us were left on their own. We were left to find our own therapists that were trauma trained, and that was after trying many, and feeling overwhelmed.”
District mental health services have greatly improved in recent years, Lippel said.
Many teachers at Stoneman Douglas have expressed a new frustration: the frequent tours of the vacant building where the shooting happened.
The building has been vacant for six years. For most of that time, the State Attorney’s Office maintained it as a crime scene for the trials of killer Nikolas Cruz, who was sentenced to life in prison, and former school resource officer Scot Peterson, who was acquitted of child neglect, culpable negligence and perjury charges.
The school district received full control of the building last July and later announced plans to demolish it in June. In the last five months, the building has been toured on different occasions by members of Congress, legislators, law enforcement officials and school district leaders from around the country.
Superintendent Peter Licata had previously said thorough a spokesman that tours in October and November would be the last.
The tours came at the request of some family members of victims who argued that decision makers will be more likely to take action if they can see the building, which still has broken glass, blood stains and other grim reminders of the massacre.
The visits have usually happened on days when the school is closed. Monday was a day off for students, but not teachers.
“I realize that these visits are extremely intrusive, especially during work hours and please know that I have shared this concern multiple times,” Stoneman Douglas Principal Michelle Kefford wrote to school staff in an email Thursday. “I have been assured that Monday’s visit will be the final visit permitted by the district.”
Licata did not provide that assurance after Monday’s event, saying he “couldn’t predict the future.”
The district is still getting more requests for tours, including from some former students who survived the tragedy and argue a final visit might help in their healing. Licata, who started as superintendent in July, suggested he is open to the former students’ requests.
“We do need to have some closure for those students,” Licata said. “I first said this was one visit and we’re done, and I was pretty sturdy about that. But then I thought, is this a decision I think I’m going to be regretting. I do not regret the additional visits, because I think they’ve all been productive.”
But Licata added, “I’ve already made it very clear. It’s coming down in June.”