With students, teachers and family members of victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in attendance, Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch hosted a town-hall meeting Tuesday evening to address legislation to prevent gun violence.
“We are here because the brave families who lost loved ones at Stoneman Douglas have stood up and through their courage, have set examples for the rest of us in all of the ways we should be looking to keep our schools safe and to prevent something like this from ever happening again,” Deutch said during the event at the Coral Springs Center for the Arts in Broward County. “And we also have to express our gratitude to the student survivors who have not allowed this issue to go by the wayside.”
The Feb. 14 shooting at the Parkland high school killed 17 people and helped spur a national debate about gun violence. The Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott rushed to pass a bill that included raising the age to purchase rifles and other long guns to 21, banning so-called bump stocks and taking steps to strengthen school safety.
But many people, such as Deutch, have called for additional steps. Deutch, whose district includes Parkland, called for universal background checks, a ban on high-capacity weapons and more focus on mental health.
“The fact that when our state is 51st in per-capita spending on mental health, coming in below the 50 states and the District of Columbia and just above Puerto Rico, that this is an issue that we need to grapple with all the time, but particularly at this moment,” said Deutch. “When the suggested ratio of school psychologists is one per 500 and in our area, it is one per 2,000, it shows that there is more that we have to do.”
The U.S. House last month passed the “STOP School Violence Act”, a bipartisan measure introduced by lawmakers including Deutch and U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla. The act, in part, would provide funding to train school employees, law enforcement and students to identify warning signs of threats. It also would help develop anonymous reporting systems and provide funding for threat assessment and intervention teams.
Along with family members of victims of the mass shooting, Deutch’s town hall included organizers in the Never Again and March for Our Lives movement and local officials such as state Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, and Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek. Many parents of the victims are working in Florida and other states to try to prevent future school shootings.
During the town hall, Stoneman Douglas students including Samantha Fuentes expressed concerns about a new requirement for clear backpacks and security checkpoints at their school.
“My peers are being treated like prisoners for a crime they didn’t commit,” said Fuentes, as the crowd burst into applause. “How do we make sure our funds are being appropriated to the correct areas instead of things as useless as clear backpacks?”
One student said students are suffering from depression. She said less help is available on campus and some teachers are telling students to “move on.” She asked what is being done to have trauma-trained psychologists available for every student.
“There are trauma-trained therapists available to you throughout your communities,” said Cindy Arenberg Seltzer, president and CEO of the Children Services Council of Broward County, “Call 211. They are available 24/7 by phone, online and through texting service.”
Other concerns included the need for a communication system between schools and law enforcement if there is a threat, what lawmakers are doing to make public areas safe and reinstituting a ban on “assault” weapons. David Hogg, a Stoneman Douglas student and one of the leaders in the Never Again movement, voiced concern about making sure students of color do not face discrimination as a result of new security measures.
The majority of questions at the town hall were answered, but people who raised concerns about clear backpacks and security at schools were asked to attend a teen political forum or to contact Broward County School officials, who were absent because of another meeting Tuesday night.
Max Schachter, whose son, Alex, was killed in the shooting, and who has created two scholarships in honor of his son, praised the town hall.
“I thought it was wonderful,” Schachter told The News Service of Florida. “I am so proud of what Congressman Deutch is doing, his efforts and he’s a great advocate for our community and all the students. I think that they had so many great questions for the people on stage. I think that there’s a lot of concern for school safety.”
Daniel Tabares, a freshman and organizer of the Parkland March for Our Lives, said more work needs to be done at the local and federal level for gun control and school safety.
“We have to continue marching for our lives and for our future,” Tabares said. “We have to do what’s right. Take away what’s wrong. If the gun laws are wrong, we should change that because the right to life is over any other.”