Boca’s popular schools now root of fear, anxiety in wake of Parkland massacre

1:44 p.m Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 Local
Students rally against gun violence outside Boca Raton City Hall on Feb. 21, 2018. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

BOCA RATON — The Valentine’s Day massacre at a Parkland high school just 10 miles from Boca Raton robbed the community of far more than 17 lives.  

It also was the last day of innocence and peace of mind in Boca Raton, a bustling city where young parents have flocked for some of the highest rated schools in Palm Beach County.

Boca Raton has long prided itself on its schools — so popular, in fact, that most of them enroll more students than they are built to hold. But those same crowded schools are now the root of a community’s fear and anxiety. 

During Boca Raton’s City Council meeting Tuesday, many of those fears were heard.

People speak up at council meeting 

Following the shooting, Kim Bremer, a mother of four, said she memorized the access points at Boca Raton High School, where one of her sons attends. Other parents said they “tested” school security themselves. 

John Carter, a Florida Atlantic University student and graduate of Boca High, recalled moments as an impetuous high school student who slipped on and off campus undetected. But during his recollections Tuesday, they were stripped of warmth, and instead morphed into a road-map for a potential shooter.

Mel Teixeira, a 13-year-old student at Boca Raton Middle, all-but-memorized Florida’s lax gun laws. On what should have been a normal Tuesday evening instead was spent reciting the gun laws’ failures to the City Council for support on banning the type of assault weapon used in the Parkland shooting.

And Luke Sherlock, whose 14-year-old niece Gina Montalto was killed in the high school massacre, found himself fighting for more security at schools — something he said should have been in place long ago. 

“Our children are at risk,” Sherlock said. “We can’t even do anything to secure our schools? It’s not right.” 

Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post
Frank Barbieri, seen here during a Palm Beach County Governmental Center in West Palm Beach in 2016, spoke at Tuesday's Boca Raton City Council meeting. Barbieri, a Palm Beach County school board member whose district includes Boca Raton and its suburbs, said: 'Imagine you’re at the airport, imagine 3,500 people in line for the same plane, when they have three metal detectors there, it would take you hours. We have 3,500 students at Boca High School.' (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

More security needed among already crowded schools

Boca Raton’s schools have been in the headlines since long before the mass shooting at Douglas High. But the conversation has taken a haunting shift.

City and school district leaders were looking at ways to expand schools to accomodate more students, as Boca Raton’s public schools have seen an influx in recent years. All but two schools enroll more students than their listed capacities.

But now that parents are calling for more security, like metal detectors, the massive student load could be a burden.

“Imagine you’re at the airport, imagine 3,500 people in line for the same plane, when they have three metal detectors there, it would take you hours,” said Frank Barbieri, a Palm Beach County school board member whose district includes Boca Raton and its suburbs. “We have 3,500 students at Boca High School.” 

Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post
A police officer looks at memorials on the fence in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday morning. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

He wasn’t one of the ‘lucky ones’

Sherlock, a father of two living in Boca Raton, listened Tuesday as leaders discussed school safety. He repeatedly heard a variation of the phrase, “We’re one of the lucky ones,” because Boca itself has been untouched by the all-too-common school shooting. 

Sherlock introduced himself by saying he wasn’t one of the lucky ones. It took 10 hours after the shooting for his family to learn that Sherlock’s 14-year-old niece was one of the fallen victims.

Now, Sherlock says he fears for his two children, one a student at Boca Middle, another soon-to-attend Addison Mizner Elementary. 

The image of Parkland — a quiet, upscale suburb in Broward County that just days before the high school shooting was listed as one of the safest towns in the nation — fueled a “we could be next” sentiment among hundreds of Boca Raton students who marched en masse on City Hall last week in a protest for gun reform. 

“The children that marched here said ‘Never again,’ ” Mayor Susan Haynie said. “We are here to say, ‘Never again.’ ”

Can parents be used to boost security?

Boca Raton schools already have ramped up security by placing at least one armed officer at every school and created “task forces” to identify security needs on campuses, Barbieri said.

But in the days that followed the shooting, frantic Boca Raton parents took matters into their own hands, scrambling to understand the layouts of their children's schools — even testing security themselves. 

Bremer’s friend, also a Boca parent, waltzed up to the locked main entrance at Boca Raton Middle in a black hoodie and sunglasses, Bremer said. “He was buzzed right in.” 

Bremer offered to create a force of parents who will volunteer to stand outside the schools checking mandatory identification badges before students can enter or leave. Understanding the risks of an unarmed volunteer tasked with stopping a potential shooter, Bremer was unwavering in her request to the city. 

“I would rather take a bullet for my child than have them scared to death because someone got into our school,” she said. 

It isn’t clear if the school district has a policy on volunteer security, Barbieri said. But it would likely be up to each individual principal. 

“I don’t see why they can’t,” he said. 

As the Palm Beach County School District nears rebuilding and expanding two elementary schools in Boca -- Addison Mizner and Verde -- Barbieri vowed the schools “will have the best security systems that you will find anywhere in the United States.”

Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post
Police walk past memorials on the fence in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday morning. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Ideas on how to prevent another tragedy

Teixeira, the Boca Middle student, crafted a list of requests to the City Council, topped with a cause Stoneman Douglas students themselves have taken on: Ban assault weapons. 

Armed with an impressive pile of research, Teixeira also called for expanded mental health programs, eliminating the concept of arming teachers and universal background checks for gun buyers. 

“Florida is one of 13 states that heavily works with the FBI’s NICS (the National Instant Criminal Background Check System) to input citizens’ mental records. However, in Florida, if a person voluntarily admitted themselves into a mental institution or demonstrated threats to others, they can still buy a gun and that needs to change,” Teixeira said. 

The teen knew hardly any of this information before the Parkland shooting, she said. 

Joseph Mahjess, a 16-year-old at Boca Raton High, demanded heightened security at schools. He called for metal detectors at entryways, doors only accessible by ID badge and active shooter training for students and teachers. 

“This is my third year in high school and not once have we had an active shooter drill,” said Mahjess, whose uncle, Anthony Mahjess, is a former Boca councilman. 

Joseph Mahjess begged for the city’s financial support if the state can’t scrounge together money for these security needs. The financial burden could fall on local taxpayers. 

Carter, the FAU student and Boca High grad, urged officials to look at hardening access points at local high schools and colleges. Boca Raton is home to 10 grade schools and three college campuses.

“I promise you every student at Boca High knows how to slip in and out,” Carter said.

Not a red or blue issue, a human rights one

The Boca Raton council Tuesday adopted a resolution encouraging state and U.S. lawmakers to “enact measures to protect school children and our communities from gun violence.” 

Andrea O'Rourke

The resolution calls for “reasonable gun legislation,” enhanced mental health programs and more money for security at schools. 

“This is not a political statement. This is not a ‘red’ issue or a ‘blue’ issue,” said Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, who put forward the resolution. “This is an issue of human rights.”

Tacked onto the resolution Tuesday was the city’s stance against what Councilman Robert Weinroth described as a “gag order” in Florida law that prohibits local governments from placing restrictions on where or when guns can be carried and sold.

A concealed weapons permit-holder can walk armed into downtown Boca Raton’s staple plaza Mizner Park during a busy festival and nothing can be done, Weinroth said.

“It’s unimaginable that we on a local level are unable to do anything to protect our residents,” Weinroth said. 

He urged councilmembers to have Boca join the city of Weston in filing a lawsuit over a Florida statute that would punish elected officials if they enacted firearm and ammunition regulation. The suggestion didn’t gain steam, however. 

Sherlock supports the idea, especially after an amendment to a gun bill that would have banned weapons like the AR-15 used in the Parkland school shooting failed for the second straight day Tuesday in the Florida Legislature. 

“It’s ridiculous … We oughta be able to protect ourselves,” Sherlock said of plans to fight Florida’s restrictions on municipal gun-control. “We shouldn’t have to wait on Tallahassee.”