Fear roils in Boca Raton in wake of similar city’s high school shooting

Updated March 02, 2018
Students rally against gun violence outside Boca Raton City Hall Wednesday afternoon, February 21, 2018. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

For decades, young parents have flocked to Boca Raton for its schools, some of the highest rated in Palm Beach County and so popular that most enroll more students than they’re built to hold.

But a deadly rampage on a high school campus just 10 miles away has pivoted an entire city’s focus from finding ways to fit even more students into its vaunted schools to fear over how to keep the ones already there safe.

The anxiety and angst roiling through this city of 96,000 became apparent Tuesday evening, at the first public meeting of city leaders since the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

At a packed Boca Raton City Council meeting, several queued up to convey how close 17 deaths in Parkland really was and reveal the urgency they feel in making sure their schools are hardened against such a fate.

Some refuse to wait for government to intervene.

Kim Bremer, a mother of four, told the room she is ready to create a brigade of volunteers to man the gates of the 10 public schools in the city. Moms and dads would check IDs before first bells ring — never mind they’d be unarmed.

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

And Bremer knows a dad who has made it his business to “test” security at schools, approaching locked doors in a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses and buzzing without ID to see if they let him in.

Bremer said she is so consumed by fear for their safety that she memorized every possible access point to Boca Raton High School. She says there are 18.

Jon Carter, a Boca High graduate now studying at Florida Atlantic University, can’t help thinking about the ease he once enjoyed slipping on and off campus undetected. He pressed for blocking off these entryways.

Even the youngest of the city’s residents have been pressed to action.

Thirteen-year-old Mel Teixeira once spent hours pouring over English assignments and now instead is memorizing gun laws. She and fellow middle school students have crafted graduation wish lists: Assault weapons ban, mental health programs, universal background checks.

No doubt parents are showing up at city halls across the state — across the country — to voice their worries. But Boca Raton’s sense of urgency is fueled by close ties to Parkland. These families mingled at soccer matches and Little League games. Some even had relatives at Stoneman Douglas High.

Luke Sherlock listened from the audience Tuesday, repeatedly hearing, “We’re one of the lucky ones.”

But Sherlock, a Boca Raton father of two, wasn’t lucky. His sister lost a daughter at Stoneman Douglas.

It took the family 10 hours to learn his 14-year-old niece Gina Montalto was killed.

Now Sherlock worries about his own children, one a student at Boca Raton Middle, the other expected to attend Addison Mizner Elementary.

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

Boca Raton’s grief, anger and resolve in the wake of Parkland is likely driven by the fact that parts of Boca Raton are so much like Parkland — a quiet, upscale suburb in Broward County with high-rated schools that just days before the shooting was listed one of the safest towns in the nation. Stoneman Douglas is an A-rated school with students resembling those on the mirror side of the county line.

Last week, a heightened “we-could-be-next” sentiment inspired hundreds of Boca Raton students to march on City Hall wielding signs that read “Me next?” and “It could have been us.”

“We want change,” said Joseph Mahjess, a 16-year-old at Boca High who walked two miles to join the City Hall demonstration. “If not now, then when?”

Where weeks ago the biggest concern on the minds of Boca Raton parents and elected officials was how to expand the schools they have and build new ones, the talk is now of metal detectors and the presence of police.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Frank Barbieri, a school board member whose district includes Boca Raton, promised at least one armed officer at every campus. The district is considering mandatory identification badges countywide and had already planned ways to harden buildings.

And Barbieri vowed two Boca elementary schools — Addison Mizner and Verde — which are slated to be rebuilt “will have the best security systems that you will find anywhere in the United States.”

The city wanted to act, too.

Boca police are chipping in officers on campuses where the school district lacks them. The Boca council passed a resolution encouraging state and U.S. lawmakers to enact “reasonable gun legislation,” enhance mental health programs and bankroll security enhancements.

And they took a stand against a state statute that stops local government from restricting when and where guns can be sold and carried. Local officials face removal from office and a fine if they pass gun-control legislation.

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