A flurry of meetings took place in Florida’s capital on Tuesday in response to last week’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, with dozens of leaders in education, law enforcement, and mental health pouring into the city to participate in a trio of workshops organized by Gov. Rick Scott.
Some of those same leaders were to later attend a round-table discussion hosted by Scott Tuesday night.
The meetings come nearly a week after the mass shooting at the Parkland high school left 15 students and two teachers dead. A 19-year-old former student, Nikolas Cruz, has been charged with their murders.
Meanwhile, as groups of Broward County students arrived Tuesday at the Capitol to visit with lawmakers and call for more gun control legislation before their rally scheduled for today, the Florida House turned down an attempt to take up a bill designed to prevent the sale and possession of “assault” weapons.
The AR-15 rifle that Broward County sheriff’s investigators say was used by Cruz would have been covered by the bill (HB 219), which was filed in October but has not been heard in House committees. Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, used an unusual procedural move Tuesday to try to pull the bill out of committee and hear it on the House floor, but the House voted 71-36 without debate to reject taking up the measure on the floor. A Senate version of the bill (SB 196), filed by Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, also has not been heard in committees.
The shooting has left Scott, who is expected to challenge Democrat Bill Nelson for the U.S. Senate, and Republican leaders, who control the Legislature, scrambling with just weeks left in the 2018 legislative session.
At the meeting of law enforcement officials, talk centered on keeping firearms away from those arrested under the Baker Act, expanding background checks before guns can be purchased and arming teachers.
Across town at the Florida Department of Children and Families, social workers, behavior specialists, and mental health counselors hashed out ideas to improve mental health including coordination of care and early screening.
And at the Florida Department of Education, Commissioner Pam Stewart moderated a discussion on school safety improvement and security protocols.
Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson, the president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said it’s not the job of law-enforcement leaders to tell educators how to teach. But it is the responsibility of law enforcement to advocate security to state lawmakers and local government officials.
“This is our business, and we know it,” Adkinson said, according to the News Service of Florida. “If you don’t stand up, if we don’t tell these folks what are good security-based decisions, then shame on us.”
Sheriffs and police chiefs, whose ideas will be packaged and presented to Scott for potential action, bluntly talked of the need to increase funding to expand the number of school-resource officers, along with revamping how emergency drills are conducted.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco noted that fire alarm drills have been conducted in his county the same way since 1958, while campuses are now designed in vast expanses using multiple buildings.
At the same time, as school districts struggle with funding, not every school is equipped with an armed resource office. Nocco noted that Pasco County has 92 public and charter schools and 37 resource officers, according to the News Service of Florida.
At the meeting about mental-health issues, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera posed the first question.
“What is it about the young males in their development or external factors or media or society that drives them to do these unspeakable horrific things?” Lopez-Cantera asked rhetorically, according to the News Service of Florida. “Because it’s males. They’re doing it. And I haven’t heard anything about that.”
The experts said that just a fraction of mentally ill people — between 1 and 4 percent — become violent.
“The angry young men is a pretty big group, but we’re talking about a very small group that present a risk in our schools,” said child psychiatrist R. Scott Benson.
Dean Aufderheide -- director of mental health services for the Florida Department of Corrections -- said sociopaths need to be identified through screening before they can commit heinous crimes like the Parkland massacre.
“Who are these people? People who tend to have no empathy. No remorse. No guilt,” Aufderheide, a psychologist, said.
Telltale behaviors include isolation, alienation, ostracization, escape and anger, Aufderheide said.
“If you don’t measure for this… to identify these traits you’re doing a disservice,” he said.
Education Commissioner Stewart opened the education workshop by acknowledging photos of the deceased projected on a screen.
“I though it important that we be reminded…of why we are here,” Stewart said. “When we see these photos, we are touched.”
Mental health issues dominated early discussions, with extensive focus on the role of counselors and school psychologists and increasing their numbers in schools.
The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students, but that number is almost double according to the most recent information available.
The school psychologist to student ratio surpasses the one to 500 recommendation with one to 1, 381, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.
Phil DeAugustino, guidance director at Flagler Palm Coast High School, said changing the above requires acknowledging that each professional handles different tasks.
A school counselor’s training prepares them to handle academic matters, not mental health, he said.
“We need to clearly define roles,” DeAugustino said.
More money to hire additional counselors also is needed, said Sam Himmel, superintendent of schools for Citrus County.
“It all goes back to the famous word, ‘funding,’” she said.
Brevard County Public Schools superintendent Desmond Blackburn agreed, stating that the staff to student ratio “varies from grossly inadequate to nonexistent.”
“We’ve depleted those human resources from our schools and we’re living with that,” he said.
Albert Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said closing some loopholes – like courts sharing mental evaluations of students who are arrested in non-school related offenses – would help schools identify more quickly students who are in need of mental health assistance.
Building relationships with students and getting them involved with school activities, like sports or service projects, can also be a venue to helping troubled students, DeAugustino said.
While interventions are helpful, prevention of more mass shootings starts with more gun control, said Stephen Marante, a student at Coral Springs High School who lives in Parkland.
Cruz, whose attorney has said he has suffered from mental illness, was reported to an FBI tip line after he left an eerie comment on a social media site.
But it did not stop the shooting from happening, Marante said.
“We can’t sit here and say we need to put more kids on sports teams,” he said. “Now, we have to figure out how this kid can’t get an AR-15 and shoot up a school.”
Tighter controls on access to guns is one of the Broward student Victoria Mejia 15, said she talked about in meetings with legislators.
Mejia, who attends South Broward High School, said making the trip up to the state capital was necessary so that lawmakers could “see and hear our pain.”
“This was important to me because (the shooting) shouldn’t have happened,” she said. “My sister told me she knows the protocol is there’s a shooting. That’s not something she should have to worry about. She should be worried about her science project.”
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.