Father of Parkland School Shooting Victim Highlights Policy Reform Needs
MARSHFIELD, WI (OnFocus) – Alaina, age 14, was sitting in her Freshman English class at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018, when an armed attacker entered the campus, carried his rifle bag through an open gate, walked through an unlocked door, removed a rifle, and then proceeded to attack anyone and everyone that he could see on the first floor of the freshman building. After he had shot and killed students who were in the hallway, he proceeded to shoot through glass into classrooms.
Alaina was one of 14 students killed, along with three staff members, and many others were injured. Since the tragedy that took their daughter, Ryan Petty and his wife Kelly have been actively involved in the public policy arena as advocates for improving school safety, through early identification, and intervention of potential threats. Petty spoke at the “Moms For Liberty – Wood County” chapter meeting on Tuesday, along with Max Eden, one of America’s leading education experts. Together, they shared with local parents, teachers, and citizens what they have learned since the Parkland Shooting and what can be done to prevent future school tragedies from happening.
“I’m here because of a tragedy and so I’ll do my best to get through this,” said Petty. “Even though it’s four-and-a-half-years later, I never know quite how I’m going to react to this emotionally. But, it’s important for all of you to understand the story of Parkland – not the one you necessarily heard in the media – but the one that was uncovered through a lot of hard work from Max Eden.”
Eden, research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, researches and writes about education and education policy. With Andrew Pollack (whose daughter “Meadow” was also murdered in the shooting), Eden launched his own investigation about the shooting.
Through a combined effort from members of law enforcement, the community, Department of Children and Families, Department of Justice, and many other organizations, Eden and Pollack uncovered what led to the Parkland shooting and how to prevent it from happening in the future. They learned how the school shooting was the most avoidable mass murder in American history and how the policies that made it inevitable are being forced into public schools across America.
“We want to talk about the causes of what happened in Parkland and the story the national media didn’t spend a lot of time trying to understand, but it’s been critical,” said Petty, who also sits on the Florida State Board of Education and has a front row seat to many issues concerning parents today, and has been actively engaged at all levels to try to improve schools nationwide.
“The killer was in the building for four minutes. That’s how quickly this thing was over,” said Petty. “The opportunity to stop these kinds of tragedies is all about prevention. There were policy failures at the school district where my daughter attended school. Correcting these policies requires collaboration and cooperation among several different parties.”
Petty shared three major lessons that he learned through his work:
- #1: There are potential threats on and at schools. School districts are not well prepared to understand or deal with these threats.
- #2 Communication between the different elements of government: school districts, law enforcement, mental health entities needs to be improved. Sometimes the decline in communication is deliberate, sometimes the lines of communication are not open.
- #3 Parents need to change how schools are thinking about and addressing safety and security.
He added that according to Secret Service data, in most school shooting cases there was somebody who knew something prior to the attacks happening.
“We’ve all heard ‘see something, say something.’ Unfortunately, what was happening in Broward County and in many districts across the country, there wasn’t thought put into what to do when information was presented,” said Petty. “Thirty people knew about the Parkland shooter. Many reported it. But no action was taken. Nothing was done. Our districts are not prepared to handle the threats. And it gets worse: Districts are avoiding dealing with it.”
Petty attributes failed disciplinary policies enacted at the federal level as the origin for some of the issues, as well as a common divide between school and law enforcement.
“As a parent, you need to understand if there is a clear line between disciplinary and criminal issues and is there a cooperation with law enforcement,” he said. “Ask how is criminal activity handled? Is law enforcement notified? Are they the authority? Make sure law enforcement is consulted early in the process. Nothing should be hidden from law enforcement. If there is a kid that’s troubled, there are resources that can be brought in.”
“It can happen in your community. Preventing it requires taking action on information,” he added. “Let the Parkland tragedy motivate you to do something in your community”
Eden spoke to policy failures nationally that lead to these types of tragedies, noting how school administrators are pressured to lower crime numbers and often therefore fail to address problems.
He said that in the case of the Parkland shooter, he was a student who had to be on a leash in Pre-K and Kindergarten, confined to a room in elementary school, and when reaching middle school was suspended literally every other day. He was fixated with guns, and fantasized about killing and being covered in blood. He lost the connection between fantasy and reality, but was labeled as Emotionally Behaviorally Disturbed. Because this was a “learning disability,” there was pressure to keep him in the classroom because of discrimination fears.
“There was a pattern of misbehavior. Students told stories about him bringing weapons to school,” said Eden. “This was a kid the administrators knew full well but were being pressured not to do anything. In one situation, he threw a water bottle at a student, called him the N-word, and attacked him. This wasn’t brought to law enforcement. Students gave statements and were told to delete video of the incident.”
“This was a case where the killer couldn’t have been more clear about who he was or what he could do. It would have reflected badly on them.”
Eden said that though this is an extreme case study, it’s an indicator that when there are strong pressures not to properly address misbehavior it can lead to tragedy.
“There are questions you can ask as parents. When teachers send a student to the office, are they criticized? It’s ultimately up to parents to talk to teachers and school board. This is something that can be fixed. A school board can let its teacher enforce discipline,” he said. “If teachers don’t feel safe, they can’t teach. If students don’t feel safe, they can’t learn.”
Marshfield Police Chief Jody Geurink attended the presentation and spoke to development efforts in the community between law enforcement and school districts.
“There are a lot of different types of active shooter training,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of training with and in the schools. We have detailed maps, in-service training with teachers. We try to be proactive. Once every two years, we do a mandatory training and do a lot of active shooter techniques. We try to do what we can to prepare ourselves. The relationship with the schools overall have been very good. We can always try to improve communication. I think we’ve done well but I would like to have more communication with the school administration as well as parents so we can better provide services to both sides.”
For parents or community members interested in learning more or becoming involved, Moms For Liberty is accepting new members. The group will also work with those interested in becoming school board candidates.
“We have training and tools to help them with the process,” said Mary Jo Wheeler, Chapter President.
“Find those good school board members,” added Petty. “It literally is a matter of life and death.”