‘Wholly unprepared’: Utah lawmakers, education leaders tour site of Parkland school shooting

The school remains largely untouched since the 2018 shooting.

(Rebecca Blackwell | AP) A security agent walks alongside a barrier surrounding Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, July 5, 2023, in Parkland, Fla.

A Valentine’s Day card stuck to the hallway floor in hardened blood. Children’s shoes strewn about classrooms. Dark, dried stains on whiteboards, desks, lockers. Everywhere.

These were some of the scenes described by Utah lawmakers this month following their Oct. 14 tour of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s largely untouched 1200 building in Parkland, Florida, where 14 students and three staff members were fatally shot on Valentine’s Day 2018. The goal was to gain insight on how to improve school safety measures in Utah.

The lawmakers — Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, and Rep. Jefferson Burton, R-Salem — were joined at the building by some of the victims’ parents in what was likely the final tour before its scheduled demolition next summer, The Associated Press reported.

Also at the tour were Patty Norman, deputy superintendent of student achievement; two Utah State Board of Education officials; the SafeUT program administrator; and Utah school-based mental health specialist Scott Eyre, along with lawmakers and education officials from at least 24 other states.

“I was wholly unprepared,” Wilcox said of the tour during an Oct. 19 school security task force meeting, adding that he hadn’t been able to sleep since.

“We understand the policy implications that led to [the school shooting] better than what we did before this meeting,” Wilcox, chair of the task force, continued. “And we understand some of the things that we’re going to have to do here — some of the things that we’re going to need to adjust — in order to ensure that doesn’t happen again.”

Utah takes notes

(Rebecca Blackwell | AP) Letters on a fence read "MSD Strong" outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Wednesday, July 5, 2023. Family members of the 14 students and 3 staff members killed in a 2018 school shooting were for the first time being permitted to visit the preserved crime scene, ahead of the building's planned demolition.

The site visit was organized by Max Schachter, the father of Alex Schachter, one of the students killed in the shooting, USBE officials said. Utah leaders had been invited by the National School Safety Alliance, a grassroots effort to bring school safety professionals together. The trip was paid for through funds from Utah’s school safety budget.

The hourlong discussion Oct. 19 centered on the perceived failures of Parkland law enforcement and school leadership and what Utah could do to avoid repeating them.

Wilcox read from what he said were 40 pages of handwritten notes he took during the tour.

“One of the things that I want to highlight out of the gate, because it applies sort of across the board,” said Wilcox, “is the importance of redundancy. Redundant systems. Redundant training.”

School districts, law enforcement, local government — and everyone in between — need to be adequately trained, and need to know how to effectively communicate during an emergency such as a school shooting, he said.

One reason why the Parkland gunman was able to kill so many people, Wilcox said, was that first responders couldn’t effectively communicate.

“Their radios failed,” he said. “Too many people were on the same frequency and didn’t have the capacity built in to actually handle the emergency when they had it.”

Wilcox also questioned what Utah’s process should be to notify parents should such a tragedy occur.

“One of the harder conversations in that vein was with several of the parents there, and what happened to them after,” Wilcox said.

(Mike Stocker | South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP) On Feb. 14, 2018, students hold their hands in the air as they are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a person opened fire on the campus in a shooting that left 14 students and three staff members dead.

Parkland families were instructed to wait at a nearby hotel and were not updated until 2 or 3 a.m. the following morning that their child had been killed, he said. Some parents left the hotel to search local hospitals themselves.

“Families were tortured after, because of the lack of organization and preparation by the district, sheriff’s [office], police department,” Wilcox said. “So, part of this, unfortunately for us, is going to be, how do we handle what happens after?”

Utah lawmakers also discussed Florida’s Guardian Program, which was established through the 2018 passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.

Among other initiatives, the act set aside funding for participating sheriffs’ offices to cover the screening and firearm/security training costs of putting “guardians” — school employees who volunteer, or hired personnel — in public schools. The Florida Legislature this year expanded the program to allow private schools to participate.

Utah law currently allows individuals to carry concealed firearms into public schools so long as they have a concealed firearm permit. This year, lawmakers waived concealed carry permit fees for school employees.

Wilcox raised concerns — which he said had been relayed to him by various school district superintendents — about whether individuals with concealed carry permits have been properly trained.

“It makes superintendents crazy nervous,” he said. “Probably for good reason. Liability alone. What if a gun goes off in the bathroom?”

Wilcox said there were many “what ifs” should an untrained person bring a firearm into a school.

“Those are real conversations we need to have,” Wilcox said. “We’ve got to decide how to formalize that [training.]”

Burton, a former top general officer of the Utah National Guard, said he’s a gun rights advocate and there are ways to keep children safe without taking guns from “honest people who are safe and not mentally deficient.”

“What [the tour] did for me is allow me to really scope in on what the challenge is,” Burton said. “And that is: How do we keep our children safe in a country that allows access to firearms?”

He cited Florida’s Guardian Program as a possible model for Utah. But what such a program could look like in Utah remains unknown.

Recently passed legislation

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, is joined by Rep. Karen Peterson, R-Clinton, and Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, during a news conference at the Utah Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, to discuss school safety legislation.

Legislators implemented several measures related to school safety this year.

Passed in the spring, HB61 authorized the state school board to administer $72 million in grants for school safety efforts.

It also allocated an additional $3 million specifically for software to detect “the presence of visible, unholstered firearms,” which has been designated as anti-terrorism technology under the federal SAFETY Act.

A Salt Lake City-based security software company called AEGIX Global was initially selected in August as a candidate that could install such a software in K-12 public schools. But state school board leaders have delayed approving the contract as they attempt to further vet the technology, Burton said.

Moving forward, members of the school security task force intend make legislative recommendations based on lessons from the Parkland tour, Burton said. They will be presented to the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee on Nov. 15

“They could very well [be put] into a bill that would move forward through the session,” Burton said. Other suggestions may be written into state school safety policy, but not into law, he added.

Lawmakers are also considering making it a felony to call in a hoax threat of a school shooting after at least five Utah schools received such false shooting reports in spring.

Wilcox is drafting that proposed legislation, though members of Utah’s school security task force have previously acknowledged that technologies responsible for making false calls are ever-evolving and difficult to mitigate.