The families of all but one of the 17 teens and faculty killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland have formed an advocacy organization pushing for school safety, mental health reform and gun control.
On Thursday, they launched Stand With Parkland, a non-profit they hope will boost efforts to pass legislation around the country to create safer schools. Their goal is to push for "practical public safety reforms focused on the safety of our children and staff at school, improved mental health support, and responsible firearms ownership."
"The things that we're advocating for are better mental health support programs in our schools, physical safety in schools and responsible firearm ownership," said Tom Hoyer, among a group of grieving parents and spouses who began meeting regularly and chatting on the app Slack shortly after the Feb. 14 shooting. "At these gatherings when we’re all together … those are three things that all of us can get around. We think we can get all the rest of the country around us as well."
The organization isn't so much the beginning of the families' efforts, but rather a refocusing of their plans.
Their support of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act in Florida was a key reason the legislation passed in a Legislature that has historically resisted gun-control measures. And a number of the parents have either formed their own advocacy groups or launched runs for public office.
But together, the families hope to unite a divided country behind them, something other communities torn by mass shootings — including the parents of Sandy Hook elementary school children in Newtown,, Connecticut — have found difficult to do. They note that amongst themselves, they have varying political views and affiliations but have been able to agree on broad changes that need to be made.
The families also said they're hoping to invite the parents of Parkland victim Martin Duque into the fold, but have had trouble contacting them.
"We’re willing to work with anybody, talk to anybody who wants to to stop the epidemic of violence in our schools," said Tony Montalto, whose daughter, Gina, died in the worst school shooting in Florida history. "We’re tired of hearing both extreme sides of these issues say what we can’t do. It’s time we get the ideological middle of this country energized to bring people to solve the problems and figure out what we can do."
Unlike the sharp rhetoric used by some members of the March For Our Lives group formed by Stoneman Douglas students in the wake of the shooting, Montalto and other parents say they hope to strike a measured tone as they go about their efforts. Their organization is a 501c4, meaning they can use their resources for political purposes and messaging, but they say they're seeking compromise instead of conflict.
Their organization is just getting started, and the families had few specifics to offer Thursday as they spoke to the Miami Herald on a conference call from New York, where they'd traveled in the hopes of making the rounds on cable news networks. They said they're focused on broad goals right now of creating single entry points and funding mental health screenings at schools, and getting a law passed to force universal background checks on gun purchases.
The organization is accepting donations at their website, but Montalto said they're not courting high-profile donors or celebrities to their cause.
"We’re not reaching out to stars and celebrities and sports heroes. If they want to join us that’s great," he said. "But our goal is to try to get the ideological center of the country and engage."
April Schentrup, a Broward schools administrator who lost her daughter Carmen in the shooting, said the organization is dedicated to any progress, "even if they're small steps." Gena Hoyer, who lost her son Luke, said the families want others to avoid their suffering.
"We sent our kids to school that day. They should have come home," she said. "What happened to them was preventable."
Along with the Hoyer, Schentrup and Montalto families, involved parents whose children were killed in the shooting include Ryan and Kelly Petty, Max Schachter and Caryn DeSacia, Fred and Jen Guttenberg, and Ilan and Lori Alhadeff. Manuel and Patricia Oliver, Mitch and Annika Dworet, Vinnie and Anne Ramsay, Damian and Denise Loughran, and Hui Ying Zhang and Kong Feng Wang are also a part of the group.
Linda Biegel Schulman, Debbie Hixon, and Melissa Feis are involved as the families of slain faculty.