Florida Politics

Douglas High students motivating legislators to act, leading lawmaker says

The first wave of Parkland students arrived in Tallahassee to a welcoming Florida Legislature Tuesday, and one thing was clear: The shooting that killed 17 faculty and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had changed them both.

“The outcry from these students, which has been inspirational to see, has played a major role,” said Rep. Jose Oliva, a Miami Republican and incoming House speaker after the House met in session on Tuesday.

He acknowledged that the House was drafting legislation similar to that proposed by the Senate that will place new limits on access to semiautomatic assault rifles, like AR-15s, something the Florida Legislature refused to do after mass shootings killed 49 at the Pulse nightclub in 2016 and 5 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport last year.

“It’s unmistakable that their immediate involvement has motivated a whole group of people to talk about something that otherwise has been sacrosanct,” Oliva said.

The trip by the first wave of 40 Parkland students was organized by Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale. A second wave of 100 students, organized by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, arrived in the capital late Tuesday.

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Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students Julia Salomone, 18, and sister Lindsey, 15, celebrate with other students as their bus leaves Coral Springs bound for Tallahassee on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, to demand stronger gun control. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

Both groups are meeting with legislators, urging them to pass gun control, school safety and mental health measures in the remaining weeks of the annual legislative session.

Farmer’s group came with a specific agenda: a ban on assault rifles; no gun shows; and if gun shows are allowed to continue, close the loopholes, raise the age to 21 for assault weapons purchase and tighten vetting for background checks.

Read more: “As students watch, lawmakers debate porn but refuse to take up assault weapons ban”

“Everyone’s been really, really kind to us,” said Rachel Catania, 15, a sophomore from Douglas High after meeting with three Republican and three Democratic senators.

“There are a couple of them who spent much of the time telling us how great they are,” she said with a laugh. “When I asked them a question about banning AR-15s, they would dodge the question.”

Their goal, she said, is to be heard.

“They are either on our page or not, and for those who are we want to thank them,” Catania said. “If you’re against us, we just listen. Most of them just talked about how they want their family to be safe, and we say, if you want them to be safe, please listen to us.”

Before Nikolas Cruz’s shots rang through her high school building last week, Catania recalls spending the day stressing about a test she would have in the fourth period.

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Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Rachel Catania and chaperone Debby Miller, a teacher at Beachside Montessori Village, waiting in the the office of Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale. They were among the first students and chaperones from Parkland to meet with lawmakers. Mary Ellen Klas meklas@miamiherald.com

“I remember that day during lunch,” she said. “I was studying for my test and I saw all of my friends just having fun, drawing pictures on the board and I remember thinking: I should really be up there having fun with them but I’ve got to study for this test.

“So this tragedy has put everything in perspective for me. I know that if that ever happens again, I’d rather have straight F’s in school and live life to its fullest than not have a life and get straight A’s. It really, really puts stuff in perspective for me.”

Her day used to involve school, homework, water polo practice, then going to sleep, she said.

“Now that this has happened, I realize tomorrow’s never guaranteed,” she said. “So I’m going to eat the cake. I’m going to buy the shoes.”

Oliva said he was looking forward to meeting with more students on Wednesday but warned that when dealing with constitutional rights, “we have to be very careful” and the solutions should focus on more than guns.

“We’re dealing with people who are very emotional,” he said. “I met with a young man yesterday and he’s very affected by this. But if we’re being true, we’re going to look at all the areas. We’re going to look at all the failures and we’re going to understand what happened and what can we do to prevent it.”

Students in the second wave of buses on Wednesday are scheduled to meet with state Senate President Joe Negron, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Gov. Rick Scott.

The first to greet the newly arrived students were high school students like themselves.

Students at nearby Leon High School, just blocks from the Capitol, stood on the front lawn of their school in the hundreds with their families, carrying posters saying “We love MSD” and open laptops with the desktop backgrounds displaying Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ name. As every Douglas student climbed the two dozen steps into their school building, they clapped in one long, standing ovation.

“They have an opportunity to know there are other young folks the same age as them that are there to support them if they need to,” said Billy Epting, Leon High School’s principal.

Inside Leon High’s cafeteria, Douglas students ate pizza and ice cream. They planned to sleep overnight at the Tucker Civic Center downtown.

The 100 Broward County students, who are working with Sen. Book, will march to the Capitol early Wednesday morning to meet with legislators. They are also planning a rally at noon pushing lawmakers to pass gun control measures.

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Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students board buses to head to Tallahassee on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, to demand stronger gun control. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

Lawmakers in the Capitol have said they are considering a set of reforms on gun control and mental health, including restricting the sale of semiautomatic weapons like AR-15s to those 21 or older.

Local students are also being encouraged to join their Broward County peers at the rally — the district plans to send buses for student government representatives from each county high school to attend, and is granting excused absences to any students who plan to go.

“I hope they take away that there are other high school students that may have not experienced what they did, but that they are as united and behind them as they are,” Epting said. “In the brief encounter we’ll have with them tonight, there’s not a whole lot we can do other than to provide our support.”

The buses left for Tallahassee from a Publix parking lot not far from the Parkland school early Tuesday afternoon.

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