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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Andrea Cavallier

Parkland father leads lawmakers through high school mass shooting scene

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

A father who lost his son in the Parkland school shooting joined lawmakers on Friday as they walked through the blood-stained halls at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 14 students and three staff members were gunned down in the horrific Valentine’s Day rampage.

Max Schachter’s 14-year-old son Alex was killed when a gunman opened fire at the school on 14 February 2018. The distraught father has since devoted his life to making schools safe.

On Friday, House members were led along the same path through the school that gunman Nikolas Cruz took during the six-minute attack five years ago.

Cruz, 24, a former Stoneman Douglas student, pleaded guilty in 2021 and was sentenced to life in prison in 2022.

Few people have been in the three-storey bullet-pocked building that has been locked behind a chain-link fence as it served as evidence during Cruz’s death penalty trial.

Former Broward County deputy Scot Peterson walking with an unarmed security guard outside Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School during the Parkland mass shooting
— (Broward County DA)

“Bringing members of Congress thru (sic) the building so they understand the failures before and during the shooting will hopefully ensure safer schools,” Mr Schachter tweeted ahead of the tour.

“I hope that after this we can all come together to ensure that all children / teachers are safe in their schools.”

The Associated Press reported that there were still open textbooks and laptop computers on students’ desks. An unfinished chess game one of the slain students had been playing was also frozen in time, the pieces unmoved.

Mr Schachter, who had also recently returned to the classroom where his son was killed to see it for himself five years after the carnage, joined nine members of Congress on Friday.

It marked the first time a congressional delegation has toured the site of a mass shooting, Florida Democratic Rep Jared Moskowitz said.

He added that he expected the tour and reenactment to have “a profound impact" on the six Democrats and three Republicans who belong to the House School Safety and Security Caucus.

“When you watch something like this on TV, you’re a thousand feet away — they show a picture of the building,” Mr Moskowitz, who is a Stoneman Douglas graduate, told The Associated Press. “You don’t see the impact that the shooting had on the families ... or the impact on a community when a school becomes a war zone.”

Cruz, 24, a former Stoneman Douglas student, pleaded guilty in 2021 and was sentenced to life in prison in 2022
— (© South Florida Sun Sentinel 2022)

Cruz’s prosecutors and members of the victims’ families are also touring the site of the shooting that sparked a nationwide movement for gun control.

A reenactment will take place as the House members leave the building with ballistics experts set to fire up to 139 shots of live ammunition from the same spots as Cruz did.

It’s part of a lawsuit by the victims’ families and the survivors who accuse Scot Peterson, the Broward County deputy assigned to the school, of failing in his duty to protect them.

The experts will use an identical AR-15-style semi automatic rifle, and the bullets will be caught by a safety device. It will all be recorded in an attempt to capture what Mr Peterson heard during the six-minute attack.

Mr Peterson, 60, said he did not hear all the shots that were fired and that he could not trace them because of the echo in the hallways.

Scot Peterson, the Broward County deputy assigned to the school, was acquitted in June of felony child neglect and other criminal charges for failing to act
— (© South Florida Sun Sentinel 2023)

He got within feet of the building’s door and drew his gun, but backed away and stood next to an adjoining building for 40 minutes, making radio calls. He has said he would have charged into the building if he had known the shooter’s location.

Mr Peterson was acquitted in June of felony child neglect and other criminal charges for failing to act. It was the first US trial of a law enforcement officer for conduct during an on-campus shooting.

Circuit Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips allowed the reenactment to take place today, but made clear she was not ruling on whether the recording will be played at trial. No trial date has been set.

Following the tour, the caucus members and families were set to go to a nearby hotel to discuss school safety issues.

“You’re not going to walk through this and then get out a pen and paper and start writing down your policy ideas,” Mr Moskowitz said. “But we have got to figure out how no other families become part of this exclusive club no one wants to belong to.”

Jurors in the Cruz trial were also able to retrace the path of terror after the prosecution rested its case in August 2022. The state hoped that seeing the crime scene in person would convince them that Cruz deserved the death penalty, but jurors couldn’t unanimously agree.

Cruz was ultimately sentenced to life in prison in November.

Five years after the shooting, staff hired by the school district found the final draft that Mr Schachter’s son Alex had turned into his English teacher. They also found the lunchbox his parents packed for him every day and the binder with his schoolwork, but his backpack was placed inside a box labelled “biohazard” that Mr Schachter hasn’t opened yet.

Mr Schachter wasn’t trying to find closure when he walked inside the building where his son was murdered. But he was hoping to feel closer to Alex.

Max Schachter holds up a photo of his 14-year-old son Alex
— (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

“I wanted to walk through that building, [for it] to help me crystallise what had happened,” Mr Schachter said. “I wanted to understand what happened to Alex and I wanted to sit in that chair. I wanted to take that chair home with me, that was the chair that Alex took his last breath in.”

Mr Schachter found what he described as a “war zone” – the harrowing evidence of the horrors that his son and his classmates endured.

“As I got there, I realised how he killed everyone and was so brutal and what he did to Alex,” Mr Schachter told The Independent. “There was blood all over Alex’s seat and all over the floor and his paperwork had blood on it.”

There were also subtle hints of the sudden way in which hundreds of lives were changed that Valentine’s Day. The scattered textbooks, boards with lesson plans that were never taught, Valentine’s cards that were never delivered to their recipients and deflated balloons have become a painful reminder of the passage of time.

But Mr Schachter turned his pain into purpose through his nonprofit Safe Schools for Alex, which assists parents, students and school districts with resources to make schools safer. It provides training in threat assessments and school safety best practices.

Following Friday’s tour and reenactment, the Broward school district plans to demolish the three-story building, likely replacing it with a memorial.

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