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Lawmakers tour site of Parkland school massacre before experts recreate shooting inside

By TERRY SPENCER, Associated Press
Published: August 4, 2023, 12:30pm
3 Photos
FILE- A memorial is made outside the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 students and faculty were killed in a mass shooting in Parkland, Fla, Feb. 19, 2018. The re-enactment of the shooting at the school will take place early Aug. 2023, as part of a civil lawsuit and will use live ammunition.
FILE- A memorial is made outside the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 students and faculty were killed in a mass shooting in Parkland, Fla, Feb. 19, 2018. The re-enactment of the shooting at the school will take place early Aug. 2023, as part of a civil lawsuit and will use live ammunition. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File) Photo Gallery

PARKLAND, Fla. (AP) — Gunfire erupted again at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Friday as part of a reenactment by ballistics experts of the 2018 massacre that left 14 students and three staff members dead.

The reenactment is part of a lawsuit by the victims’ families and the wounded that accuses the Broward County deputy assigned to the school of failing in his duty to protect them and their loved ones.

Reporters gathered outside heard shots just before noon, not long after nine members of Congress toured the blood-stained and bullet-pocked halls of the three-story classroom building where Nikolas Cruz carried out his six-minute attack on Valentine’s Day 2018. The building was kept standing behind a locked chain-link fence to serve as evidence during Cruz’s trial last year.

Cameras were placed outside and workers measured various distances from a mannequin head on top of a tripod and a door.

Ballistics experts were to fire up to 139 shots of live ammunition during the reenactment of the shooting, which sparked a nationwide movement for gun control and traumatized the South Florida community. Cruz, a 24-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student, pleaded guilty in 2021 and was sentenced to life in prison.

The experts were firing from the same spots as Cruz, with an identical AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle, and the bullets were to be caught by a safety device. The reenactment was expected to take several hours.

Technicians outside the building were recording the sound of the gunfire, seeking to capture what deputy Scot Peterson, heard during the attack.

Peterson, who worked for the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and is named in the lawsuit, said he didn’t hear all the shots and could not pinpoint their origin because of echoes. 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.

Families of the victims who filed the lawsuit contend Peterson knew Cruz’s location, but retreated out of cowardice and in violation of his duty to protect their loved ones.

Peterson, 60, was acquitted in June of felony child neglect and other criminal charges for failing to act, the first U.S. trial of a law enforcement officer for conduct during an on-campus shooting.

The burden of proof is lower in the civil lawsuit. Circuit Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips allowed the reenactment, but made clear she was not ruling on whether the recording will be played at trial. That will have to be argued later, she said. It is likely Peterson’s attorneys will oppose the attempt.

No trial date has been set. The families and wounded are seeking unspecified damages.

Earlier in the day, six Democrats and three Republicans from the House School Safety and Security Caucus toured the building for almost two hours — an experience few have had since the shooting. They called it a “time-capsule” of the attack’s devastation.

There is broken glass on the floor, along with wilted roses, deflated balloons and discarded gifts. Opened textbooks and laptop computers remain on students’ desks — at least those that weren’t toppled during the chaos.

In one classroom, there is an unfinished chess game one of the slain students had been playing, the pieces unmoved. Reporters were barred from Friday’s tour, but The Associated Press was one of five media outlets allowed inside after Cruz’s jury went through last year.

“We just had a shared experience that will transform our lives for the rest of our lives. To see the blood of children on the floor in a school together, is going to change the way we interact and collaborate,” New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman said.

After the tour, the members traveled to a nearby hotel to discuss school safety issues with parents and wives who lost loved ones in the attack. The roundtable meeting was being held in the same ballroom where the families learned of their loved ones’ deaths.

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The members said that while there is wide disagreement on issues such as gun control, there should be bipartisan support for providing federal funds for installing bullet-proof glass and panic buttons in classrooms, mental health assistance for students and better training for on-campus police officers.

Florida Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Stoneman Douglas graduate whose district includes Parkland, said Congress owes it to the families who have lost children, parents and spouses in school shootings to pass such measures and make campuses safer. He said seeing the scene the members to fully grasp what happened.

“You can read about it all day long, and debate it all day long, but it is not the same as walking through the school,” said Moskowitz, who organized the tour with Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami. Moskowitz pointed out that Parkland, an upscale suburb of Fort Lauderdale, is considered Florida’s safest city.

“It is now the home of the largest (high) school shooting in our history,” he said.

Diaz-Balart said that while touring the building, he was struck by how fast the lives were lost — all the fatalities happened within the attack’s first four minutes.

“The key is not just to come and see, the key is that we can put aside our differences, put aside the perfect and try to get some good things done. I am optimistic,” Diaz-Balart said.

The building is scheduled to be demolished soon, but the House members and families are hoping it can be kept up a bit longer so more state and federal legislators and White House advisors can also tour it.

Parent Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex died in the shooting, suggested the tour and school safety roundtable to Moskowitz.

“We can come together and enact common-sense school safety solutions so this will never happen again,” said Schachter, a former insurance broker who is now a full-time campus safety advocate. “Safety has to come before education — you cannot teach dead kids.”

The school is closed for the summer and no students or teachers were on campus Friday.

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