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Public input reveals Floridians shaken and angry after Parkland

Gov. Rick Scott set up a website to collect public input after the Feb. 14 school shooting. Nearly 1,200 residents shared their frustrations, their fears and their solutions.
Gov. Rick Scott spoke in Orange Park Thursday (Florida Channel)
Gov. Rick Scott spoke in Orange Park Thursday (Florida Channel)
Published Mar. 24, 2018
Updated Mar. 25, 2018

I will not teach in any Florida school where school personnel have guns.

Our elementary school still does not have a buzz-in system.

Punishing law-abiding gun owners for the acts of criminals is flat-out wrong.

These are just three of the nearly 1,200 submissions Gov. Rick Scott received via a "public input" page his office set up shortly after the Parkland school shooting. Floridians across the state used the portal to vent their frustrations and lay bare their fears after a mass shooting that rattled the state and nation.

Emotions run high in the responses. And they expose the political divisions over an issue as caustic as gun control. But they also strip back the political rhetoric and reveal a state that was universally fearful and angry after 17 people were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as they passed out valentines on Feb. 14.

Some respondents feared for their gun rights.

Nearly everyone feared for their kids.

"Will the puppet dance continue?" asked one. "What will you do?"

The input page, which redirects to an online form, was opened six days after the shooting. It was posted on Scott's office home page but wasn't largely promoted on social media.

Yet nearly 1,200 respondents still used it to from late February to early March, reacting day-by-day as Scott rolled out his half-a-billion dollar plan to strengthen school security, hire more campus mental health professionals and raise the gun purchasing age from 18 to 21. Then the Legislature proposed their plan, SB 7026, which included the optional program to arm school staff —sparking outrage from many teachers in their online submissions.

Amanda Hathaway, 39, from Wesley Chapel, said in her response that she "read SB 7026 in its entirety" and wanted to thank the governor for a plan that she felt was "very thorough."

Hathaway, who is not registered with any party but mostly votes for Republicans, told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday that she wanted to be one of the few positive voices amid what she assumed would be a wave of critical comments.

She's president of the PTA at Watergrass Elementary School and is a stay-at-home mom for her three kids.

"I felt like I needed to say something," Hathaway said. "I noticed people who were reading a tiny portion and all the negative posts … just knowing schools have the capacity to protect themselves is huge."

Meanwhile, Bryan Berger, 50, who works in software sales, said in his response that he was "highly distraught" by the idea of arming school personnel. He lives in Palm Harbor and his wife is a teacher in Pinellas County, he told the Times, and wanted his opinion to be known.

"I have a couple of handguns myself and I get it," Berger said. "It's fun to go shooting. But I feel strongly that sensible gun laws are important."

A registered Democrat but self-described libertarian, Berger said he would support a ban on assault rifles and that SB 7026 was too soft on guns.

The respondents who spoke to the Times said they did not get a reply from Scott's office. But they also didn't expect one. They only wanted to be heard.

Governor's spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said Scott "appreciates hearing from Floridians" and the responses were "reviewed by staff while developing the Governor's action plan."

The input page, though of course not a representative survey, slowly began to resemble a digital consciousness of Florida. Some submissions came close to novels while others shared just a few words. A submission was made from nearly all 67 counties.

Common themes included asking for better school security, putting more mental health professionals on school campuses and calling for the firing of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. Many asked Scott why he did not attend the televised "CNN Town Hall" event where several of Florida's elected officials took questions from Parkland parents and students about gun control.

One Pinellas man suggested that drones could be used to protect schools. A woman lamented that her middle-schooler had been bullied since 5th grade and is often "sullen and depressed."

For some, the page became simply a forum to put their shock into words.

"I don't even know what to suggest here," wrote one Hillsborough County woman. "I just know that I don't feel confident my kids will be safe from harm."

The responses also reveal that Floridians are less divided along party or county lines than some have depicted:

A fair amount of self-identified Republicans pressed Scott for moderate gun reforms.

Miami-Dade respondents, a county with a strong reputation for supporting strong gun control measures, joined residents from other counties in calling for moderate gun restrictions. Several warned that if school staff must be armed, then they should be better trained than a Navy SEAL.

Some residents of rural counties were fiercely protective of the Second Amendment, but most still asked for measures such as school shooter drills, metal detectors and even limits on magazine size.

One thing respondents agreed on is that the governor should do something.

"I live a mile from Stoneman Douglas, and my grandson was thankfully not harmed during the Valentine's Day/Ash Wednesday PREVENTABLE tragedy," wrote one woman. "Please put aside partisan thinking and do what is best for the welfare of your constituents."

"I haven't felt that way since I heard the first planes fly over Jacksonville after the 9/11 incident," said one Clay County chorus teacher, describing the first time the fire alarm went off in her classroom after the Feb. 14 shooting. In the Parkland attack, the shooter reportedly pulled the fire alarm to disperse students.

"I want to be part of the effort to protect our children and I will not stand idly by," wrote a Sarasota mom. "Our Florida legislators have failed us. It's time for change."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.