SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) - Families whose loved ones perished in last year’s Florida high school massacre told a state commission Wednesday they waited hours, often alone in a room, before being told of the death in a process that seemed chaotic and lacking empathy.
Parents of students Luke Hoyer, Gina Montalto and Jaime Guttenberg and the wife of athletic director Chris Hixon told the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission stories whose details differed but carried the thread that the Broward Sheriff’s Office had no apparent protocol for notifying families of a mass tragedy, which led to confusion in the hours after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting that left 17 dead and 17 wounded.
Their testimony came as 22 victims and families sued the sheriff’s office, the Broward County school district, two security officers and a mental health provider for not preventing the shooting.
At the commission hearing, the families spent more than an hour reliving the fear, frustration, grief and eventual anger they felt about the notification process. They said they were not blaming any of the sheriff’s deputies and others who had to deal with the crush of anxious parents crammed into area hospitals and a Marriott Hotel near the school, where families were mostly directed after the shooting. Those low-level employees were failed by a lack of leadership, they said.
The 15 commissioners, who include two victims’ fathers and several law enforcement executives, wanted to hear from the relatives so they can make recommendations on how police agencies should notify families after mass shootings.
“Families became last on this list of what needed to be dealt with,” said Fred Guttenberg, the father of 14-year-old Jaime. “Whatever gets decided needs to start with families first.”
Debbie Hixon, a teacher at another school, said she learned of the shooting about 15 minutes after it ended. She immediately called her husband’s cellphone, which was answered by Marjory Stoneman Douglas officials who wouldn’t tell her anything, though her husband was dead. A district administrator eventually called, saying her husband was shot but to go to the Marriott for more information. There, she was eventually placed into a room alone, feeling forgotten. She then received text messages offering condolences - her husband’s death had been posted on social media before she was told.
“I threw my phone across the room,” Hixon said. “It is not how I should have found out.”
Tony Montalto said he and his wife, Jennifer, were put in a glass-enclosed hospital office, knowing that likely meant their 14-year-old daughter was dead. When they were told, others outside could see their grief and despite their condition, no one offered them a ride home or walked them to their car.
The commission’s law enforcement members said standard procedure is not to tell family members anything until the dead are positively identified. They asked whether families should be given preliminary information, even if that meant officers would sometimes be wrong and the loved one is actually alive. All the families agreed that would be better. Tom Hoyer said being told Luke, 15, was actually alive would have been a happy moment.
Instead, the 10-hour wait with no information was “an emotional endurance test from hell,” he said.
The sheriff’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment. It is scheduled to respond at the commission’s next meeting in June.
Meanwhile, some slain students’ parents and wounded students filed lawsuits Wednesday, alleging the school board and sheriff’s office promised a financial settlement but secretly worked to prevent a deal.
“It’s a daily struggle. They are not the people they were before February 14,” Lisa Olson, whose son, William, was shot in each arm, said at a news conference. “My son didn’t go to school today. He couldn’t and we have many days like that now.”
Immediately after the shooting, families were approached by the sheriff’s office and school board representatives “who said all the right things. They wanted to be a part of the solution…They wanted to help bring justice. We took them at their word,” said Todd Michaels, attorney for the family of Joaquin Oliver, who was killed.
Instead, the agencies lobbied the Florida Legislature to stop the resolution, Michaels said.
Mitch Dworet, who lost one son in the shooting while another was injured, said he wants someone held accountable.
“There were failures. I want to be in court,” Dworet said. “If you have children you can’t imagine the life that I lead now.”
School spokeswoman Cathleen Brennan said the district doesn’t comment on litigation. The sheriff’s office also declined comment on the lawsuit.
Kennedy reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
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