Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:
The Miami Herald on marking three years since the mass shooting at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School:
The massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 forced Florida to change in fundamental ways. The state grudgingly passed gun-control legislation, reversing decades of gun-lobby influence in a matter of weeks. The agonized eloquence of students from the school built a protest movement that spread across the country and led to a nationwide March for Our Lives school walkout. A reassessment of school safety finally brought action on long-simmering issues, including mental health and armed campus security.
Now, three years after the Valentine’s Day assault that killed 17 people and injured 17 more, it’s apparent that the attack in our community continues to shape the national dialogue on both gun violence and social justice. On the anniversary of this tragedy, as we struggle to find light in the darkness, we can honor the dead by highlighting that progress — and building on it.
We know many of the survivors by name, because they’ve chosen public roles. Lori Alhadeff, a former teacher whose daughter, Alyssa, was killed in the shooting, won a seat on the Broward County School Board in 2018, a platform she uses, in part, to advocate for school safety. Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter, Jaime, died in the attack, is an outspoken gun-safety activist.
Former Parkland student David Hogg has become a gun-control activist, pounding the halls of the U.S. Capitol to talk to members of Congress — and, most recently, enduring the harassment of now-Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose unhinged social-media posts and comments spread dangerous lies, including the sickening claim that Parkland was a “false flag planned shooting.”
People like Hogg, Alhadeff and Guttenberg rightfully make sure we don’t forget what happened at Parkland. There are others, too — people not so squarely in the spotlight but still doing their part to make the world a better, safer place.
Some took their efforts to the scene of the horrific crime. For instance, Mary Benton, founder of Bound By Beauty, based in Miami Shores, rallied a team that assisted traumatized students and teachers to create Marjory’s Garden, a butterfly garden to provide sanctuary and sustenance to humans and to wildlife.
“I was absolutely propelled to try to help,” Benton told the Herald Editorial Board. “A garden can represent life and hope and beauty and promise, no matter how tragic and horrible the world can be.”
Kai Koerber, a former Parkland student who now attends the University of California Berkeley said that his experiences after the shooting — followed by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota last year — led him to an interest in mental health and social justice. He’s created a research project that he says will use artificial intelligence to help rein in police misconduct. The work is, fittingly, being done through the university’s Greater Good Science Center.
“I think if you give people the tools to live positive and progressive lives,” he told the Editorial Board, “you won’t have to threaten them with brutality.”
GUN SAFETY STALLS
Efforts like these, making a personal contribution toward a better society, are especially meaningful now. After the initial flurry of gun legislation, headway on gun safety became next to impossible in Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature. And even the laws that were passed in 2019, labeled the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, aren’t necessarily a given. They may have been signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, with bipartisan support, but Gov. Ron DeSantis said during his 2018 campaign that he would have vetoed the law — though there were parts he liked — rejecting it because of the restrictions on guns.
Yet that legislation created landmark — and common-sense — changes that this state needed. It raised the age for purchasing a gun to 21, created a three-day waiting period and banned bump stocks — an attachment that enables a semi-automatic weapon to fire faster. It also started a controversial program to train and arm school faculty. At the same time, the state also passed a “red flag” law that allows police, with a court’s approval, to temporarily seize weapons from people considered a threat to themselves or others.
In the years after the shooting, Parkland’s influence spread across the country, with 67 new gun laws enacted in 26 states and Washington, D.C.
That’s a lot of progress, but it’s also not enough. The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s annual gun-law scorecard still gives Florida only a “C minus” rating. Among its chief suggestions to strengthen the state’s gun laws is requiring a background check on all gun sales, a basic safeguard in a place still widely known as the “Gunshine State.”
PUSHING “JAIME’S LAW”
Guttenberg is among those who worry that the state’s efforts to address the grievous wounds of Parkland are faltering. While a bill to ban assault-style weapons once again has been introduced for the legislative session that starts in March, it’s likely to be as fruitless as in previous years. Guttenberg said he’ll continue to push for lawmakers to consider “Jaime’s Law” to require background checks for most ammunition purchases. Stand with Parkland, a school-safety group that represents many of the victims’ families, helped craft a “Parents Need to Know” bill, sponsored by Broward County Reps. Shevrin Jones and Dan Daley, which would require schools to inform parents of school threats and security lapses, and tell them how those concerns are being addressed.
But laws are not the only way to make progress. Often, social media can make an impact.
In a striking moment this month, Miami-Dade’s three Republican members of Congress cast critical surprise votes to strip Georgia’s Greene of her committee assignments. While she had been on record for some time repeating QAnon conspiracy theories, questioning whether the 9/11 terrorist attacks were real and calling school shootings “false flag” events, video evidence of her harassing Hogg struck a chord in South Florida. Guttenberg shared many of those videos online.
Those votes by newly elected Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar and Carlos Gimenez, along with veteran Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, hardly amount to profiles in courage, with the next election less than two years away. But they do offer hope.
Broward County Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was behind the measure to remove the one-time Parkland denier from committees that included the House Education Committee, called that moment a “difficult vote of conscience” for the three South Florida Republicans. She noted that Greene’s “promotion of conspiracy theories and intimidating actions were especially painful to the dear families we have come to know and represent who are still recovering from the Parkland mass shooting that took 17 lives.”
The three Republican House members broke with their party to back Greene’s ouster from House committees. It was a needed show of support and advocacy for Parkland’s cause. Three years on, those 17 deaths will mean nothing if we don’t all show the same commitment.
The Gainesville Sun on diversifying the faculty at the University of Florida:
The University of Florida has been increasing minority representation on its faculty, but still has work to do in order to have a faculty — as well as an administration and student body — as diverse as the state.
UF often compares itself to the nation’s top public universities as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. UF ranked in the top 10 for the first time in 2017, and last year tied for the sixth-ranked public university in the country as it now strives for the top five.
The Sun recently compared UF’s faculty representation with the five universities ahead of it in the U.S. News rankings. The report used the latest federal data on faculty diversity, from 2018.
The data showed that the percentage of minority faculty for the top-five universities ranged from 18% at the University of Virginia to 34% at the University of California at Los Angeles. The average of all five universities was 24% — the exact amount that UF had in 2018.
UF has steadily improved its percentages of underrepresented faculty since 2015, according to the report, most notably with hires of female, Black and Hispanic faculty.
“A lot of people think if you’re going for top five you’re going to sacrifice diversity, and that’s backwards,” UF Chief Diversity Officer Antonio Farias told The Sun. “Diversity and excellence go hand-in-hand.”
UF’s 2018 percentage of Black and Hispanic or Latino faculty was higher than average at the top-five universities, but its percentage of female faculty was lower. And the faculty numbers don’t tell the whole story in terms of representation.
“It doesn’t tell you the degree to which people of color across campus are engaged in the administrative structure, the decision-making process,” said Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at UF.
UF had some notable firsts in its administrative hiring last year: Hub Brown was hired as dean of the College of Journalism and Communications, the college’s first Black dean, and Dr. Colleen Koch was hired as dean of the UF College of Medicine, the first woman to hold that position. Nine of UF’s 16 college deans are now women.
Last year also marked the launch of an anti-racism initiative by UF President Kent Fuchs in the wake of protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The initiative includes a number of measures, including a Racial Justice Research Fund that has awarded $970,000 to faculty research projects in such areas as diversity in professional programs and strategies for creating a more inclusive campus environment.
With the number of Black students at UF declining in recent years, the results of such efforts will be important in changing that trend. While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life on campus and beyond, UF also needs to demonstrate progress on all the measures launched by Fuchs to show that the effort has real meaning.
Florida law bans the use of racial and gender preferences in state university hiring, so UF instead has to do such things as widening its recruitment efforts to include a diversity of organizations. The university must stay committed to these efforts in order to create a more diverse and inclusive campus.
The Pensacola News Journal on homelessness in the city:
Recent reporting from the PNJ’s Colin Warren-Hicks details the increasingly hopeless plight of Pensacola’s homeless population, many of whom are soon to be evicted from a makeshift tent city underneath the Interstate 110 overpass near downtown.
The number of tents, tarps and piles of belongings has grown over the last year, down in the shadows of the inadequate shelter provided by the spans of concrete and steel above the litter-strewn, publicly-owned grassy areas known officially as Hollice T. Williams Park.
In recent weeks, folks who have set up temporary residence under I-110 were informed by the city of Pensacola that they would be required to leave by early March so city staff can “conduct a thorough cleanup” of the park, according to a statement from Mayor Grover Robinson’s office. The mayor’s office cited citizen complaints about “unsanitary conditions” as the reason for the action and denied they were evicting the people as a measure to deal with the city’s ongoing struggles with panhandlers and homelessness.
But multiple organizations who work directly with the local homeless community warned city officials that all area resources and shelters are currently maxed-out and that there is nowhere to go for the people who have been living under I-110.
Michael Kimberl, who is director of the Alfred-Washburn Center and co-founder of Sean’s Outpost, said the evictions are simply going to send people into the neighborhoods surrounding I-110 to seek shelter in illegal and potentially dangerous places like private property.
“All we are doing is scattering them. There are going to be X number of people with nowhere to go who we’ll be sending into the surrounding neighborhoods,” Kimberl said. “Any vacant lots or abandoned houses in East Side, North Hill or Long Hollow — like that’s where they’re going to go.”
A local organization called Opening Doors of Northwest Florida has taken the lead in finding support and shelter for the people who have been living under the interstate. The organization tries to take a comprehensive approach to the problem by deploying outreach teams who assess any needs beyond the direct lack of housing that clients may need, including healthcare, mental health services and addiction treatments.
Opening Doors has partnered with a multitude of other local non-profits to intervene in the crisis under I-110, but they are still in the position of hoping and praying for donations and community support.
This problem can no longer be shrugged off by Escambia County, the city of Pensacola and the state of Florida. It can no longer be an annoyance that is dumped into the laps of our already struggling local charitable organizations.
Homelessness needs to become a priority of our local governments. Just like law enforcement. Just like health services. If local governments do not respond with a professional and comprehensive response to this public crisis, then it will only continue to get worse and affect the lives of more and more citizens.
We regularly watch local elected officials waste countless hours offering unqualified personal opinions on employment and economic policies while committing millions of dollars to initiatives that have produced few tangible results for taxpayers or overall quality of life in Escambia County. But what have those elected officials done to seek a serious solution to something that’s a clear and growing problem in this county?
To the city’s credit, Mayor Robinson has at least started the conversation with a request for $200,000 from the Pensacola City Council for initial measures to address homeless issues downtown. Robinson is urging Escambia County to join in with additional funding.
Like Kimberl said, there are no more shelter spaces. There is nowhere for these people to go other than the streets or vacant properties in surrounding neighborhoods.
It is time that a comprehensive plan to address homelessness, addiction and mental health becomes a core function of local government. Don’t shove it off on sheriff’s deputies and police officers who should not be expected to stand in as counselors. Do not leave the massive burden to our churches and nonprofits who already do so much more than their share to soothe sicknesses that most of society does not want to look at.
As a city and as a county, either we decide to embrace a collective moral responsibility and make these problems a public priority. Or we continue to pay the price in countless other ways.