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Trump backs arming educators in meeting with school shooting survivors

President Donald Trump (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

President Donald Trump embraced arming educators to stop mass shootings as students and parents from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., pleaded with him to make America’s schools safer.

The suggestion, along with others calling for a ban on assault-type weapons and instituting airport-like security perimeters at schools, dominated an emotionally wrenching meeting with surviving students and parents of school mass shootings Wednesday afternoon at the White House.

“We as a country failed our children,” said a visibly angry Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was among those killed in last week‘s high school massacre. “I can’t get on a plane with a bottle of water. But some animal can walk into a school and kill our children. … It should have been one school shooting, and we should have fixed it.”

Pollack, who was flanked by his adult sons, was one of the few people in a room full of dozens who raised his hand when Trump asked how many supported arming educators in schools.

“I’m pissed!” he said, raising his voice. “My daughter — I’m not going to see again! She’s not here. Never, ever will I see my kid. I want it to sink in. It’s eternity. My beautiful daughter, I’m never going to see again.”

Six students and nine parents of students from the South Florida high school where a gunman killed 17 people last week traveled to Washington on Wednesday for what the White House called a listening session to suggest policies to keep America’s schools safe. It was the first in a series of events scheduled to tackle school safety, what Trump is now describing a “top priority.”

Pollack, along with his wife Julie Phillips and sons Huck Pollack and Hunter Pollack, had planned to attend the meeting but at the last minute decided they couldn’t go through with it. But after meeting privately with Trump, the family changed their mind and attended.

Banning assault weapons, an effort that saw defeat in the Florida statehouse on Tuesday, came up during the White House session. But it was one of the few issues Trump did not vocally signal support for.

Samuel Zeif, whose best friend died in the shooting, broke down in tears as he asked the president and the officials gathered to back a ban on AR-15 weapons.

“I don’t understand, I turned 18 the day after (the school shooting),” Zeif said. “Woke up to the news that my best friend was gone. And I don’t understand why I can still go in a store and buy a weapon of war. An AR … .How have we not stopped this after Columbine? After Sandy Hook?

He added: “I fully respect the Second Amendment. But these are not weapons of defense, these are weapons of war.”

The group was joined by parents whose children were killed when a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, and a couple whose daughter died nearly two decades ago when a pair of students shot 13 people to death Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.

Both shootings prompted a heated debate over the nation’s gun laws — much as the one last week in Parkland — but little action was taken in their aftermath.

“Consider your own children,” said Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was killed five years ago at Sandy Hook. “You don’t want to be me. No parent does.”

Trump, who sat on the edge of his chair for most of the one hour and 10-minute meeting, repeatedly nodded silently as he listened to family after family seated in a large circle around him describe the unimaginable and then beg him to take action in a way other politicians had not. Most students and parents struggled to get their words out while others outright cried.

“I was lucky enough to come home from school,” said Julia Cordover, senior class president at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. “It’s very scary. And to know that a lot of people do not have the opportunity to be here still is mind blowing. I’m confident that we’ll do the right thing. There’s definitely a lot more to go but I’m just grateful to be here. …”

Another Parkland survivor noted that school mass shootings had become a generational marker of sorts.

“I’m only 15 years old … I was born into a world where I never got to experience safety and peace,” student Justin Gruber said. “This has to never happen again. People need to feel like when they go to school they can be safe. Parents shouldn’t have to go through the idea of losing their child.”

Cary Gruber, who sat next to his son, described how Justin was texting him “I love you” while hiding in a closet. “You can’t imagine what’s that like as a parent,” he said. “Seventeen lives are gone. I was lucky enough to get my son home. It’s not political. It’s a human issue. People are dying and we have to do this. If he’s not old enough to go buy a beer, he should not be able to buy a gun. It’s just common sense.”

Some students have been critical of Trump for statements he has made since last week’s shooting, including blaming Democrats for failing to pass gun control legislation while they controlled both chambers in Congress.

“You are in that exact position right now, and you want to look back on our history and blame the Democrats? That’s disgusting,” David Hogg said Sunday on NBC. “You’re the president. You’re supposed to bring this nation together, not divide us. How dare you.”

But on Wednesday, the students selected by the White House to attend the meeting were polite and cordial.

At least three of them thanked the president, one specifically mentioned his decision to sign a memorandum ordering Attorney General Jeff Sessions to craft regulations to ban “bump stocks” and other devices that turn semiautomatic firearms into automatic weapons, though it remains unclear if that can be done without legislation. “You’re a great leader,” one said.

Trump, who visited Parkland on Friday, was immediately criticized for failing to address guns in his speech to the nation last week. Gun control groups, Democratic lawmakers and even Parkland students called on Trump and Republican leaders in the House and Senate to pass laws that would keep dangerous guns out of the hands of would-be criminals.

He spoke only briefly Wednesday, vowing to be “strong” on background checks for gun purchases and mental health, before he responded favorably to a proposal by a father to arm educators in schools.

“I think if these cowards knew, they would very well not go into the school,” Trump said. “A lot of people don’t understand that airplane pilots now, a lot of them carry guns.”

Frederick Abt, who accompanied his son, Carson, suggested educators have a firearm safely locked in the classroom instead of waiting for first responders. “You can’t stop it from happening and with hundreds of millions of guns out there,” he said. “But the challenge becomes once it’s started to end it quickly.”

But when Trump asked who didn’t like the idea of arming educators, many people raised their hands, far more than the few that raised their hands for arming them.

Mark Barden, whose son Daniel was killed at Sandy Hook, brought a message from his wife, Jackie, a school teacher who couldn’t travel to the White House, because she was working. “She will tell you that schoolteachers have more than enough responsibilities right now than to have to have the awesome responsibility of lethal force to take a life,” he said.

Trump did not describe any other policies he supports, but the White House said earlier this week that he backs a bill to improve federal background checks for gun purchases.

The legislation was crafted after a gunman bought a weapon used in a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, despite a domestic violence conviction The legislation does not expand background checks to more purchases but rather requires state and federal officials to do a better job of reporting pertinent details to the national instant background check system.

Chelsea Parsons, vice president of guns and crime policy for the left-leaning Center for American Progress, called the bill an important piece of legislation. “However, it is a modest measure that will not have a significant impact on reducing gun violence in this country and is certainly not the only bill that should be up for consideration right now,” she said.

Parsons notes that Trump’s budget cuts funding by 16 percent from $73 million to $61 million for a pair of federal grants that give money to states to help improve the submission of records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Other students and parents provided additional recommendations, including training students and teachers to recognize the signs of a possible shooter, holding active shooter drills regularly and placing metal doctors and x-ray machines at the front doors.

Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO Mental Health America, said the most important thing that can be done is to identify students who have serious mental health problems and spend the money to get them help. He said only 1 in 28 children, aged 3 to 21 years old, with serious mental health problems are actually identified in schools.

“It’s critical that our federal and state elected official understand the tools that they have been ignoring for generations,” he said. “This is hundreds of millions dollars that have been left on the table, they have not wanted to make this priority.

Trump was accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence, who urged the group to be candid and “share their heart,” and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who had lunch with the families Wednesday. White House staff, standing in the back of the State Dining Room wiped away tears.

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© 2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.