Parkland families make first visit to school building. ‘I wanted to stand where he stood’

Jimena Tavel | Miami Herald

When Tony Montalto walked down the hallway where his 14-year-old daughter Gina was murdered five years ago, he felt a rush of emotions. “Sadness, anger, disbelief,” he said. “A profound sadness that we lost our beautiful daughter; that’s always the pervasive feeling. Disbelief that she got shot, and then the anger that nobody’s gotten held accountable.”

Montalto and his wife were among the first to visit the 1200 building on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas campus in Parkland on Wednesday. In that three-story freshman building on Feb. 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old expelled student, murdered 14 students and three educators — 11 on the first floor, six on the third floor. He also wounded 17 others.

Since that tragic Valentine’s Day, the building and everything inside of it has been preserved with immaculate care because of Cruz’s trial — which concluded late last year with a life in prison sentence — and the trial of the only other person charged in the mass shooting, Scot Peterson.

Peterson, a former sheriff’s deputy who worked on the campus, was acquitted last week of felony child neglect and other charges for failing to act for some 10 minutes before other officers entered the building.

 Now that the legal proceedings have ended, the Broward County school district plans to demolish the building. But before that happens, the 17 survivors of the tragedy and the next of kin to the 17 who were murdered can go inside if they choose. Some requested it. Not everyone will go. 

The Montaltos, as well as the Dworets, relatives of 17-year-old Nicholas Dworet, and the Beigel Schulmans, relatives of former teacher Scott Beigel, toured the crime scene on Wednesday morning. Raymond Feis, brother of former coach Aaron Feis, visited in the afternoon, said Paula McMahon, a spokeswoman for the Broward State Attorney’s Office, which arranged the visits.

Families were accompanied by prosecutors, victim advocates from the State Attorney’s Office, representatives from the Eagles’ Haven Wellness Center, law enforcement from the Broward Sheriff’s Office and a Broward County school district liaison advocate.

The state attorney’s office will coordinate more visits between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, as well as some days next week, McMahon said, adding it’s “very fluid and subject to change.” 

The school district hasn’t yet announced what’s next for the space when the building is demolished.


 Dread overcame Montalto right before he went into the building on Wednesday. But he mustered the will to spot the exact place where Deputy Peterson stood outside.

 “It was difficult,” he said. “It was difficult to enter that building, but we felt we had to go there and learn what we could learn about the massacre.” 

Security video showed Peterson, who arrived at the building within two minutes of the shots starting, got within feet of a door but turned away, taking cover near another building instead. Peterson has said echoes prevented him from pinpointing where the gunshots were coming from.

Later, from the inside, Montalto said he removed window coverings and viewed the adjoining building outside.

Debra Hixon, the wife of Chris Hixon and a former teacher who now serves as the vice chair of the Broward County School Board, said she will go into building next week with her oldest son, Tom, as well as other family members.

 They want to put everything they’ve heard or seen about the massacre into their own perspective, she said, as well as see where Chris ran in, where he got shot and where he landed.

 “This is the last piece for us,” she said. “We want to get a better sense of what really happened that day.” 


Linda Beigel Schulman, the mother of Scott Beigel, also looked at Peterson’s hideout. “It was awful,” she said.

Beigel Schulman and her husband live in New York but flew down and up again on Wednesday to visit the school. There, they saw the bullet holes in the walls, the broken glass from the windows and the dried blood on the floors. They also saw papers still sitting on his classroom’s desk, the lessons still written out on the whiteboard and the decorations he had put up. 

“We saw the door he never got to close,” she said.

The school hired Beigel in August 2018 — about six months before he died — to coach cross country and teach geography. He died trying to usher students into his classroom.

“I’m not sure how I feel,” Beigel said about the experience. “I’m pretty numb. It’s hard to swallow. I’m glad I got to go in. I don’t regret going in. I wanted to stand where he stood, and visit where he was the happiest. I wanted to be in that environment, and I got to do some of that.

 “But this was like ripping the scab off and basically starting again.”

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