Teens and community leaders want to see change come from the latest tragedy in Florida.
Huntington Woods native Zach Shanbom was surprised when the fire alarm at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., went off for the second time on Feb. 14. “We’d already had a fire drill earlier, so it was odd,” said the junior.
He grabbed his backpack and left the building, where teachers were frantically telling students to run as fast as they could. “I could hear loud noises even though I was far away in a safe area,” he said. “I didn’t think anything of it at first.”
As teachers on walkie-talkies became more animated and frantic students started swapping rumors, Shanbom knew something was seriously amiss. But it wasn’t until dozens of police cars sped onto the campus that he realized the awful truth: Someone was shooting up the school, and he was still at large.
Shanbom, 16, ran into a nearby Walmart and texted his parents that he was OK. Only later did he learn that the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was briefly in the store around the same time, about an hour before he was apprehended.
“I really don’t want to believe he was there at the same time as me,” said Shanbom, who attends Michigan’s Tamarack Camps each summer. “It’s crazy.”
Within a few hours, Shanbom learned the whole story: 17 dead, including a classmate, four Jewish students and three adults, and at least a dozen injured. Shanbom recognized Cruz from riding the school bus.
“We always noticed something was a little off,” he said of Cruz, who has reportedly confessed. “He had anger issues and he didn’t talk to anyone on the bus. He was reserved and kept to himself.”
The news that yet another school shooting had taken place brought sorrow and an eerie sense of déjà vu across the nation, including here in Metro Detroit. Here’s a look at some local reaction to the tragedy.
Close to Home
Marion Freedman was confused by the voice mail left by a cousin.
“She left me a message I didn’t understand, saying that she hopes everything is OK,” Freedman said. While pondering what that meant, her phone rang again. It was her daughter, Dr. Laura Freedman, telling her that a shooting had taken place at her son Zach’s school.
Just a few days before, Marion and Dr. Michael Freedman, who live in West Bloomfield but winter in Boynton Beach, had attended one of Zach’s basketball games.
“One of the boys who was there is now gone. My daughter said to me, ‘Mom, he had walked right in front of you,’” Freedman said. “I hope and pray these kids can walk back onto that campus and somehow push forward for themselves and for those who are no longer there.”
In Farmington Hills, Steve Freedman (no relation to Marion), head of Hillel Day School, knew he had to reassure parents worried for their children’s safety. So, he did what’s typical in such cases: sent a letter home. This time, however, he didn’t have to think of what to say — he simply used the exact same note he’d sent home in December 2012 after the Sandy Hook school massacre in
Connecticut in which six adults and 20 children were killed.
“I did it to make the point that nothing has changed,” said Freedman. “I did add a p.s. that we need to do something, to take action, that writing these letters is not enough.”
One thing Freedman is certain about is that the “craziness” of arming teachers is not the answer. “If you are in a school, you can see the illogicalness of it,” Freedman said. “Our first responsibility is to the children, not running out into the hallways being Rambo.”
Time For Change
Rabbi Aaron Starr is convinced the time has come for change and is organizing a group to address the problem of mass shootings.
“What must we do when the time for ‘thoughts and prayers’ has come to an end, and the time for action has long since arrived?” he asked in a sermon delivered on Feb. 17 at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield that was posted on Facebook. “Our Torah, too, makes it clear that there is an obligation — not a right, the Torah does not speak of rights — an obligation to defend one’s self and to defend the lives of innocents.”
Starr said his sermon has received a lot of attention, and that while he does not have the answers, he is striving to find some by forming a group to explore partnerships and determine reasonable next steps.
“The issue of gun violence in schools is not Republican or Democrat, not left or right,” he told the Jewish News. “The question is, what can we do together? How can we in our role as community leaders and organizers bring people together? Even if our successes are small to begin with, they can snowball. I don’t think we need to seek broad, sweeping change because that will not be successful. We are looking for rational, practical solutions. I am optimistic, and I am looking forward to learning what we can do on every level.”
Many Michigan schools were on winter break Feb. 19-23, the week after the shooting, among them Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield. Yet school head Rabbi Azaryah Cohen did hear from at least one student expressing the desire to do something — though he’s not yet sure what form that will take.
“Social justice is on our students’ minds in general, and we want them thinking about these things and what sorts of actions we — and they — can take,” Cohen said. “We’ll meet with the students once we’re back in school.”
Like many other educational institutions, Frankel uses security cameras and bulletproof glass to shore its defenses and recently received a Homeland Security grant to enhance security.
“With improving technology and safety measures, there are always additions you can make to isolate and neutralize threats,” Cohen said. “Regulation is only part of the answer. As a society, we need to look at everything from how we treat individuals struggling with emotional illness to the forms of entertainment and media that affect our sensitivity and the sensitivity of our children.”
Teens Find A Voice
Online videos from the shooting scene, friends of friends of the fallen and the fact that four of the dead were scheduled to attend the same Chabad Teen Network convention he just escorted teens to in New York has given this tragedy “a weird closeness” to Metro Detroit, said Rabbi Yarden Blumstein, teen director at the Friendship Circle.
There has been a lot of talk of gun control among teens, Blumstein said, as well as the need to address mental health issues and, ultimately, a “seize the day” mentality. “We think we have tons of time,” he said, “but the only real thing we have is what is right in front of us.”
Many of the young people with whom Blumstein has spoken expressed pride in the activism arising from Florida students.
“They are a little proud of their fellow teens standing up and taking action,” he said. “I think now people will realize the power that teens have. Even teens underestimated teens — this is the wake-up call that they have a lot of power.”
Hillel’s Freedman, who at press time wasn’t sure if his school would join the National School Walkout on March 14, agreed.
“The voices of these high-schoolers are incredible and very powerful. Anyone who says that high school students can’t be articulate and coherent about issues really doesn’t understand high school kids. But most of them can’t vote, so they should be hugely encouraging their parents and teachers to get out into the voting booth,” he said.
Zach Shanbom and his mother plan to attend the March for Our Lives Rally on March 24 in Washington, D.C.
“We’re trying to get something positive out of this,” he said. “There is no need for an 18-year-old to have a weapon of war for any reason. I don’t think change will happen overnight or next week, but the kids from school are not going away, and they won’t until some positive change comes out of this.”