When you think of emergency responders, most people think of firefighters, police officers and paramedics. However, in the case of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD), many attorneys from Legal Aid Service of Broward County acted as emergency responders for the students, families and teachers who were affected by the violence that ripped through the city of Parkland.
The day of the shooting, students at MSD stood in the sweltering heat not knowing if their friends, teachers, brothers and sisters were alive. Many tried to call, but cellphone lines were tied up. It was countless hours later that the truth began to emerge, and that Parkland was going to be a very different place to live in and grow up.
“We knew this tragedy was going to affect more people than we were seeing on the news,” said Debra Koprowski, director of advocacy of Legal Aid Service of Broward County. “The team contacted the Red Cross to see how our agency could be involved with the response and made sure they knew how we could help.”
The Monday following the shooting, Legal Aid staffed two attorneys per day at the family resource center to help with any legal issues that could have crossed people’s paths since the horrific shooting. During the team’s five-day stint at the resource center, Legal Aid attorneys met with more than 100 people, helping them with issues involving immigration, child advocacy and education.
When the immigration team started meeting with students and families, they found that many immigrant families originally came to the United States to escape violence in their home countries.
“It’s unfortunate that we have parents coming to us saying they want to return home because they fear for their children’s safety here in the United States,” said Andrea Montavon-McKillip, immigration attorney for Legal Aid. “What is amazing is that the kids want to stay here with their friends because they love the community they’ve created here, so we’re going to try to help them do that.”
Every week since the shooting, Montavon-McKillip and the immigration team has met with five to six families to help them with everything from getting tourist visas for grandparents to come and provide comfort to their loved ones—to the U-Visa process—a visa for crime victims that would allow them to eventually become green card holders.
Attorneys with Legal Aid’s Education Legal Rights Project (ELRP) work to defend the right to education for children in our community. A few of the students suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and felt they couldn’t bear to walk back into the doors of the school and face the walls where tragedy struck. In addition, the team has also helped students in other schools throughout the Broward County School District who have required additional services since the tragedy.
“Our team is here to explore alternative school options, such as Florida Virtual School and Hospital Homebound for students having difficulty attending school,” said Jaime D’Alessandro, supervising attorney for the ELRP. “Many of these kids are very strong and adaptable, but there comes a time when they need help. That’s when we step in to ensure the learning process is not disrupted.”
During the first few days following the tragedy, attorneys from ELRP at Legal Aid were present at the Family Assistance Center (FAC) daily. ELRP attorneys assisted with questions regarding alternative school placements for students with difficulties returning to school due to diagnoses of anxiety disorder, PTSD and panic disorder. ELRP attorneys also assisted with questions regarding services in school, such as counseling. Overall, they assured that the community knew they could turn to them for assistance regarding any school issues.
Many of the team’s current clients with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) needed interim IEP meetings to discuss the addition of counseling services. These clients included students from schools throughout Broward County, as the impact of this tragedy went beyond MSD. ELRP is continuing to assist students with disabilities by ensuring that they are timely identified as such and provided with the necessary services through an IEP.
Legal Aid attorneys and staff are committed to helping the community heal from this heartbreak. Families with any legal issues are encouraged to call 954-736-2400 to see if Legal Aid might be able to assist them.
Anthony Karrat is the executive director of Legal Aid Service of Broward County. A version of this article was published in the Florida Bar News and is reprinted with permission.