One cannot imagine what was going through the mind of the sad teen who stood holding up the lighted candle mourning her best friend, with her mother Shweta Kapa by her side. It was only 24 hours since Nikolas Kraus, 19, now charged with premeditated murder, went on a rampage armed with a weapons grade assault rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killed the teen’s friend, leaving 15 students and 2 teachers dead. Meanwhile, an Indian-American teacher is being hailed as a hero for protecting her students in the face of terror. Hundreds joined the teen and her mother at the somber Feb. 15, sunset vigil in the vast open air Parkland Amphitheatre, where people began collectively shouting, “No more guns.”
An Indian-American child suffered minor injuries in the shooting according to a Press Trust of India report. There were no other known casualties from the community. But Indian-Americans are traumatized with their children undergoing the ordeal at school and their friends and neighbors suffering deaths. But they can take heart from the bravery of Shanthi Viswanathan, the algebra teacher who acted so quickly to save the children. According to reports in Miami Herald, the Sun Sentinel, and Orlando Sentinel, "Mrs. V" rushed her students to a corner of the classroom, "moments before" Cruz began shooting, slapped paper on the glass panel on the door so no one could see inside, and refused to open the door even when police SWAT teams demanded she do so. According to a parent, Dawn Jarboe, Mrs. V told the knocker, “Knock it down or open it with a key. I’m not opening the door," the Miami Herald reported. Mrs V did not want to take any chances that the shooter was pretending to be the police, the report said.
The Kapas were excited about going to the best friend’s birthday party this Saturday, and their daughter had met the friend just half an hour before she was killed, a close friend of the family told News India Times. The Indian-American teen is in shock and unable to talk to reporters. It is understandable, knowing of the 90 minutes of terror as students crouched and hid in closets and classrooms of the school, texting their parents, and some of them witnessing the brutal death of their classmates.
“Her daughter is shaken up. She has lost her best friend,” said the friend who did not wish to be identified because of the trauma. The teen’s “friend’s birthday is this Saturday and they were planning to go. So you can imagine how she is shaken,” she said. “Shweta said her daughter needs time. They are in shock,” she added repeatedly, noting that she did not wish to share the name of the affected Indian-American teen.
The family friend who lives just five minutes from the school where the tragedy unfolded, said, “It was very terrifying. A lot of Indians live in this area and many of our children go to that school. That is the designated school my son will be going to when he is in high school,” she added. Broward County School Superintendent speaking on National Public Radio, said the building where the tragedy occurred would not longer be used and other solutions were being looked into when classes begin again a week after the horrific incident. Several students who experienced the tragedy first hand said in television interviews that they did not wish to return.
Considered an affluent community with a state of the art school like Stoneman Douglas, the city has attracted more Indian families looking for a good education for their children. (In the entire Broward County, where Parkland is located, the Asian Indian population is 22,600 according to statisticalatlas.com.)
Parkland, population 31,507, was considered the safest city in Florida in 2017 with just 7 violent crimes, a CNN report quoting the National Council for Home Safety and Security, said.
But Feb. 14 changed that image for Bharatnatyam dance teacher Neha Shah’s daughter. She also lost her friend in the shooting and they are going for grief counseling, the family friend, who did not wish to be identified, said.
The Association of Indians in America, South Florida chapter President Kavita Deshpande, told News India Times people are “very badly” affected. In a formal statement AIA said, “The Indian American community, both in Parkland as well as in greater South Florida, grieves along with the parents who have lost their children in yesterday’s horrific shooting. We stand together, now and always.”
The Hindu American Foundation spent the better part of Feb. 14, tracking its members in the Parkland-Coral Springs area to check on them, Suhag Shukla, co-founder and executive director of the organization, told this correspondent.
Minakshi De, an artist from Vero Beach, said she had many friends in the area where Cruz wreaked havoc. “There’s a huge Indian community there and we hold the biggest Durga Puja celebration there. They are scared.”
“One of our member’s business partner’s son went into surgery but has come out okay,” Shukla said with relief. “This sort of violence is not random. And it is avoidable,” she added. “There’s absolutely no reason why ordinary citizens carry assault weapons.”
Shukla has a son in his sophomore year in New Jersey and worries for him as well. Asked if she knew whether active shooter drills were carried out at his school, she said she had not heard of any.
“In New Jersey, a school is completely locked and one cannot get in during school hours without being buzzed in and first seeing a security guard,” Dr. Sudhir Parikh, publisher of News India Times and recipient of India’s Padma Shri award, said. “These incidents have a traumatic impact on school children around the country who feel they might be the next target,” said Dr. Parikh, a resident of New Jersey.
Scope Of Problem
Frequent shootings at schools — almost one gun incident every month — remain a nightmare for children and parents even if most have few fatalities or only injuries. Some recent horrific incidents stand out: Columbine High School, Colorado, where 15 were killed in 1999; Red Lake Senior High School, Minnesota in 2005 with 10 fatalities; and Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut, in 2012 with 28 dead.
That has changed life in schools. Amit Prakash, a high school teacher in an elite school in New York’s Upper Westside said two active-shooter drills were a requirement every year for schools. In fact, the drill scheduled Feb. 15, was cancelled in light of the tragedy in Florida. “Since my time in teaching I’ve seen these drills evolve – previously it was just fire drills,” he told News India Times. When a “lockdown/active-shooter” drill takes place, students have to be prepped beforehand that it is just a drill, to avoid panic. “We turn off lights, secure doors, stay quiet, crouch in a corner so we are not visible through windows, and are told that in the real situation we don’t move till the NYPD comes,” Prakash said.
For Indian-Americans, who come from a country without a gun culture, the contrast between India and the United States in firearms ownership and gun deaths is often shocking. GunPolicy.org that is hosted by the Sydney School of Public Health, the University of Sydney, gathered data that showed that there were 3,655 total gun deaths in 2014 in India which has a population of 1.3 billion, or three gun deaths per million people showing a decline from a total of 12,147 or 12.3 per million in 1999.
In contrast, there were 33,599 gun deaths in the U.S. in 2014, nine times more than in India.
The United States tops the world in the number of guns owned by civilians, with 310 million. That amounts to 101.05 guns for every hundred people in the U.S., giving it the top rank in the rate of gun ownership, while India which ranked next after U.S. in number of guns owned by civilians at 40 million, had just 3.36 guns for every hundred people, because its population is about times bigger than the U.S.
Against this backdrop, the Indian-American community is looking at the gun control issue, which has again risen as a topic of national discussion because of the Parkland shooting .
“Thankfully, we live in New York City where there are strict gun laws,” Prakash said. “As a school teacher, it (threat of school violence) is a new thing,” he added. “Apparently politicians don’t want to deal with it so we have to.” While “you can’t really plan for this kind of violence, what you can do is take the guns away – but that’s political suicide for both parties,” he said.
“This is not about people’s right to protect themselves,” said Shukla referencing the 2nd Amendment in the U.S. Constitution that gives citizens the right to bear arms. “This is about our government looking to our safety.”
In a formal statement, HAF said, “As Hindu Americans, we see the enacting and enforcing legislation that keeps military-grade firearms out of the hands of the general public, as solidly rooted in Hindu dharma.”
President Donald Trump skirted the issue of gun control in his reaction to the shooting, emphasizing mental health – a common factor that runs through many of the school shooting incidents.
Issues of school security, mental health and gun control are again a topic of national debate. “Mental health is one of the critical issues in this kind of incident, but more needs to be done on gun control and the government has to find ways to prevent such guns getting into their hands,” Dr. Parikh said. “One cannot have guns freely available and then blame mental health,” he added. Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. Surgeon General, regarded gun violence as a public health issue and had campaigned for it even before being appointed as “America’s Doctor.”
“What I’ve said before is what I believe now — which is gun violence is a public health issue,” Murthy told Politico in a November 2016 interview, a few months before he resigned.