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Parkland Parent Tony Montalto Worried About Students Returning To Classrooms Due Pandemic Mental Health Impacts

FORT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami) - The Secret Service, which protects presidents and cabinet officers, has just released a study of school shootings and how to stop them.

The agency's National Threat Assessment Venter analyzed nearly 70 disrupted school plots over the past two decades. The study found the key to stopping them was an early intervention, by someone close to a student possibly planning violence.

Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina died in the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland three years ago, is the president of Stand with Parkland which pushes for gun and school safety reforms. He said he's more worried now about students heading back to the classroom, because of the pandemic's impact on mental health.

"Targeted school attacks frequently occur after we've had an absence. We know that COVID is giving many students and schools the longest break in attendance they've ever had," he said.

Today, with millions of kids learning virtually and not in the classroom, some students lost their support network and mental health services.

"Some students, sadly, have not been in a nurturing and comfortable environment through the crisis as they learn from home," said Montalto.

The new Secret Service report said students who plotted attacks shared many similarities with students who carried out violent attacks. They had "histories of school discipline and contact with law enforcement," they experienced "bullying or had mental health issues," and "used drugs or alcohol."

The report concluded, "school violence is preventable when communities identify warning signs and intervene."

"Early intervention is key," said Dri. Lina Alathari, Chief of the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center.

Alathari and her team analyzed nearly 70 plots that were reported and averted between 2006 and 2018. She said classmates were among the first to observe the warning signs.

"In this report, we've seen that students were the most positioned to come forward with this information," she said.

After the 1999 Columbine shooting, the Secret Service studied school safety.

"The attacks that we studied in averting target school violence were really serious in nature, if you look at how far they got in their planning and the situation, this really could have presented serious harm," said Alathari.

Nikolas Cruz, the confessed Parkland shooter, had a long history of emotional and disciplinary problems.

"Many warning signs were missed. There were over 40 interactions with him and the local law enforcement. Everybody knew what a danger he was," said Montalto.

The report identified other concerning behaviors including an interest in violent or hate-filled topics and a fixation on mass shootings like Columbine.

Montalto said his daughter would have been graduating this year, part of the class of 2021. Their family has channeled its grief into action.

"It doesn't lessen the pain, but it allows us an avenue to work through and something to work towards rather than possibly dwell in our grief, constantly," he said.

The Secret Service said that every school is different and needs a plan that meets its unique needs. The new report is a starting point.

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