Indian American community stunned by Florida shooting

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.

Among the victims was, an Indian-American child, who suffered minor injuries in the shooting according to a Press Trust of India report. The ninth grade student sustained minor injuries after he was hit by splinters, and is being treated at a hospital, according to a PTI 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

“Mrs. V” knew something wasn’t right when the second fire alarm of the day sounded shortly before classes were to end at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, Parkland, FL.

Rather than let her Algebra II students out, Shanthi Viswanathan made them get on the floor in the corner of the room. But first she put paper over the window in the class door so no one could see in.

Her actions probably saved her students, said Dawn Jarboe, whose son Brian was in the class. “She was quick on her feet. She used her knowledge. She saved a lot of kids,” Dawn Jarboe said.

Even when the SWAT team arrived and the police were saying to open up, Viswanathan took no chance that it wasn’t a trick by the gunman to get in. “She said, ‘Knock it down or open it with a key. I’m not opening the door,’” Jarboe said.

And that’s what they did. “Some SWAT guy took out the window and cleared our room,” Brian texted his mom.

“This is a sad day for the country and the community. We all Indian Americans are praying for the victims,” Shekar Reddy, whose friend’s son was among those injured in the mass shooting, told PTI. The school reportedly has quite a few students from the Indian American community. The FBI is assisting local officials in the investigation.

The shooter, who was equipped with a gas mask and smoke grenades, set off a fire alarm to draw students out of classrooms shortly before the day ended at one of the state’s largest schools, officials said.

Students who knew the shooter, identified as Nikolas Cruz, described a volatile teenager whose strange behavior had caused others to end friendships with him, particularly after the fight that led to his expulsion.

“It’s catastrophic. There really are no words,” Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel told reporters. The attacker used the fire alarm “so the kids would come pouring out of the classrooms into the hall,” Sen. Bill Nelson told CNN. “And there the carnage began,” said Nelson, who said he was briefed by the FBI.

A law enforcement official said the former student posted highly disturbing material on social media before the shooting rampage. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said Feb. 14 investigators are dissecting the suspect’s social media posts and found material that is “very, very disturbing.” He didn’t elaborate.

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 tostatisticalatlas.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.

The Association of Indians in America, South Florida chapter President Kavita Deshpande, told the media that 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.

The tragedy this month in Florida leads all to ponder on a bigger 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.

The US, the most advanced nation has the most number of deaths due to gun violence. 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. These incidents have changed life in schools and the lives of millions of people across the great nation, the United States.

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