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Paradise lost: Massacre jolts Florida's 'safest city'

PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) - Michele Roseman was convinced that she had found a safe place to raise her children when she came to Parkland, Florida, in 2000. She was stunned when one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history unfolded in her adopted town.

A message about grief counseling appears on an electronic signboard at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one day after a shooting at the school left 17 dead, in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

“I moved so my kids could go to one of the best schools in the area,” said the 62-year-old swimming instructor. Her daughter Hannah, 19, knew eight of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who were killed on Wednesday.

“I always felt safe here, but after this, I’m not sure I can live here anymore,” she said. “I just told my son today I’m looking to sell my house.”

On Thursday, people in this city of about 23,000 struggled to reconcile their views of Parkland as a tropical paradise with the shooting that instantly made its name synonymous with gun violence.

Just this week, Parkland was named in a national survey as one of the safest cities in the country, and last year another study ranked it as the safest city in Florida. The school system has received the highest grade of “A” for seven years running from the state Department of Education.

“People come here because it’s safe,” said David Steiman, 61. “They send their kids to school here because it’s the safest place in South Florida, and then this happens.”

A former student has been accused of murdering 17 people outside and inside the school.

The massacre was the deadliest school shooting since the 2012 attack that killed 20 students and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a leafy suburb that, like Parkland, attracted residents with its lack of crime and high-ranking school system.

The affluent suburb in western South Florida borders the vast Everglades wetlands, about 24 miles from Fort Lauderdale and twice as far from Miami. The high school is named for environmentalist and writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who earned fame for her defense of the Everglades.

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Zoning laws require preserving the town’s “parklike setting.”

Wide sidewalks snake alongside manicured hedges and towering palm trees. A private country club is a short drive away from the school. The children’s movies “Despicable Me 3” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” were to have been shown as an outdoor double feature on Friday evening at Pine Trails Park.

Simply put, the city is “paradise,” said Bryan Weissman, a chiropractor who moved to Parkland nearly 20 years ago and sent his daughter Jackie to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“You’re close to the beach, close to major cities and you’ve got the best education in the state,” said Weissman, 60.

Kevin Obymako, 58, moved to neighboring Coral Springs from California more than 20 years ago before buying a house in Parkland in 2015. It is just a block from the childhood home of Nikolas Cruz, the suspected gunman. Both of Obymako’s children attended Douglas High School.

“It’s the city in the country,” Obymako, a commercial real estate developer, said on Thursday. “What happened yesterday was shocking; it’s absolutely shocking.”

Patrick Ferro, 20, said his family moved to the area from another Broward County city, Sunrise, because his parents wanted his 12-year-old sister to attend better schools.

Ferro would graduate from J.P. Taravella High School in Coral Springs, the same school Cruz reportedly attended after he was expelled from Douglas High School.

Ferro said there had been constant gang violence outside the middle school in Sunrise. “We moved here because we thought it would be safe,” he said on Wednesday night as he pushed shopping carts in the parking lot of a grocery store where he works.

“We did not want my sister to go through what I did, having to see people beat each other up. But we move here, and this happens,” he said. “My mother doesn’t even want my little sister to go to middle school tomorrow.”

Reporting by Bernie Woodall and Zachary Fagenson; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Toni Reinhold