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As three buses of weary students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School rolled away from the Capitol at 8 p.m. Wednesday, there was one elected official still there to send them off: state Sen. Lauren Book.
For two days Book had been a constant resource for the students, attending funerals in Parkland, meeting with parents, spending a sleepless night with them in the Tallahassee civic center, and helping the angry survivors find a way to turn their tragedy into change.
Book, a 33-year-old Democrat from Plantation, knows what it means to be traumatized at their age. When she was 16, she came forward for the first time and told her parents that she had been victimized sexually and physically by her nanny starting at age 11.
Book’s motto, “walk in my shoes,” was born from the idea that no one can truly understand what a victim of sexual abuse goes through unless they have lived it. So she was determined to make sure that Florida’s legislative leaders visited the Parkland high school, to get a first-hand glimpse of the blood-stained walls, the bullet-riddled hallways and the carnage left by the former student who killed 17 students and teachers.
Book made several visits to the school last week with lawmakers, who were given a briefing on the shooting by the FBI’s crime scene investigators and state detectives. Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said it had an impact.
“Lauren Book was genuinely concerned that we get the politics right, that we had a first-hand accounting of what happened to make sure we saw this through the lens of the kids,” said Simpson, who was among those who visited the school with Book.
On one visit, while walking around the parking lot with Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, Book reached down to pick up some homework scattered by the wind.
“The irony is, they were studying government, the Constitution, federalism,” recalled Jacobs. “Lauren clutched those papers for two days. She didn’t set them down. When we went to the hospital and they wanted to line us up for a group picture, she was holding the papers to her chest like a little girl does in school. The photographer said, ‘Can I take those?’ She said, ‘No, if you don’t mind.’ ”
Book said she saw the discarded homework as a sign and a symbol of the need for legislators to use this moment in the midst of their annual session to act. So when Book got a call from Jaclyn Corin, Douglas High’s junior-class president, late Thursday just a day after the shooting, she had one question.
“I asked them what can I do to help you heal, and what I do to make this better for you?” Book recalled. “She said that most important was that she have an opportunity to tell her story, her friends’ stories, and that they have the ability to affect change.”
Corin said they wanted to come to Tallahassee, to meet with as many legislators as possible — along with Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Cabinet. Book knew that for the kids to heal, they needed to find their voice about what they had suffered.
Book’s experience taught her that one effective way to heal was to turn suffering into advocacy, and she specializes in mass mobilization.
In 2007, Book founded Lauren’s Kids, a non-profit corporation that raises awareness of child sexual abuse. Her father, lawyer Ron Book, one of the most influential lobbyists in Tallahassee, became the foundation’s president.
After graduating in 2008 from the University of Miami with a degree in elementary education, Book took a job teaching in Miami-Dade public schools but after a year felt she had “a bigger job to do” so she devoted her attention to full-time advocacy.
Operating out of an office in Aventura, the organization runs a 24-hour crisis hotline, advocates for changes to state law and distributes a fifth-grade curriculum Book has developed to teach kids how to protect themselves from sexual predators.
To fund it, the organization has received millions of taxpayer dollars from the Legislature and is due to receive another $1.5 million next year to provide materials for Florida’s public and charter schools, and community groups.
“Lauren found her voice after suffering in silence and, once she used it, she saw the power of change,” said Claire VanSustern, the long-time communications director for Lauren’s Kids. “Part of her healing process is creating change and it was really cathartic. So when she met Jaclyn, she understood where Jaclyn was coming from and she wanted to help her accomplish it. Healing was action.”
The organization’s most publicized annual event is the annual “Walk In My Shoes,” a 1,500-mile trek across Florida that calls attention to sexual abuse. In its eighth year, it’s a must-attend event for state leaders from both parties.
Running for office
In November 2016, Book was elected to the Florida Senate, a freshman Democrat in a Republican chamber dominated by white men.
She arrived with a blessing and a curse: Her father’s high-profile stature and fundraising clout gave her immediate access to some of the most powerful politicians. But his domineering presence also meant that she had to worker harder and longer to prove that she was not there to advance his agenda but instead should be recognized for her own efforts.
“What frustrates me, and it has to frustrate her, is that sometimes the credit for what she does goes to her dad,” Jacobs said. “It’s Lauren who is driving these things.”
For example, when Lauren Book realized that shooting victim Peter Wang, the JROTC student who held a door open so others should escape, had dreamed of attending West Point, she “pulled strings” to get the school to posthumously accept him, Jacobs said.
“It was Lauren that did that,” she said. “It is her personality that drives these things into reality.”
In her first legislative session, Book won a coveted committee chairmanship, as head of the budget subcommittee overseeing the environment.
But her freshman year involved more than trying to make a mark as a member of the minority party in the 40-member chamber. She and her husband, Blair Byrnes, had twins on Feb. 16, 2017, with Book giving birth just weeks before session began.
Kennedy and Hudson arrived at the Capitol with Book and they stayed in Tallahassee all session. She converted her Capitol office into a nursery, bringing a changing table and two cribs into one room and converting another into a playroom with a sign that reads: “Senate babies.”
Book “is an amazing listener” to many of the constituent groups that stream into her office, said Laura McLeod, her legislative aide. One day, a group foster kids walked into her office, which was already full of lobbyists, and she sat the kids down and asked each of them to tell them their stories.
“She listens with such intensity and such empathy it’s very powerful,” McLeod said. “I’ve seen it time and time again.”
Mobilizing for Parkland
To assist Book in helping Corin and her classmates travel to Tallahassee, Book called VanSustern, who had moved to move to Washington, D.C., in November.
They began coordinating the components of the trip: Florida State University would make the Donald Tucker Civic Center available for kids to sleep and shower and add a box lunch. The Red Cross would provide cots. Leon High School would offer its cafeteria for a welcoming pizza and ice cream party. Leon County volunteers prepared care packages for each cot that included snacks, notebooks, a stuffed animal and a note.
Book would pay for the buses. Simpson would pay for the breakfast. Uber would finance dinner.
Book’s legislative staff set up meetings with more than 70 lawmakers. VanSustern coordinated media interviews. And the governor made the Cabinet room available as a meeting spot.
“The hardest part was just figuring out where people could plug in and getting it all done in the short span of time,” VanSustern said.
At the civic center, Book and VanSustern divided the group into 10 teams and walked them through some strategic thinking.
“We talked to them about effective communication,’’ VanSustern said. They urged them to remain respectful, direct and forcement – but not confrontational.”
“We are simply here to facilitate them getting their message out,” Book explained. “These kids are not a week from these horrific events. I understand PTSD. I understand trauma. I had conversations with these parents before we agreed to do this and [about] what this would look like.”
Book’s approach angered some Democrats even while winning the respect of the Senate’s Republican leaders.
“Her effort have been tremendous,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the Senate’s incoming president. “She’s approached it in a balanced fashion. I don’t feel as though she is trying to politicize the issue.”
The result, he said, will be to make it easier for both sides to reach consensus. “When you have people in the caucus willing to step up and take a leadership role in building consensus, it is so powerful,” he said.
Book, however, said there will be time to push for an assault weapons ban, but she is not convinced they will succeed if they attempt to force it this session. She said the students’ #NeverAgain movement is equivalent to the #MeToo movement that has occurred around the country after attention ballooned over sexual harassment.
Book, Jacobs and Sen. Jared Moskowitz , along with Sens. Kevin Rader, Galvano and Simpson attended the funeral of Wang. The heartbreak of his family and friends who attended his funeral, and wept over his open casket, will make it impossible for them to fail to keep working on this issue.
“I will never forget the screaming of those mothers and fathers and children and siblings,” Book said. “This is the watershed moment. We just have to keep chipping away at that crack so that the dam will bust open, and I believe that it will. But to try to do it all in 11 days is not necessarily the most practical.”