An Okaloosa County Republican State Committeewoman is under fire after contending on social media that some of the students who survived last week’s school shooting in South Florida are “hired crisis actors.”
A former student shot and killed 14 students and 3 staff members last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. In the days since, many of the victims’ surviving classmates have spoken to the press and traveled to Tallahassee to urge lawmakers to advance gun control measures.
But Republican State Committeewoman Sandra Atkinson is echoing far-right conspiracy theorists who have argued that some of the students are so-called “crisis actors” — paid actors who are hired to portray victims after mass shootings and other events.
In a series of Facebook posts, Atkinson shared tweets and other posts from conspiracy theorists arguing that student David Hogg is a crisis actor who never attended the Parkland high school but instead graduated from a California high school in 2015. Fact-check site Politifact debunked the claim, giving it a “Pants on Fire” rating on Wednesday.
“Crisis actors hired who didnt even go to the Broward County school,” Atkinson wrote on one post, a photograph purporting to be crisis actors posing with a production crew.
Republicans in each of Florida’s 67 counties elect one state committeeman and one state committeewoman to serve on the party’s state executive committee. Atkinson has served as Okaloosa County’s Republican State Committeewoman since 2012, when she was elected with 57% of the vote. Atkinson was reelected with 77% of the vote in 2016, months before she appeared onstage at a rally for then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in Pensacola in early November. Introduced by former Congressman Jeff Miller, Atkinson recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
Atkinson said Wednesday that her posts on her personal Facebook page, though public, represent her personal opinion and that doesn’t speak for the Okaloosa County Republican Party. Atkinson instead directed a reporter to a separate “Sandra Atkinson Committeewoman Republican Okaloosa County” Facebook page.
Fort Walton Beach native and University of Florida student Matthew Barkley came across Atkinson’s posts while researching the gun control positions of State Rep. Mel Ponder, also from Okaloosa.
“The fact that its her personal page doesn’t change anything for me,” Barkley said Wednesday. “It’s still public, and as a leader in the county she should be held to a higher standard. As young people we are told to watch what we put on Facebook and social media because of how it will reflect on us in college admissions and job searches, so why should it be any different for her?”
Barkley said he was “horrified” to find a Republican Party official promoting the widely-debunked conspiracy theory.
“She chose to be irresponsible and put it out there, and needs to deal with the consequences, or at least denounce the blatant falsehoods she promoted,” Barkley added.
Prominent Florida Republicans have vocally condemned the “crisis actor” conspiracy theory in recent days.
“Claiming some of the students on TV after Parkland are actors is the work of a disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency,” U.S. Senator Marco Rubio tweeted Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, a Florida House aide was fired after sending an email to a Tampa Bay Times reporter which claimed that two of the students were crisis actors. Benjamin Kelly had worked as district secretary for State Rep. Shawn Harrison, a Tampa Republican. Kelly was initially placed on leave before being fired later in the day by House Speaker Richard Corcoran.
“I was shocked and angry to read the appalling email about the brave students who traveled to Tallahassee today,” Corcoran tweeted. “On behalf of the entire Florida House, I sincerely apologize to the students targeted.”
Officials from the Okaloosa County Republican Party and the Republican Party of Florida did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.