School Climate & Safety

A Florida City Forever Changed

By Evie Blad — February 27, 2018 5 min read
Students are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14, after a shooter opened fire on the campus.
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The scene at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the surrounding area after the shootings shifted from chaos and panic to grief, anger, and calls for swift and aggressive action to prevent other school attacks.

A SWAT Team at the Door

English teacher Holly Van Tassel-Schuster wheeled a 36-inch television in front of the classroom door at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as the building rushed into a lockdown—planning to push it onto the gunman if he tried to enter.

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When a gunman opened fire with an AR-15 at a large high school in south Florida, he claimed the lives of students with bright futures ahead of them, along with those of the teachers and staff who tried to protect them. Here is a look at the 17 people who authorities say died in the deadly shooting.

Most of her students hid in a darkened closet trying to remain silent as they traded text messages with friends on other parts of the campus.

Two students insisted on waiting in the room with Van Tassel-Schuster, holding every pair of scissors and sharp object they could gather as they waited out the attack. The class didn’t know if they would make it out of the building that day until a SWAT team member came into their classroom.

In the week that followed, students’ backpacks sat where they left them as the building remained cordoned off with police tape.

Returning would be difficult, said Van Tassel-Schuster, an alumna of Stoneman Douglas High School who’s taught English there for 12 years.

“People don’t seem to understand,” she said. “Some of the things we saw and experienced, if you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand it. A lot of us are even having a hard time even talking to our loved ones because they can’t.”

17 Illuminated Angels

At a vigil the day after the shooting, hundreds of members of the Parkland community packed into the space in front of an amphitheater in a city park, straining to hear the prayers of rabbis and ministers over the sound of news helicopters that flew overhead to document the scene.

The din of helicopters and sirens had quickly grown familiar to those who survived the attack. Some said they imagined they were hearing them when they weren’t actually there.

On the stage sat 17 illuminated angels that a local church had used more than five years earlier in a memorial to the victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 26 people were killed. They were a sobering visual symbol of how mass shootings can quickly fade from public attention.

Many of the students and teachers gathered that night were seeing each other for the first time since the shootings, cutting through crowds to embrace one another in long hugs, not saying a word.

There’s an intimacy among survivors that even their closest family members can’t understand, they said.

The crowd later broke into chants of “No more guns!”

“I Failed You. We All Did.”

An impromptu memorial grew in a public park following the attack, with wooden crosses scattered throughout a field to represent victims.

In response to pledges of “thoughts and prayers” from politicians, students also put signs in front of the memorial that said “policy and change” and “make the future a safer place.”

People, some of them strangers, wedged notes to the victims in between the piles of flowers.

“I’m sorry,” one said. “I’m an adult and I failed you. We all did. I promise to do better and fight harder for the friends and family you left behind.”

In front of the crosses, students huddled in groups, praying together or just sitting in silence as they processed their trauma. With their school closed for the week, they needed a place to be with others who understood their experience, they said.

Some cried under the shade of trees, where organizers had hung neon paper signs warning national news crews filming in the park to stay back.

Every day, mourners added another layer of candles, roses, and photos to piles surrounding the crosses at the edge of the amphitheater stage.

Sheriff’s deputies monitored the scene from the edge of the park. They left the candles burning all day in the bright Florida sunlight and into the night.

Too Young to Buy Beer

On Feb. 14, Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie had just finished presenting a new Toyota Camry to the district’s teacher of the year when he saw the series of urgent text messages, informing him that there had been a shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School. Big school districts are accustomed to a few false alarms, but this one was real.

Less than 24 hours later, Runcie, who keeps a relatively low profile on the national education stage, was surrounded by the swarms of national and international media that had descended on Parkland. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel had called a press conference with local and state leaders under an overpass by the school. So many news crews reported to the scene that the space for microphones on the speaker’s podium had run out.

Runcie had seen students’ bodies on the floor of the school, he said, and some bodies remained in the building as deputies investigated.

Surrounded by state leaders who’d spoken against attempts to pass more restrictive gun laws in the past—Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, both Republicans—Runcie issued a call to change Florida’s gun laws.

Stoneman Douglas students were already gathering nearby, ready to give angry interviews that would spread quickly on the internet.

Many had called school board members and school leaders, frustrated that the suspected gunman was old enough to buy an AR-15 in Florida, but too young to buy a beer.

“Now is the time for this country to have a real conversation about sensible gun control,” Runcie said. “Our students are asking for this conversation.”

Blood Drives, Rallies, and Outreach

South Florida radio DJs broke in between pop songs last week to announce locations for blood drives, just one of the immediate effects of the shooting in this city of 30,000 residents.

Sheriff’s cars were parked outside many nearby schools in an effort to provide reassurance to anxious parents.

Roads that lead to gated communities were blocked off by police cars. Sheriff’s deputies had closed off streets leading up to the school, limiting access to what had become a massive crime scene.

Outside of a strip mall Friday, a small group of about ten women gathered, holding signs that said things like “Kids not Guns” and “Honk if You Want Change.”

Dozens of cars honked as they poured through the intersection. Some rolled down their windows to hand the protesters boxes of food and bottles of water.

At their feet, a pile of goodwill was growing.

They planned to stay there for hours.

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as A Florida City Forever Changed

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