Few people have been affected by last year’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla. in quite so many ways as Patrick Petty.
His younger sister Alaina was one of the 17 people slain inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High last Valentine’s Day. Patrick’s father, Ryan Petty, is an outspoken advocate for victims’ families and serves on the state commission investigating the massacre. And five days a week, Patrick, now a 17-year-old senior at Stoneman Douglas, returns to the scene of an attack that upended his life and traumatized an entire community.
Tragedy has brought out the best in many people, Patrick said in an interview with Education Week. He’s been particularly moved by the ways students and staff at his school have pulled together.
“I don’t think I would have come back if weren’t for the people there,” Patrick said. “My friends and teachers, they’re the ones that keep me strong and make it bearable for me to walk past that building every morning and be able to bear what happened there.”
Still, these past 12 months have been painful.
New information about failures that contributed to the tragedy seems to emerge every week. Controversies have divided his school. Patrick, a “pro-Second Amendment guy” who believes in listening to the other side, has taken social-media flak from all corners.
And Patrick misses his little sister, often at the smallest times, like when he walks by her room and catches himself expecting to see her studying or playing with the family dogs.
“It will never get easy,” Patrick said. “It’s something I am trying to learn to live with.”
A Little Sister
Before the shooting, Patrick said, life at Stoneman Douglas was full of “the same sort of things you see in the movies”—going to classes and hanging out with friends, playing sports, getting in dumb arguments and fights.
It never really occurred to him that a school shooting could happen in Parkland:
For years, that sense of normalcy extended to Patrick’s relationship with his sister Alaina, one of his three siblings. He got on Alaina’s nerves. She tried to hang around his friends. He shooed her away.
But when Alaina joined him as a member of Stoneman Douglas’ JROTC program, Patrick got to see a new side of his sister:
Then came Feb. 14. A disturbed former student armed with an AR-15 assault rifle walked through an unattended pedestrian gate and made his way into a Stoneman Douglas classroom building housing dozens of staff members and hundreds of students.
Alaina Petty was in her English class on the building’s first floor. The gunman fired through the window of the locked classroom door, killing the 14-year old freshman and two other students.
All told, he shot 34 people, 17 fatally.
Feeling Safe at School Again
When school reopened two weeks later, Patrick Petty said he didn’t safe returning.
Over time, though, that has mostly changed.
One big reason: the new Stoneman Douglas school resource officers who replaced Scot Peterson, the armed sheriff’s deputy who resigned in disgrace after it was revealed that he had hidden on campus rather than confront the gunman.
The new officers “have all looked me and my dad in the eye and told [us] they would run into harm’s way to protect any of the kids,” Patrick said.
There’s also been a big change within the broader Stoneman Douglas community. Patrick said it’s hard to explain the impact of getting to spend time each day with other people who understand what he’s gone through:
And the high school senior hasn’t just been on the receiving end of such compassion.
Surviving the past year has also made him a better person, Patrick believes. He’s become less aggressive about trying to prove his own points, more patient and caring with others, and more able to take a step back and see the bigger picture:
A year after the tragedy, that willingness to listen to the other side is something Patrick would like to see more of.
Strong Political Stance
Across the country, the Parkland shooting has sparked contentious debates around issues such as gun control and school discipline.
Patrick, who is an avowed conservative, hasn’t been shy about his stances. He’s strongly opposed to many of the gun restrictions some of his classmates have built a national movement around, for example.
But like his father, Patrick supported the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which passed not long after the shooting. The law raised the legal age for purchasing a firearm in Florida from 18 to 21.
Patrick said both his pro-gun position and his willingness to listen and compromise earned him scorn on social media:
Even more challenging have been some of the local issues that have arisen over the past year.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, for example, Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie removed three assistant principals and a security specialist from Stoneman Douglas, citing the need to investigate lapses before and during the shooting.
Patrick knew the administrators well and considered them friends and good people. But he had also closely followed the work of the Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, and Patrick had concluded that they’d “blatantly ignored” some key policies that, if followed, could have prevented the shooting.
He felt strongly they should be removed.
Hundreds of his classmates disagreed, walking out of school to protest the move.
The schism stung deeply, Patrick said.
But it was also an opportunity to be the new person he’s trying to become:
As the one-year anniversary of the tragedy arrives, Patrick said that’s what he wants the rest of the country to consider most.
He and his family are doing OK. They’re learning to live with their pain, and they’re learning to live in ways that honor Alaina’s memory.
What he wants now, Patrick said, is for those who are lucky enough to still be here to learn to work together.
“We need to start coming together and learning how to talk to each other,” he said.
“You have to be the one that bridges the gap.”
Photo editor Kaitlyn Dolan contributed audio editing to this story.