One month after the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history, a suburban Florida community struggles to accept their new normal.
On Pine Island Road, cars meander and clog the southbound lanes, slowly filing into a fenced-off parking lot as their windshield wipers swat away the lingering drizzle of an afternoon rainstorm. Green and white police cruisers idle on the roadway as officers direct traffic, the tops of their heads illuminated by flashing yellow lights, warning passing drivers of a sudden decrease in the speed limit from 40 miles per hour to 15.
For the first time in over three weeks, this area is a school zone.
On Wednesday, March 7, students attending Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. returned to their regular classes for the first time since the Feb. 14 mass shooting that killed 17 people and left 16 others wounded. The attack was followed by a two-week closure of the campus and a subsequent week of half-days, during which students were asked to not bring backpacks so they could instead “start the healing process,” according to a tweet issued by school principal Ty Thompson.
Visiting public figures, however, overshadowed the school’s attempt to return to its standard five-period daily schedule. In the morning, U.S. secretary of education Betsy DeVos toured the school and met with a handful of students in a brief, closed-press news conference. Later in the day, a surprise visit from professional basketball player Dwyane Wade received a much warmer response, with students posting jubilant reactions on social media to the recently resigned Miami Heat shooting guard.
“Returning to class has been pretty surreal,” said Grade 12 student Nikhita Nookala, who added that the juxtaposition of high-profile media coverage and the celebrity attention the school has received, combined with the return to the semester’s regular lesson plans, has “definitely prolonged the transition back to normal.” However, Nookala also said that she, along with many other students, appreciates the outpouring of support and the subsequent break from “stress-inducing” school-related activities.
But while Stoneman Douglas staff may be trying to restore a sense of normalcy inside the school, beyond its campus is a different story. Across the street, local and national news outlets have had rolling cameras pointed at the school nearly every day since the shooting — the only respite from the media coverage comes along with the rain, when microphone-toting reporters huddle by their vans beneath a highway overpass to stay dry. “Parkland has been thrown into the spotlight in a way that it never has,” said Nookala. “People all around the world are saying our little town’s name.”
“With this tragedy, it’s just brought out stronger ties and feelings of unity and family within the community,” said Christy Ma, a Parkland native and editor at Stoneman Douglas’ student-run newspaper, the Eagle Eye. Ma said the loss of one of her close friends, Carmen Schentrup, has impeded her smooth transition back into a routine class schedule, but that her former “no-name town” has generously used its resources to help students and the victims’ families to cope. “I’ve never been more proud of my city than now,” she added.
In Parkland, a bedroom community of about 30,000 on the edge of the Everglades, the prevailing, unremarkable sense of serenity has been shattered by sorrow in the wake of the attack at Stoneman Douglas, the town’s only public high school. In chain-link fences nearby, red Solo cups are arranged in the diamond-shaped holes to spell encouraging messages like “#MSDstrong” and “Peace Parkland.” At cemeteries scattered across adjacent cities, fresh sod and pinwheels cover the graves of the victims.
At the Star of David Memorial Garden in nearby North Lauderdale, Fla., the air is still. Palm trees and finely trimmed hedges sway in the breeze, the silence only being occasionally interrupted by tractor-riding maintenance workers. This cemetery is now the final resting place of Alyssa Alhadeff, Meadow Pollack and Alex Schachter — three of the Stoneman Douglas students killed in the Valentine’s Day shooting. As per Jewish custom, their graves are unadorned, marked only by simple placards and stones left by well-wishing visitors; in a makeshift memorial in front of their high school, crosses bearing their names have been modified into Stars of David.
Lining the fences of Stoneman Douglas and neighbouring Westglades Middle School are hundreds of banners and hand-written signs displaying tens of thousands of personal messages, ranging from offering thoughts and prayers to calling for bans on firearms. Plastic votive candles from past vigils overflow with rainwater, their flames extinguished long ago. On a street corner, a woman lays a cellophane-wrapped bouquet of fresh flowers amidst countless wilted ones, stoking the colourful heaps that endlessly cover the brown, soggy earth.
But despite the mournful disposition of the suburban south Florida town, many residents continue about their daily life as normal — running errands, grabbing lunch. At the local shopping centres, parents push young children in carts; at the pharmacy, elderly locals wait patiently for their annual flu shots. From their faces, it’s impossible to tell that Parkland was affected by any tragedy whatsoever; but whether residents have erected stoic emotional façades, or have truly moved on from the Valentine’s Day shooting spree that rocked their community, is unclear.
“There ain’t much normal left around here,” said Lloyd Muñoz, 24, who works at the Parkland Walmart where suspected gunman Nikolas Cruz went immediately following the attack. Muñoz, who said he attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for two years before transferring to another school, also added that while many residents of the area feel the mass shooting has brought the community together, it has been difficult to overcome the negative attention focused on the town.
As the site of one of the deadliest school shootings in American history, Stoneman Douglas and the surrounding community have undeniably been subjected to constant media coverage in the month since the massacre. Locally, though, attention on Parkland has been equally intense: across the Miami metropolitan area, Snapchat users can access a filter complete with a black ribbon which they can use to describe “My Parkland Story”; at the top of the City of Parkland’s official website, a flashing ad links to a list of crisis support hotlines.
“Parkland used to be such a beautiful place, and it still is, but it has changed,” said Emmanuel Valmond, an English teacher who lives in Parkland and works at the nearby Sawgrass Springs Middle School in Coral Springs, Fla. “There is media, there are memorials. If I tell someone I live in Parkland, they say, ‘Oh, pity.’ And I don’t blame them, there are reminders everywhere. It’s like we’re just another Columbine now.”
But in the wake of the Feb. 14 massacre, a group of Stoneman Douglas students have become bonafide activists and set out to ensure that their school shooting will be the last; less than a week after the attack, the informal collection of grieving, disillusioned teenagers had transformed into the backbone of the Never Again movement, which has since spurred calls for stricter gun control measures from around the United States, including enforcing more rigorous background checks, banning assault-style rifles and raising the minimum age to buy a gun from 18 to 21.
The movement is planned to materialize in Washington, D.C. on Mar. 24, 2018 at the March for Our Lives, the largest march in a network of protests that now encompasses over 700 worldwide events “created by, inspired by, and led by students across the country who will no longer risk their lives waiting for someone else to take action,” according to a mission statement posted on the March for Our Lives website.
But while the March for Our Lives events are more symbolic in nature, likely to draw hundreds of thousands of supporters in marches that are now scheduled in all 50 states, Stoneman Douglas students have been equally tireless at home, since spearheading a successful effort in the Florida legislature to champion a litany of new gun laws in their Republican-controlled state, thereby echoing the sentiment of a quote emblazoned above their high school’s front gates: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
This article is dedicated in memory of the victims: Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Scott Beigel, 35; Martin Duque, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Aaron Feis, 37; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Chris Hixon, 49; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin “Guac” Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16; Peter Wang, 15.