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Florida shooting: As community tries to heal, students say they want theirs to be the last school massacre

Following the deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas many Parkland residents say they see this as a moment for gun restrictions

Clark Mindock
Parkland, Florida
Sunday 18 February 2018 19:30 GMT
Candles at one of the vigils honouring the victims at Stoneman High
Candles at one of the vigils honouring the victims at Stoneman High (AP)

For residents in the otherwise quiet and safe community of Parkland, Florida, the past several days have been tinged with sorrow, concern, and anger.

In the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, funerals for the 17 dead have begun alongside candlelit vigils to remember those who passed. A 14-year-old and 18-year-old were the first to be laid to rest on Friday.

Parents and students alike have been left to grapple with the simple question of whether Stoneman – a high school with roughly 3,200 students, situated in a relatively affluent pocket of Southern Florida – is as safe as they had assumed before their worlds were shattered during three minutes of gunfire last Wednesday.

And, across the country but perhaps nowhere near as passionately as in Parkland right now, the debate about what to do with guns is raging once again.

“I’m just... I’m just pretty upset,” Brandon Hylton, 14, said on Thursday while attending a vigil for the dead. Brandon said that he, like many others who showed up to pay their respects, was at a loss for words. “I lost a friend today at the hospital. This morning. I found out they were dead.”

Brandon’s friend Thiago Carvano, 13, said that the shooting underlines a need for the community to come together to help one another.

“What we need now is love, and we’ve got a lot of hope,” Thiago said. “We’re here to be together. We can never give up.”

The park around them was lit up by candles stretching as far as you could see. Speakers on a nearby stage grieved openly before the crowd in just one of many planned assemblies where students, parents and the community would mourn.

“You killed my kid!” Andrew Pollack said on Friday at the Star of David Memorial Gardens, looking down at his daughter’s pine casket, alongside about 1,000 mourners. “This is just unimaginable to think I will never see my princess again.”

Meadow was killed alongside 13 other teenagers and three adults after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz arrived by Uber at the high school with an AR-15 and began to shoot. Cruz, who is said to have later admitted to the murders, entered several classrooms on several floors of the building. One student, who pulled several classmates to safety, said that he thought he saw Cruz laughing. Cruz has reportedly offered to plead guilty to the murders in order to avoid the death penalty.

“Our entire nation, with one heavy heart, is praying for the victims and their families,” President Donald Trump said on Thursday in his first televised statement addressing the shooting.

“To every parent, teacher, and child who is hurting so badly, we are here for you – whatever you need, whatever we can do, to ease your pain. We are all joined together as one American family, and your suffering is our burden also.”

Across Southern Florida communities began to try and help those afflicted by the shooting, setting up GoFundMe pages to help the families, while local funeral services offered up discount or at-cost services for the dead. Hours-long waits were endured to give blood, with people saying that giving up their time was the least they could do to help in the time of need.

Schools in Broward County opened the next day for students, but many stayed home anyway. The tragedy laid bare how connected these communities are, with students from different schools saying they knew people at Stoneman and were worried about them, and parents saying the shooting brings the danger of guns and school violence home.

“It is every parent’s nightmare to think you can drop your child off at school, then get the call that yours is not able to be found,” Raymond Grant, 62, whose 17-year-old son Jordan goes to a nearby school, said.

Mr Grant was at one of at least a half a dozen vigils held following the shooting, and said that he leads a youth group that includes students from Stoneman. After the shooting, he immediately called the home of one of those students and was brought to tears when his student answered the phone instead of her mother.

“There is no way to measure the damage that something like this has done,” Mr Grant said.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting – and as mostly Republicans blamed mental health issues and stayed mute about firearms – the Parkland community quickly diagnosed what they believed is the root cause of the carnage: guns.

At the Thursday vigil, the attendees erupted into chants of “No more guns” as elected officials, including Florida Governor Rick Scott – who has generally been an ally of gun rights activists – looked on.

Students pledged that their sorrow would be for the country’s last ever school shooting, and that they would work to see the change they hoped could mean no other community is ripped apart by this kind of violence.

At the US District Court House on Saturday, nearby to where Cruz was being detained as he awaits trial, thousands gathered to make that promise, and to shame their elected officials for votes that have allowed easy access to guns in the state of Florida and the United States more broadly.

Thirteen-year-old Amanda Benitez says that she is going to be a part of that change. Standing alongside her mother at the court house, Amanda said that teenagers are simply too emotionally volatile to be able to get guns as easily as Cruz did.

Amanda said her middle school was put on lockdown during the shooting, and rumours spread that it was her school that was under attack. Instead it was her older brother’s school, but he was safe from the bullets.

“I didn’t really know the seriousness of this,” Amanda said. “And, when it’s so close to you, you realise how much it impacts you, and you really want to get involved.”

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