Taylor Morales refuses to live in fear of her school.
So when the 18-year-old senior steps inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday, she will draw on the same fierce determination that has carried her through the 14 days since a gunman opened fire inside the freshman building on Valentine’s Day.
Taylor, hiding inside a classroom of that building, survived the attack that killed 17, including her neighbor, Joaquin Oliver, and her fellow color guard member, Gina Montalto. Their names will be among those on the chain-link fence that surrounds the school when she returns, on stuffed pink and blue bunnies and white wooden crosses and Stars of David near the front entrance.
“No one expects you going to school in the morning to be an accomplishment, that you faced your fears,” she said. “It shouldn’t be such an act of bravery — but it is.”
Since the shooting, she’s had to quell her fear that there were multiple shooters; police say the gunman acted alone. She’s had to learn to manage her fear of noises in the night. And she’s had to face the freshman building, where she saw the dead curled up in a mix of blood and shattered glass, where she thought she, too, would die.
During Sunday’s open house for parents and students, Taylor took a long look at the building, now separated from the rest of the school by a fence decorated with posters memorializing the dead.
The weird thing was, despite the carnage, it hadn’t changed.
“It’s just a building, but everyone is afraid of it now,” she said. “To me, the killer isn’t in there anymore and I know the bodies aren’t in there anymore either, so it’s just a hollow building. From the outside, I’m OK with it.”
Going back to school also means that students like Taylor, who are speaking up about gun control, will see each other again. Taylor’s lengthy Facebook post about her experience and her position on gun violence has reached tens of thousands of people from Canada to Australia.
“Stand with us. Or stand against us,” Taylor wrote. “I’m on the side of lives. [Whose] side are you on?”
Although no one knows how many students will stay home Wednesday, Taylor saw enough of her classmates during Sunday’s open house to know that there really is strength in numbers. And the day might even feel somewhat normal — especially if a teacher assigns work the first day back, she said, with a laugh.
“They are going to take attendance and we are going to get through the day,” she said. “And at the end of the day when nothing happens, it’ll be a step in the right direction.”
Six minutes of terror
The terrible events of Feb. 14 are mostly known by now, but the terror of that afternoon remains vivid for those who experienced it.
On that Wednesday afternoon, Taylor had just placed her Algebra 2 test on a pile at the front of her class during her last period for the day. “OK, it’s a solid B-plus,” she remembered thinking.
Earlier in the day, she and her friends had passed out little cards and lollipops for Valentine’s Day to each other. A fire drill in second period had gone longer than usual, with teachers writing down students’ names as part of a new school protocol to ensure no one was missing. With the algebra test behind her, along with an earlier economics exam, the only thing remaining in her day was color guard practice.
Then a sound like gunfire ripped through the air.
That was her first thought — it sounded like gunfire, not firecrackers. And it was close. She was in one of 11 classrooms on the first floor of the freshman building.
It couldn’t be an actual shooting. In the announcements that morning, the school had reminded teachers not to let their students out during the first and last 10 minutes of the day when there might be a Code Red drill that would intentionally feel real.
Drill or not, the class — about 29 students — stood up and hid, some behind the teacher’s desk, others lined up against the back wall. Taylor crouched behind a stack of chairs near a back corner. Next to her, a girl whose name she didn’t know was sobbing.
“It’s fake, it’s fake, it’s fake,” Taylor reassured her. “Remember the announcements?”
“Are you sure it’s fake?” the girl asked.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Taylor said.
But then, oddly, the fire alarm sounded again, and abruptly cut off. The 2:40 p.m. dismissal bell went off shortly after, too. No one moved, though the sounds of shooting had subsided.
Their teacher rushed toward the door to lock it. Just as she got there, Taylor’s friend, Ashley Baez, slipped inside.
But something was off. Ashley had blood on her leg coming out fast enough that it began to spatter the floor. She lay on the floor in front of the teacher’s desk and students started to crouch around her. She was holding a wound on her upper thigh, where a bullet had pierced her jeans.
That was when Taylor’s classmates started crying. The teacher grabbed her cellphone and made a call, desperately trying to explain that a wounded student was in her classroom. The girl Taylor had been comforting began sobbing uncontrollably.
Ashley, a 15-year-old sophomore, called Taylor over, recognizing her friend. But the new position left Taylor more vulnerable. She could see the hallway through a narrow rectangular window in the door. But Ashley was talking in a frantic whisper, afraid she wouldn’t survive. She asked Taylor to call her family and her best friend.
“She just wanted me to tell them that she’s OK and that it didn’t hurt, so even if she didn’t end up being OK, that in those moments [they knew] ... she wasn’t in pain — which was probably a lie,” Taylor recalled.
Over their whispers, rapid fire began again. Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, coming from the next classroom to the right. This time, people were screaming — for help, for their parents, for police.
And when the screaming abated, Taylor saw him.
Nikolas Cruz, the alleged shooter, passed her classroom door once, walking the hallway. She caught a glimpse of him through the window from her spot on the floor. It was only a fraction of a second, but she saw a blur of a person, hunched down.
Taylor’s calm veneer finally cracked. Her body started shaking. She thought of her iPhone, stashed at the front of the classroom because of the test. She couldn’t text her parents. “I’m going to die and they are not going to hear any last words from me,” she thought. She couldn’t remember the last thing she had said to them.
Taylor forced herself to remain quiet, terrified that if she made a sound, she’d be responsible for drawing Cruz’s attention.
“I was trying to decide if my life was more important, or if other people in the classrooms’ lives were more important,” Taylor said. “Would I save Ashley or keep hiding?”
Outside, Cruz was on the move, now on the second floor. The gunshots echoed through the ceiling above them. There was more screaming. Taylor and her classmates tried to track his footsteps.
He stepped lightly. Then nothing. He shot in one direction. Then nothing. “Is he right outside our door?” she wondered. “Is he next door? Is he finally gone?”
Only six minutes had passed.
Help came quickly. She heard multiple footsteps, police talking, classroom doors opening and students filling the hallway. An officer banged on their classroom door, but no one moved. He banged again, frantic: “Open the door!” This time they got up, tripping over each other from the numbness in their legs.
The officer picked up Ashley, a pool of blood remaining on the floor. As she was being carried out, Ashley reminded Taylor of her promise. Taylor reached for her phone — the lifeline to her parents, to everything safe and normal — and stepped outside.
Glass shards and bullet shell casings littered the floor. Police officers were shouting over each other: “DON’T LOOK DOWN. HUG THE LEFT WALL. KEEP YOUR HANDS UP. LET ME SEE YOUR FINGERS. DON’T LOOK DOWN.”
But she had to look down, or she’d lose her footing.
There was blood — in large puddles on the floor and dripping from the lower parts of the wall. It smelled like rust. Taylor tried to step around it, but she was slipping. The blood stained her black flats.
Two bodies lay in the hallway, a boy and a girl, crumpled in on themselves. Their hands were over their faces.
“The police officers were helping other kids, carrying other kids out of the classrooms, pushing us to go in the hallway, but they were just stepping around them. So I didn’t understand why weren’t they helping them,” Taylor said. “They just looked broken. They looked dead.”
The officers shouted for everyone to run. Taylor burst through the doorway and sprinted to the front of the school and toward a cluster of ambulances. Sobbing wildly, and confused, a terrifying thought struck her: “Is the shooter behind me?”
Noises in the night
In the days following the shooting, Taylor lived in fear of the night.
The smallest noise could set her off: Her 3-year-old niece, Madison, stirring in her sleep. The cats, Baby, Lovey and Iggy, restless in the night. Her Yorkie, Ginger. The air conditioning kicking on. Helicopters outside.
Moving from her couch to her bedroom at night, she’d call one of her friends to talk while she brushed her teeth or she’d play music loudly to block out the sounds.
On Thursday, as she recounted what had happened, her father, Steven Morales, who works from their Heron Bay home as a property tax reduction consultant, wiped tears from his eyes.
“They didn’t know I had problems in the night,” Taylor said later, explaining that her father hadn’t heard some of the details she shared with a reporter. “I like to handle things on my own and I feel like with my parents, I don’t want to hurt them. So if they see that I’m emotionally scarred from it, or that little things that didn’t scare me before [now do], ... that will make them feel more helpless.”
Taylor and her friends also feel helpless sometimes, when they think about what happened. As images of the shooter, a person she had seen at school but never knew, remained plastered across her TV screen, she wondered how anyone could look at the photos he posted on Instagram of guns and gutted frogs — and still sell him a semiautomatic rifle.
Two days after the shooting, to process the frustration, she started writing on the Notes app in her phone about her experience. Inspired by her classmates — including Emma Gonzalez, who spoke at a rally on gun control at the Broward County Federal Courthouse on Feb. 17 — Taylor finished a 1,279-word essay and posted it on Facebook.
“Caution graphic content,” she wrote at the top of the post, then added: “(But if I lived through it, I’m sure you can read it.)” Two weeks after the shooting, it had been shared nearly 33,000 times and “liked” more than 36,000 times.
“I put my grief, not on hold, but I turned it into determination to do something — anything,” she said. “I didn’t care if it was viewed. I didn’t care if I was just one person out of thousands to do something, but I knew I couldn’t just sit here and cry about what happened because that’s not helping anyone.”
On Facebook, she made her position clear: She supports banning semiautomatic rifles, establishing thorough background and social media checks, requiring gun owners to undergo mental health evaluations on an annual or biannual basis and raising the gun ownership age to 21.
The post has reached gun owners across the country, some of whom have sent Taylor videos of them turning in their guns or slicing their rifles in half. Others have assured her they will vote for politicians who do not receive money from the National Rifle Association. People who have been scarred by mass shootings have reached out — parents of Sandy Hook and Columbine victims and Pulse survivors. They’ve thanked her and her classmates for renewing their hope that gun control measures might actually succeed.
“Now I see that every little thing we are all doing is adding up. Every post, every rally, every vote,” she said. “So they can’t ignore us. That made me feel not helpless.”
It also did something else: She is no longer afraid of the night.
Taylor’s life is irreversibly changed — she accepts that. But she doesn’t want the shooting to slow her down.
Graduation will still come, though without Meadow Pollack, Joaquin Oliver or Nicholas Dworet, the three victims who were seniors, too.
College is still in her plans. She hasn’t decided between attending Lynn University, close to home in Boca Raton, or moving away to Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. But she’s still set on becoming a psychologist, her reflex reaction to try to help others during the shooting making her more settled on that path.
“Plus this gives experience — not the experience I wanted,” she said. “I wanted, like, an internship.”
She also plans to remain active in the gun control movement her classmates are spearheading. She will join them when they march in Washington, D.C., on March 24 — as long as she can convince her instructor for color guard, the group that dances with the marching band, to allow her to skip their regional competition in Orlando that day.
She’s also saying yes to participating in several projects to memorialize what happened at Douglas High, including a booklet of survivor stories being compiled by a graduate student at Texas Tech University, and a packet including her Facebook post that a student at Virginia Commonwealth University is putting together to send to several Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Gov. Rick Scott.
She will move forward, but not on from what happened, even when the cameras turn away from Parkland.
“It happened to us and we are not going to be able to just switch off the news and forget it,” Taylor said. “The story isn’t ever going to change for us. It doesn’t matter if the media leaves — we won’t stop.”