Six weeks of sticky heat and rain have been unkind to the shrine outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
The area, marked with 17 white crosses and Jewish stars of David bearing the names and photographs of the victims of last month’s school shooting, had served as a meeting point for locals and out-of-towners alike to pay their respects and lay flowers or plush toys beside each marker, and to stick messages of support along the school’s fence line.
But the layers of flowers have withered and died, and the mementos dropped off are disintegrating in the Florida sun. And for a community that is beginning to heal, one city official said, staring out a classroom window at what is essentially a reminder of death could re-traumatize students returning from spring break on Monday.
So on Wednesday, volunteers dressed in maroon Stoneman Douglas T-shirts, directed by the city commission and the Parkland Historical Society, carefully stripped the memorial, cleaning mementos left behind and packing them into a rental truck for eventual archival and preservation at a climate-controlled storage area at Florida Atlantic University.
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“The memorial, as important as it is to the city, is beginning to degrade,” said Jeff Schwartz, president of the Historical Society. “And before it degrades, we want to be able to preserve it and the items that are found here for perpetuity. We want people 100 years from now to be able to look at this stuff.... We’re trying to convince the city to build a museum.”
The family and friends of each victim were given an opportunity to retrieve any pieces of the memorial they wanted before the process began. The flowers will be incinerated or ground up into compost for use in the city’s gardens. Schwartz said taking down the memorial and cleaning up the area before classes resume will help the Stoneman Douglas community find closure.
“We want the students to come back after the week off and not have to look at everything, not have to look at crosses...t o come back to a normal environment where they can get back to school,” he said.
Lasting from 9 a.m. until sundown, the process was as painstaking as it was heartwrenching for those involved, tasked with analyzing individual tokens left at each marker, reading every colored rock and taking photos of everything they saw for a digital archive that the historical group will eventually compile. Schwartz said volunteers filled more than 150 boxes at the memorial site, and another 150 or more at Pine Trails Park down the road.
In the days after the shootings, mourners, who had descended upon the campus by the thousands, their footsteps leaving patches of loose dirt on the grass, dropped off soccer balls for Alyssa Alhadeff, 14, and an ROTC cadet’s hat for Peter Wang, 15. They placed a pink stone with a princess crown for Meadow Pollack, 18, and a completion medal from a half marathon for Scott Beigel, 35.
Ken Cutler, a Parkland city commisioner who co-organized the undertaking, said he and his colleagues are still discussing a permanent plan for the contents of the memorial. The options including keeping them stored long term at FAU, displaying them at a new wing being built at a local library or opening up a museum dedicated to the victims of the shooting.
Scott Jablon, 60, the president of the Coral Springs Rotary Club, said the emergence of conservative conspiracies and social media smear campaigns against the more vocal survivors of the shooting, like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, makes preserving the shrine that much more important.
A few markers over, Chantel Ma, 31, spent her day wiping away dirt from stuffed teddy bears and other plush animals left for Wang, a U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet who died holding a door so his classmates could escape gunfire. Ma, a 31-year-old Stoneman Douglas alum, said she knew Wang’s family from the Chinese restaurants they operate in the area. Through her volunteer work on Wednesday, Ma said she gained a deeper connection to the tragedy and to Wang’s own life.
“I would hope that years to come, people don’t forget,” she said. “We don’t ever want to forget a tragedy.”