Broward County

Hearts are heavy, attendance is light at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Just like last year, it was a beautifully sunny, crisp Valentine’s Day in Parkland, Florida.

There were media trucks lined up like a train for half a mile. Students, parents, teachers held each other. They were still trying to make sense of why a former student would carry out the deadliest school shooting in Florida, forever changing their community.

Just like last year.

“I walk down the path today, and it was just like reliving last year when we walked down the path,” recalled Linda Beigel Schulman, whose son Scott Beigel was a geography teacher and a victim in the tragedy. “This has to stop. I cannot bring Scott back.”

Schulman came to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Thursday in memory of her son and to reflect on what has and hasn’t changed since 17 were killed and another 17 were injured. She was joined by alumni and some former students who now go to other schools. Many chose to stay away, but some felt they had to be there.

For students still attending the school, a few hundred showed up from the total student body of more than 3,000 for the “Day of Service and Love,” a short day for students to serve breakfast to first responders and pack meals for undernourished children. Therapy dogs and counselors were on site for students and staff, as well as manicures, massages, and healthy cooking demonstrations provided by the Broward County school district’s technical colleges. But many took advantage of the excused absence.

‘The beginning was really hard’

Julia Brighton was a 15-year-old freshman when her classroom, Room 1216, became the first that the shooter targeted.

Now, “I don’t even feel like I have an age anymore,” the 16-year-old sophomore said. “It’s something that no one should have to go through.”

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, when students were allowed to return to school, Brighton said students were acting out — fights and smoking were common — because of the trauma they experienced.

“The beginning was really hard,” she said. “It was kind of like no one wanted to be there.”

Keondre Edge, 15, a freshman this year, had noticed fewer people coming to school in the days leading up to Thursday.

“It might be depressing for some, but for others, it may be an opportunity to help,” he said.

Cesar Pantoja, a former Stoneman Douglas student who moved and now attends Miami Senior High, couldn’t be anywhere else Thursday.

“I had to be here,” said Pantoja, a 17-year-old senior.

For guidance counselor Jerry Turmain, the anticipation leading up to the dreaded anniversary was worse than the day itself. It reminded him of the first day of this school year, which he said was more of a get-together than a school day.

“I wanted to be here,” he said. “I was here for the kids as much as I was here for the staff.”

But Turmain had a limit: “I do not want to be anywhere near this place at 2:40 p.m.”

The school closed for the day at noon.

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Runcie welcomes grand jury

A day after Gov. Ron DeSantis called for a grand jury investigation to examine and review school safety measures in school districts across the state, with Broward County as the base operating area, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie held a media briefing outside Stoneman Douglas around 9:30 a.m. Runcie’s administration has been criticized for policies that led up to the shooting and how it handled the aftermath of the tragedy.

Runcie said he welcomed the grand jury investigation.

“I agree with what the governor did,” he said. “I think it’ll be a good step for districts across the state.”

Runcie also confirmed that attendance was low at Stoneman Douglas.

“Every day it is a constant challenge and struggle, a lot of post traumatic stress here,” he said. “For some it’s like the incident occurred yesterday.”

Schulman pleaded for stricter gun control measures.

“I’m here because I really would like everybody to understand that today never really had to happen,” she said. “Nothing’s going to get done unless we do it.”

Kul and Kiran Bhushan Mody pray for the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting on the one-year anniversary outside of the school Thursday morning, Feb. 14, 2019. The couple, from India, is visiting family in Parkland. Emily Michot

Kyle Kashuv, a former Stoneman Douglas student who became a right-wing activist following the shooting, came to pay his respects. He said it felt like security measures hadn’t changed at the school a year later.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s been a year,” he said. “It’s kind of surreal.”

Stoneman Douglas crossing guard Wendy Behrend said she knew some of the students who were murdered.

“It doesn’t feel good,” she said. “I wish I didn’t have to be here and coming up this road, seeing all the media again, it just brought it all back for me. It just was a horrible day that is going to be burned in our minds forever.”

“I don’t think that there will be a lot of children here today, but we are here for the ones that are,” Behrend added.

Superintendent of Broward Public Schools, Robert Runcie, addresses Wednesday's news that the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, has asked for a grand jury investigation into Broward's school system following the tragedy in Parkland.

Mourning and consoling

Victoria Gonzalez sat quietly on a bench in front of the memorial garden she created with Advanced Placement psychology teacher Ronit Reoven. Visitors adorned it with more flowers, candles and mementos.

Her boyfriend was Joaquin Oliver, who died that day. She came to school to serve breakfast to her father, a first responder.

“Today’s just been confusing,” said Gonzalez, an 18-year-old senior. “I guess that’s somehow normal for the circumstances. I don’t know, it’s been a lot.”

As one group of students began to cry at the memorial outside the school, an Argentine Dogo service dog approached to console them.

Maverick, whose white face was covered in lipstick-stained kisses, was among the many dogs on site to comfort students. Owner Vivian Hernandez, 35, said the love of a dog would be the perfect antidote to sadness.

“At the beginning they were all crying. He just crept up to them,” she said. “They can’t not smile.

“They stop crying.”

A short drive from Stoneman Douglas at Pine Trails Park, where DeSantis is scheduled to attend an evening vigil Thursday night, community organizations set up booths for students to paint, pet the service dogs or miniature horses and bang on bongos. Pop music played from speakers and the sun shined as community members talked among themselves and remembered the victims.

Across the field, 17 canvases decorated with handwritten messages of love and support commemorated each victim. After the shooting, the group HandsOn Broward solicited notes from the community and displayed the memorial Thursday. Some attendees became emotional reading what had been written under their loved one’s memorial.

Shortly before 9 a.m., DeSantis along with his wife, Casey, and several lawmakers and officials observed a moment of silence outside the state Capitol in Tallahassee, punctuated only by a small golden bell rung 17 times for each of the victims. Also in attendance was Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was among those killed.

“This isn’t an anniversary. This is everyday life for every parent that loses their kid like I did,” he told reporters afterward. “We live it every single day ... every single day is the same pain from when you wake up from when you go to sleep.”

He praised DeSantis for recent moves, including suspending former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel and his announcement that he would petition for a grand jury to investigate failures surrounding the shooting: “I couldn’t be more pleased.”

The Parkland Hearts Art Project at Pine Trails Park in Parkland commemorates all 17 of the victims killed last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Miami Herald reporter Martin Vassolo contributed from Parkland and Tallahassee bureau reporter Elizabeth Koh contributed from the capital.

Crossing guard Wendy Behrend wishes she didn't have to return to work on the one-year mark of when 17 people were killed in the school she helps guard. Seeing the media and the memorials brought back the horror of the shooting in Parkland.

Colleen Wright returned to the Miami Herald in May 2018 to cover all things education, including Miami-Dade and Broward schools, colleges and universities. The Herald was her first internship before she left her hometown of South Miami to earn a journalism degree from the University of Florida. She previously covered education for the Tampa Bay Times.