- By John Pacenti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Nobody talks about the 130-year-old historic flagpole at Newtown, Conn.
Erica Lafferty says Newtown can never be untangled from the brutal school slaying that took the life of her mother along with 20 of her young students and five other adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The killer’s profile now well known to all: another troubled young man armed with another assault rifle.
“All minds will always go to the shooting. All these places now come with this stigma,” Lafferty said.
Monsignor Robert Weiss of Newtown’s St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church adds: “This community is very much on edge. Every time on we try to move on and not make it the center of our lives, it is very much always there.”
Now Parkland — a quintessential quiet Florida suburb — joins the sad list of locations forever linked with senseless massacre: Columbine, San Bernardino, Virginia Tech or the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
Once concerned with grades and graduation, getting into the college of their choice, prom, a summer job — the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School appear unified in their outrage at America’s gun culture. Their names are now known nationwide.
But out of the camera’s eye, they are struggling.
A Parkland rabbi says many students have “tons of survivor guilt and survivor fear.” They can’t get the vision of the gunman out of their heads. They can’t bring themselves to lay a flower at the makeshift memorial in front of the school. They do not want to talk to therapists. And going back to school is out of the question.
“They say, ‘We can’t go back there,’” said Yosef Biston of Chabad of Parkland. “I listened to the stories of some of them, how they watched their friends die next to them. One of them ran behind the desk, and the other one didn’t get there in time.”
These teens showed up by the dozens at Biston’s synagogue one evening last week.
One boy told him how he was running down the hallway with two classmates. “They hear the gunshots coming up the steps. He says, ‘Let’s get in the classroom.’ They say, ‘No, let’s get out of the building.’ He jumps into the classroom. They get shot on the steps. And when he gets evacuated, he has to go by their bodies.”
Another told him how they locked the classroom door, but one girl didn’t make it. “We heard her screaming, but we couldn’t open the door because we knew all of us would get killed,” Biston recalls.
While these Douglas students opened up to their rabbi, others were preparing to fight for tougher gun control to counter the crushing weight of grief few have ever experienced.
“Those kids are amazing. There are so inspiring. Watching them, I’m in awe,” Lafferty said. “They are doing so much as at such a young age.”
“I was the least political person in the entire world prior to the shooting,” she said. “My mother had to remind me before the shooting to go and vote. I knew nothing about it. I finally said, ‘Enough.’ I was not going let my mom’s death be in vain.”
Within a week of the shooting, students at Douglas High organized the #NeverAgain movement. Their eloquent voices were heard first at a protest last weekend outside the Federal Courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale, then again when they lobbied state lawmakers in Tallahassee for gun reform. They joined President Donald Trump for a frank discussion on gun violence and participated in a two-hour CNN town hall.
One of the #NeverAgain leaders, senior Emma Gonzalez, is even her own meme with her refrain, “We call B.S.” She went toe-to-toe with NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch at the town hall. The teenagers, raised on social media, have been so articulate and camera-ready that some tried to say they were crisis actors — a notion actually born out of Sandy Hook. Like then, it was quickly exposed as false.
But behind this immense anger is an immense pain.
“We had to grow up so fast in the last few days,” said Douglas High junior Charlotte Dyer before climbing on a bus Tuesday to go to Tallahassee. “We had to experience things I would never have thought I would. We are all texting our friends asking which way to a funeral like we are going to a party or something. We shouldn’t have to do that.”
The Douglas students’ resolve to change gun laws has been contagious, sparking walkouts by students across Palm Beach County. West Boca High teens walked 12 miles to visit the makeshift and powerful memorial in front of the high school where 14 students and three teachers lost their lives on Valentine’s Day.
On hand to see the kids off to the state capital was Passion Wilson of Orlando. She survived the Pulse nightclub shooting where 49 people lost their lives on June 12, 2016 by a lone gunman. With her was Enakai Mpire, who performed at Pulse but wasn’t there the night of the rampage.
Both are now activists to change gun laws and saw the Orlando community rally in the wake of the tragedy.
“It unified a lot of people — even people who weren’t happy with the gays or didn’t know their children were gay,” Wilson said. “It brought everyone together.”
The LGBT community in Orlando, though, is still hurting. “We tried to keep the momentum, but it is still overwhelming,” Wilson said. “The one-year anniversary was so overwhelming.”
How raw is Newtown five years after Sandy Hook?
After the Parkland shooting, residents in the Connecticut town noticed police cars in the school parking lot. Monsignor Weiss saw his parishioners’ reaction when a mentally unstable man unknown to the community walked into Mass on the Sunday after the Parkland shooting and started causing a ruckus.
“You could see the stress and the tension in the church because people weren’t sure what they were going to do,” he said. “I think the constant reference to Sandy Hook throughout the reporting of this latest shooting just brought a lot of it back for people.”
Lafferty said the striking similarities between the two shootings “is really unimaginable.”
After Sandy Hook, she worked as an administrator at another school. When she finally mustered the courage to come back to work after the murder of her mother, Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, principal of the Sandy Hook Elementary, Lafferty realized her career was over.
“I walked in as like, ‘Uh-uh, no way. My mom was killed in one of the buildings’ and I left and that is when I started getting involved in gun violence prevention,” she said. “I was out of work 10 months.”
Mpire went from club kid to activist after the Pulse massacre.
“The direction we were all heading completely changed,” he said. “I was going to school for hair. Now I’m working with politicians. Until June 12, I never thought I could call the mayor and he’d pick up.”
A different personality
Lucia “Lucy” McBath was a flight attendant when her 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was shot by a Florida man upset that the teen was playing music too loud in the car at a gas station the day after Thanksgiving 2012. The shooting made headlines nationwide and became the subject of the documentary 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets. She is now running for the Georgia House of Representatives.
“I became a different personality,” said McBath, who was in Colorado fighting for new gun safety laws. “You would never think you would go from being a flight attendant to traveling around fighting gun violence because your son was killed for playing music too loud.”
Sometimes, though, the weight of these tragedy burns these mothers out, they lose the fire to fight for change. “But there is always going to be someone from this tragic club to pick up the pieces for you when you need a break,” Lafferty said.
James Hawdon is a sociology professor at Virginia Tech University. He was on campus when a gunman killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on April 16, 2007. Unlike other shootings, Hawdon had data on the well-being of the student body before the massacre.
What Hawdon discovered was the feeling of solidarity and outpouring of support among a community after these tragedies go up substantially by 20 percent. The university still has a large collection of crocheted quilts, teddy bears, notes, flowers from people expressing condolences from around the world, he said.
“The feeling is analogous to a funeral,” Hawdon said. “When we go to a funeral we really are not there for the dead person. We are there for the survivors, to send a message that the group – while it has been hurt and will miss this valuable member – is still here and strong.”
Hawdon’s research also found something remarkable. When the university allowed students to return home after the shooting, the students who left fared far worse than those who stayed to mourn together.
“On the news, all they saw were the depictions of the community where people were crying and people were hugging and this outpouring of grief,” he said. “However, there was a lot more going on. There was a feeling of solidarity. There was an outpouring of support.”
Wilson and Mpire from Orlando stand as an unwritten footnote to Hawdon’s research.
“We could have cried the whole way down here but we kept explaining how we were going to show love and give hugs,” Wilson said. “For us to heal, we need to help others heal.”
‘What Am I Going to Do?’
Douglas High student Madisyn Menchaca, 16, lost her best friend in the shooting. She said the communal response of her classmates “is helping out a lot. I don’t have to go through it alone. I think we can change something.”
The survivors of Sandy Hook thought they, too, could change something. Instead, their voices were not heard by lawmakers.
“They got kicked because nothing changed on that level. That was a very difficult moment,” said Monsignor Weiss.
Already, though, the #NeverAgain movement got the president to move to ban bump stocks, which turns these assault rifles into Tommy guns. Several states, including Florida, are looking at gun laws, as well.
But what happens in the coming weeks and months? When life goes on, when the story fades from the public view, when CNN is back to covering Russian intrigue or Trump’s latest tweets. When these students have to go back to school?
“When the cameras go away, it is just so hard to kind of move on,” Lafferty said. “That is the time when you really think, ‘Wow, I had this horrific experience and what a whirlwind and now it’s six months later, what am I going to do?”
Monsignor Weiss said he found that people suffered other tragedies, a death of a parent for instance, but failed to grieve properly because of the enormity of the Sandy Hook tragedy. And others fell through the cracks.
“In hindsight, we overlooked the students who were of junior-high age and working with them,” he said “Many of them now are in college and they are suffering anxiety and depression. There are a lot of suppressed things.”
At Chabad of Parkland, Rabbi Biston has hopes that he can institute a moment of silence in the school and create a program for survivors at Douglas to do what he calls good deeds for Parkland. He wants to create a mentoring program where high school seniors take freshman by the hand to create a system where a suffering kid who might one day pick up gun for malice might be identified and provided help.
“If students are doing positive actions, that helps healing,” he said.
As he speaks, a few blocks away from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, on a day last week when hundreds gathered at the erected cross and Stars of David in front of the school to lay flowers, Franchesca Bellini rides a white horse named Disney.
Not every student has taken to the microphone or found solace in their faith. Some are suffering and she says the stables at the equestrian center have given them some peace, “something for them to do.”
But she adds, “This place — it’s not the same.”