Parkland 3 years later: How survivors, parents are channeling trauma into change

EMILY SHAPIRO
·8 min read

Three years after a gunman brought an AR-15 to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 14 children and three staff members, 17 families are still mourning their loved ones.

"I miss Alex every day," Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son, Alex, was killed in the Feb. 14, 2018 massacre, told ABC News.

"Every day I don't have Alex at the dinner table. And I can't give him a hug or a kiss. And I can't tell him I love him. And I can't tuck him into bed. I don't get to go to any of his basketball games," he said. "I'm not gonna ever be able to teach him how to drive. This year he'd be graduating, going to college ... it's just really painful."

For the survivors, the wounds are just as fresh.

Lauren Hogg, a freshman at the time of the shooting, lost several friends in the massacre, and was among the students who founded March for Our Lives in the weeks that followed. Three years after that life-changing Valentine's Day, Hogg pushes through daily post-traumatic stress to fight for gun reform, while parents like Schachter are channeling their grief into action.

'Every time I wake up I still feel it'

In the aftermath of the rampage inside Stoneman Douglas' 1200 building, returning to school was "absolute hell," Hogg, now 17, told ABC News.

PHOTO: Students are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on Feb. 14, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Students are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on Feb. 14, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Medical personnel tend to a victim following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018. (John McCall/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, FILE)
PHOTO: Medical personnel tend to a victim following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018. (John McCall/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, FILE)

"Every single day ... we had to walk past the building where the shooting happened. And people were just so unwell, mentally unwell, including myself," she said. "Stoneman Douglas was such a toxic, toxic place after what happened ... there were almost 5,000 students that went through an extremely traumatizing event and didn't get the mental health resources we needed."

PHOTO: Women embrace in a waiting area for parents of students after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14, 2018. (Joel Auerbach/AP, FILE)
PHOTO: Women embrace in a waiting area for parents of students after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14, 2018. (Joel Auerbach/AP, FILE)

"The militarization of our school did not help at all. If anything, it made the aftermath of the shooting 10 times more traumatizing," Hogg said, recalling seeing a school resource officer with an AR-15 on his hip as she ate lunch.

"They thought that made us feel safe, but they were completely wrong," she said. "I think if anything they just made it worse, especially on Black and brown students."

PHOTO: Police keep the campus secure as students arrive at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on the first day of school on Aug. 15, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Police keep the campus secure as students arrive at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on the first day of school on Aug. 15, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE)

The district did not respond to Hogg's allegations directly but referred ABC News to statements on its security improvements and mental health resources.

The district said it's invested millions of dollars in safety improvements over the last three years, including: increased security and mental health staffing; upgraded surveillance camera and intercom systems; improved partnerships with local law enforcement; additional drills and staff training; proactive threat assessment and tip monitoring; perimeter gates around every school; and a single point of entry in all schools.

MORE: Remembering the 17 victims of the Parkland school massacre

"Broward County Public Schools continues its commitment to offering wellness and emotional support to our students and staff to this day," the district told ABC News Friday.

The district referred ABC News to its March 2019 statement which cited wellness efforts including: five locations for free mental health support; wellness centers on campus; consultations with other schools who faced mass shootings; youth mental health first aid training, including suicide prevention; more than 25 mental health clinicians staffed within the Stoneman Doulgas zone; and putting $8 million toward hiring more counselors, social workers and behavior specialists.

PHOTO: Victoria Rosa paints a poster in honor of the Parkland shooting victims at the makeshift memorial in front of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 11, 2021. (Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA via Shutterstock)
PHOTO: Victoria Rosa paints a poster in honor of the Parkland shooting victims at the makeshift memorial in front of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 11, 2021. (Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA via Shutterstock)

The 1200 building will be demolished after the conclusion of the trial, ABC affiliate WPLG reported. The suspect, former Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz, is still awaiting his trial which was delayed due to the pandemic. Cruz's attorneys have said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but prosecutors are seeking the death penalty and want to go to trial.

Hogg left Stoneman Douglas after the 2018-2019 year. She's now a high school senior in the Washington, D.C., area.

"I love being a student. And that's something I've kind of rekindled my love for since I moved away from Parkland, because I actually am able to learn where I am now," she said.

PHOTO: Lauren Hogg, a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks during a panel on ways to improve school safety and promote student well-being on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 23, 2018. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Lauren Hogg, a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks during a panel on ways to improve school safety and promote student well-being on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 23, 2018. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images, FILE)

But the post-traumatic stress is ongoing.

"It's a struggle I deal with every single day... it's horrible," she said. "Every time I wake up I still feel it. It's honestly just exhausting."

"Channeling that emotion into my advocacy ... is the healthiest thing I can do," she said, "because what we fight for is love and resistance and liberation for everyone."

PHOTO: A person holds a program from the funeral of Alyssa Alhadeff at the Garden of Aaron at Star of David Memorial Gardens, Feb. 16, 2018, in Parkland, Fla.  (Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: A person holds a program from the funeral of Alyssa Alhadeff at the Garden of Aaron at Star of David Memorial Gardens, Feb. 16, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE)

'It's time for them to do something'

Each day in the U.S., over 100 people are shot dead and more than 230 others are hurt by gunfire, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.

In 2019, the U.S. experienced 28 active shooters, defined as a gunman "actively engaged" in killing or trying to kill in a populated area, the FBI said. Three of those active shooters were at schools. In 2018, there were 27 active shooters, including five at schools, the FBI said.

PHOTO: Tyra Heman, right, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, is hugged by Rachael Buto in front of the school where 17 people were killed in a mass shooting, Feb. 19, 2018 in Parkland, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Tyra Heman, right, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, is hugged by Rachael Buto in front of the school where 17 people were killed in a mass shooting, Feb. 19, 2018 in Parkland, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE)

One month after Parkland, the 28 survivors who founded March for Our Lives had already galvanized a movement. In March 2018, hundreds of thousands of Americans, including inspired students, concerned parents and angry teachers, joined a March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., along with hundreds of simultaneous satellite rallies across the country.

MORE: 20 years after Columbine, what's changed -- and what hasn't -- for school shootings in America

March for Our Lives then turned its attention to the 2018 midterm election, pushing for youth turnout.

In 2021, March for Our Lives is going strong with hundreds of chapters across the U.S. Their mission goes beyond school shootings -- they want to end all gun violence and work to mobilize young people "to fight for sensible gun violence prevention policies."

PHOTO: Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, including Emma Gonzalez, center, stand together on stage with other young victims of gun violence at the conclusion of the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018, in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, including Emma Gonzalez, center, stand together on stage with other young victims of gun violence at the conclusion of the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018, in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, FILE)

March for Our Lives' next goal is pushing the Biden administration to address gun violence, Hogg said.

"It's time for them to do something. I feel like for so long we were just knocking on the door of the Republican-held White House and Senate, just trying to get them to listen," she said. "Finally we have the chance to actually walk through that door."

MORE: Suicides highlight mass shooting survivors' trauma and fragility of healing: 'We still live with it every day'

The Biden campaign has promised actions including: banning the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and creating a buy-back program; ending the online sale of guns and ammunition; addressing gun suicides; and requiring background checks for all gun sales and "adequately" funding the background check system.

PHOTO: Students from Montgomery Blair High School march down Colesville Road in support of gun reform legislation Feb. 21, 2018, in Silver Spring, Md.  (Win McNamee/Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Students from Montgomery Blair High School march down Colesville Road in support of gun reform legislation Feb. 21, 2018, in Silver Spring, Md. (Win McNamee/Getty Images, FILE)

For Hogg, the biggest legislative priority is passing universal background checks. She also hopes the age to buy assault rifles will be raised to 21, though she said she'd prefer to see assault rifles banned altogether.

Five years from now, Hogg said she hopes March for Our Lives won't have to exist.

"I would hope that the Biden administration would get it together and pass gun laws so that people aren't constantly dying in the United States from gun violence, whether it be in a school or a synagogue or a movie theater or outside of their house on their street walking to school," she said.

"More realistically," she said, in five years she said she hopes to see the White House including youth gun advocates in the administration, because "we're the ones dealing with these injustices."

'I don't want his death to be in vain'

Parkland survivors weren't the only ones to take action -- grieving parents did, too.

Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, a talented dancer, was killed, has become a staunch advocate for gun reform. He released a book last year about his experience.

Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son, Alex, was killed, founded Safe Schools for Alex, a nonprofit looking reduce school violence.

This week Safe Schools for Alex launched School Incident Report, Florida's first statewide dashboard to catalogue violent incidents and suspension data.

"I never realized that such a violent individual was going to school with Alex," Schachter said, referring to Cruz, the accused gunman. "Schools aren't transparent with that type of information."

MORE: SLIDESHOW: The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and aftermath

"When I realized that all the data the state collected was on the state Department of Education website in just a massive excel spreadsheet that was completely unusable, I wanted to give parents this information," Schachter said. "Parents will now have the information they need to start a conversation with their school district."

The dashboard also aims to help school officials by giving them insight into violence in schools in their area.

Schachter hopes the Florida dashboard will be expanded nationwide.

PHOTO: Max Schachter walks from the podium after speaking during a meeting of the Broward County School Board, March 5, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Lynne Sladky/AP, FILE)
PHOTO: Max Schachter walks from the podium after speaking during a meeting of the Broward County School Board, March 5, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Lynne Sladky/AP, FILE)

In honor of Alex, who was a talented trombone player in the school marching band, Schachter's nonprofit also runs a program that provides free, private, online music lessons to middle school band students in low-income communities.

"It was so wonderful for Alex and we want to give that opportunity to as many children that are being affected by COVID as possible," Schachter said.

As the three-year mark without his son approaches, Schachter said, "I'm hoping that he's looking down on everything I've done for the last three years and he's proud of me. ... That's why I continue doing what I do -- I don't want his death to be in vain."

Parkland 3 years later: How survivors, parents are channeling trauma into change originally appeared on abcnews.go.com