It will be no ordinary Valentine’s Day tomorrow for the people of Parkland, Florida. The last time it came around they began the day with their hearts full but ended it with them broken.
Overshadowed by the still-raw grief of the February 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School last year, in which 17 students and staff were killed and 17 injured, it is now a day of jarring dilemmas as the community struggles to walk the line between mourning and moving on.
“There’s so much to consider and a lot of balancing to be done,” said Christine Hunschofsky, the mayor of Parkland, where residents have even debated whether hanging a Valentine’s decoration outside one’s home is acceptable or offensive.
“The best thing we can do is to reserve judgment on one another and be respectful that there are many ways to heal. There’s no right way or wrong way,” she added.
The tragedy has both unified and divided. Even in the face of one of America’s worst modern-day mass shootings, not even the victims’ families all consider guns and gun laws the problem. Some have instead focused their efforts on the issues of hardening security in schools, and on holding to account those they feel failed in their duty of care that day.
“Within any family you have disagreement. For the 17 families, we are part of this miserable club that has forced a bond among us that can’t be broken. We’re able to hold each other up and support each other without this mandate that we have to agree with each other,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime, 14, (pictured below) was killed. He is now a leading activist against gun violence.
“Clearly we don’t all agree with each other — but maybe all of us pushing for the things we want to fight for, all our different views and ways of doing it, can lead to enhanced public safety.”
Lawsuits continue to fly in all directions over the shooting — against the school authorities, law-enforcement agencies and school security officers. Bitterness and finger-pointing abound. Heads have rolled, including Scott Israel, the sheriff of Broward county who clung to office for 11 months amid controversy over his handling of the incident before he was suspended by Ron DeSantis, the new state governor.
Post-traumatic stress syndrome lingers. Grief counselling, support groups and mental wellness programmes are part of the “new normal”. Therapy dogs and a miniature therapy pig that rides around in a pushchair are now part of the fabric at MSD. Some schools have banned balloons, not wanting the “pop” of an accidental burst to be mistaken for gunfire and cause panic or trigger flashbacks.
Parents of students at Broward county’s 220 public schools have been sent printed guides this week coaching them on how to help their families to cope with the anniversary. “Many children and adults are still having reactions to the tragedy … They may appear ‘back to normal’ but still at times be feeling sad, scared, anxious or angry,” it advises.
Students have been encouraged to spend tomorrow engaging in community and charitable projects, such as packing food for the homeless or providing meals for first responders.
“The overall feeling in the school is that once we’re through Thursday, it’s OK to start to move on — not to forget but to really start the healing and growing,” said Amanda Marty, 16, an MSD student.
Many parents, however, are planning on keeping their children home for the day, fearing copycat attacks. Under new state legislation every school in Florida now has an armed officer on campus; tomorrow in Broward county, they will have more due to “the potential for people who might seek attention to harm others on that day,” said Robert Runcie, the county’s superintendent of schools.
Mr Runcie has been a polarising figure in the shooting’s aftermath, blamed for mis-steps that allowed the gunman – a 19-year-old former student at MSD with mental health problems — to slip through the cracks of the sprawling school system, and for poor leadership since the massacre.
Protesters demand his resignation at every school board meeting and have bumper stickers on their cars urging: “Oust Runcie.”
“Our community is in trauma and we need you to step up or get the f*** out of the way,” Rebecca Hogg, a mother of two, urged him at a heated parents’ meeting last week.
Her children, David, 18, who graduated from MSD in August, and Lauren, 15, who is still a pupil there, are co-founders of the March for Our Lives campaign against gun violence and vocal opponents of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Rebecca learnt to cope with the death threats and hate mail they receive by getting a friend to read them out loud in an exaggerated British accent over a glass of wine. “We fell about laughing. Better than falling apart crying,” she said.
Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa, 14, (below) was killed, was so aggrieved at the slow pace of progress in hardening school security that she ran for election to the Broward school board in August and won.
In an emotional letter written to her late daughter, published this week by Dearworld.org, Mrs Alhadeff wrote: “As I remember you, grief washes over me. But that grief emboldens me to fight for change. I wish I could take all the bullets for you…I just want you back.”
Most of the families now have non-profit-making groups set up in their loved ones’ memories whose purposes range from providing free swimming clinics for children and funding academic scholarships, to building a butterfly garden and a playground, helping children with special needs and empowering future young leaders.
“As a community we can’t allow people to steal our hope,” said Ms Hunschofsky. “That in itself is a sign of resiliency.”
Mr Guttenberg said, however: “Thursday comes and goes and I still don’t have my daughter . . . Thursday comes and goes and I’m not teaching her to drive, or planning her Sweet 16 [party], or seeing her with her first boyfriend or looking forward to walking her down the aisle.
“Thursday might be a turning point for some, and that’s a good thing. But not for me — and not, I suspect, for the other 16 families. It’s just another day to get through.”