VOA News By Esha Sarai, Saqib Ul Islam
ARKLAND, FLORIDA – The week of Valentine’s Day 2020 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been quiet.
“I like to get out of town this time of year,” Felicia Burgin, an English teacher at the Parkland, Florida, school said.
On Friday, students and teachers there will be offered their choice of service activities, ranging from meeting with first responders and working in a local garden to practicing yoga on the beach and other activities.
But many of the students will just stay home.
“We’ll never have school on that day,” Burgin said.
Friday marks the second anniversary of a mass shooting on campus that left 17 children dead and turned many survivors into household names across America as they fought for safer schools and stronger gun control laws
Two years later, some might say the tone of the dialogue has dropped a couple of octaves.
“I feel like they did get the certain people who listened to them to really get on there, get on their page of policy, but they don’t really think they made much of a dent,” said Max Gergeson, an MSD alumnus, now a freshman at Florida State University.
School security website
But just this week, Stand with Parkland, an organization formed by parents of those killed at the school in 2018, traveled to the White House to inaugurate a website designed for school administrators to test how secure their schools are and what they can do to improve.
“This is a huge win for millions of American students and teachers,” said Tony Montalto, president of Stand with Parkland.
“The idea that, you know, we need to put our politics aside and our personal feelings aside, and all come together as an American family to protect students and teachers while they’re at school … I’m going to be very proud of that,” he added.
Montalto spoke with VOA after giving a short presentation on a community college campus. The two-hour session on kindness and mindfulness concluded with Montalto and his wife speaking briefly about a scholarship fund they created for their daughter.
Jennifer Montalto said her late daughter, Gina, «loved Percy Jackson,» the fictional title character and narrator of the Percy Jackson & the Olympians fantasy adventure novels. She handed a reporter a light-green rubber bracelet bearing the words “Say hello to the sun & stars for me,” a quote from the Percy Jackson creator.
Jennifer hugged everyone who said hello to her after the presentation.
The Montaltos have a younger son who will be starting high school next year. Though they are proud of the work they have done on a national level, they say they don’t feel comfortable sending him to Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
“There was no way I could in good conscience send my son to the place where my daughter was murdered,” Tony said. “I don’t believe enough is changed on the campus. And just going back to that campus is very, very painful for our family.”
The school replaced its principal this year, and nearly all of its administrators were replaced in the aftermath of the shooting.
“I know firsthand from my brother that they’re having trouble … teaching the kids still, and just enforcing their code of conduct properly,” said Gergeson, whose younger brother Seth is still at MSD. But his brother is surrounded by his friends, “and the teachers are there for the students’ support, of course.”
Burgin said decisions to stay or leave — by students, parents and teachers — are continually being made, even two years after the tragedy.
“If you go somewhere else, the benefit, obviously, would be that maybe it’s a little bit easier to, you know, forget, at least periodically,” Burgin said, noting a time just a few months ago when her depression and anxiety were so bad she considered leaving the school. “But you’re going to be surrounded by people that don’t get it. They can empathize, but they’re never going to understand the only people that are going to understand what anybody went through on February 14th.”
The support among teachers is strong, she said, holding up a red shirt made by a fellow teacher, commemorating the two-year anniversary of the tragedy.
The dozens of flowers of varying vitality, half-burned candles and makeshift signs that surrounded the main sign outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 2018 have since been replaced by something more permanent.
A wooden sign just in front of the school reads “PROJECT GROW LOVE” in rainbow lettering. The «O» in «GROW» is a sunflower.
The display includes plastic butterflies, clear angel figurines and rocks — many of them painted with the names of the 17 victims of the 2018 shooting.
The messages in the garden vary in their activism.
“Good vibes.” “MSD Strong.” “Enough.” “Never Again.”