PARKLAND, Fla. – Valentine’s Day was far from the minds of those Marjory Stoneman Douglas High students who arrived at school Thursday morning.
They wore “MSD Strong” maroon attire instead of pinks and reds. The flowers they brought weren’t for their significant others but for the memorial garden growing in front of the school in Parkland.
The garden – “Project Grow Love” – is a peaceful place where flowers bloom, candles burn and colorful rocks display words such as: “Parkland heals together” and “Love always heals.”
Throughout the morning, as students worked on community service projects on campus, people of all backgrounds visited the garden to pay their respects.
Jay Hamm, of Jupiter, brought his therapy dogs – Chibby Choo and K Poppy – to cheer up students.
Several men in red sweaters, who call themselves Guardian Angels, kept a watchful eye as families visited the site, where only a year ago lay a memorial for each of the 17 – students and teachers – who died in the shooting attack at the school Feb. 14, 2018.
“We’ve been here since day one,” said David Clemente, who goes by the name “Cobra.”
“We remain in the background and are a big supporter of the community and in keeping the students safe and alive,” he said.
Schools superintendent, grieving mom talk
Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie held a news conference Thursday morning in front of the school where there was a large police presence.
Runcie addressed the progress made to increase school security districtwide this past year. Security camera and intercom systems have been updated. At Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the district doubled security staff from nine to 18, added more than 100 security cameras, and replaced door-locking mechanisms.
“It’s an ongoing effort and the top priority for us to make our schools as safe as possible for our students and families,” Runcie said.
One day before the first anniversary of the shooting, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called for a statewide grand jury to investigate the Broward County school system and other districts for their handling of school safety.
School attendance was lower than usual Thursday. Stoneman Douglas scheduled a “day of service and love.” Teachers organized community service projects on-campus, but attendance was voluntary.
“We gave our students and families the opportunity to spend the day in the manner in which they wanted,” Runcie said.
Linda Beigel Schulman spent her’s speaking at the same press conference prior to the superintendent about her son, Scott Beigel. He’s the geography teacher who died a hero one year ago when he saved students by letting them into his locked classroom.
“Today never really had to happen. I believe reasonable gun control legislation must be passed in all states,” Schulman said.
She says she isn’t a politician and has no plans to run for any office. She’s just a mother who wants to honor her son’s life and this is the best way she knows how.
“I don’t want anyone to stand in my shoes,” Schulman said.
She hopes that by publicly advocating for tighter gun control legislation, she’ll get people to act.
“We can talk and explain but you have to listen to us and you have to help us,” she told reporters. “I can’t bring Scott back… I’m going to make sure that in his honor and his legacy, we save lives. I want children to go to school… where there’s a resource officer, and the school is safe, not like a prison, but safe.”
People gather at Temple of Time
In Coral Springs, a peaceful, wooden temple stands out among government buildings and city traffic. Only a 10-minute drive from the school, the towering work of art named the Temple of Time officially opened on Valentine’s Day.
It’s meant to serve as a safe haven for those still grieving in the brokenhearted community.
Artist David Best is behind the design.
Best, who hails from California, built his first temple 19 years ago in Nevada. He’s since created more than a dozen, from Nepal to Ireland. These temples have traditionally been set ablaze in a ceremonial fire after a certain time. The Coral Springs temple will meet the same fate come May.
The purpose of burning it down, Best said, is to cast off the demons of pain and sorrow.
More than 500 volunteers, mostly local, rolled up their sleeves to build the temple in a short period of time.
Wayne Sanders, 70, came all the way from San Francisco to help. An engineer, he’s helped Best build several temples worldwide. What struck him most about this area was the community outreach.
“It’s the fastest temple we’ve built. Everyone helped,” Sanders said.
At 10:17 a.m., the time the local school district set to commemorate the 17 lives lost on Feb. 14, 2018, people bowed their heads for a moment of silence.
Then people embraced. A little girl wiped the tears from her mother’s face. People left messages of pain and love on the walls. A young boy placed a tiny piece of wood on a shrine. On it, he wrote heartfelt words. Others did the same. The blocks were offered at the temple. Some left more sentimental items like stuffed bears, flowers and even a baseball cap.
Ruth and George Graham, seasonal residents from New York, visited the temple Thursday. They saw the temple quickly come to life in their Florida town.
“It’s amazing and gorgeous,” said Ruth Graham, 75.
“It’s very poignant,” said her 79-year-old husband.
Dozens of people came and went throughout the afternoon to reflect and remember. Others took the gathering place as an opportunity to urge others to take action.
Bill Hilsenrath, 74, and his wife, Judy, helped pass out petitions to get a constitutional amendment on the Florida ballot in 2020 that would ban the sale of assault weapons, an initiative pushed by family members of victims and by David Hogg, now a Marjory Stoneman Douglas graduate, who became one of the most prominent young figures in the gun violence prevention movement.
“We had to do something and this is what we can do,” Bill Hilsenrath said. He has five grandchildren and all this, he said, is for them.
Poetry, vigil inspire hope, healing
A tall white statue of Joaquin Oliver, one of the 17 people killed in the Parkland shooting, stood out from the sea of maroon. The statue, brought there by his family and friends, showed Joaquin wearing his signature beanie and holding a flower.
Students and parents surrounded the statue as 10 poets shared their thoughts, feelings and kind words to those they’ve lost.
One poet said: “Our empty seats will never be filled and our empty hearts will never be filled.”
Another: “I want change.”
After the poetry reading, many families drove or walked to Pine Trails Park in Parkland for an interfaith ceremony later in the evening.
The cool evening breeze swept through the open fields as families gathered on the grass and near the amphitheater or waited in a long line that moved through a collection of 17 unique art panels dedicated to the 17 victims. The outdoor exhibit was inspired by the thousands of paper hearts with thoughtful messages sent to HandsOn Broward from people worldwide after the mass shooting.
Governor DeSantis and his wife arrived minutes before the interfaith ceremony began. While he didn’t speak onstage, there were a handful of leaders from all faiths who spoke and guided the audience in prayer, saying that love will conquer all.
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/02/14/parkland-school-shooting-anniversary-remembers-17-lives-lost-florida/2877834002/