People released doves, lit candles and shed tears Tuesday as the Parkland community commemorated the fifth anniversary of the murder of 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and showed support for their families.
About 200 people gathered in a Coral Springs shopping center parking lot near the school in the afternoon for the first of two main ceremonies, with the second scheduled for nighttime. The center houses Eagles Nest, a community counseling center that opened shortly after the massacre, in which 17 others were wounded.
“It meant so much to us, to come together as a community,” said Mitch Dworet, who lost his 17-year-old son Nick in the shooting. “The love, support and kindness — it’s beautiful.”
The ceremony acknowledged the shooting at Michigan State University on Monday night that left three students dead and five wounded. That came nine months after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Overall, since Parkland there have been at least 11 shootings at U.S. schools were multiple victims died.
“My heart bleeds for them — I know what those (Michigan State) families are going to go through,” said Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex died at Stoneman Douglas. “It is just horrible.”
President Joe Biden issued a video statement mourning the anniversary, saying that “to some of you, it seemed like yesterday,” and saluting the victims’ families and the survivors.
“What I admire most about you is how you found purpose through your pain. The world has already seen how strong you are, how resilient you are and how giving you are,” Biden said.
He then called for a ban on military-style semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 the Parkland shooter used.
“We must say enough is enough,” Biden said.
The National Rifle Association and other gun rights supporters have opposed such bans, saying they would only disarm law-abiding citizens and have no impact on violent crime.
Outside Stoneman Douglas on Tuesday morning at a small memorial garden, a young woman in a Harvard University sweatshirt sat alone on a bench, her knees held tight to her chest as she wiped away tears. All the 3,000 students who were on campus that day have graduated or otherwise left.
About a dozen bouquets had been left around the garden, which is decorated with small hearts engraved with the victims’ names and stones with painted messages asking people to be kind, reminding them “it gets better” and “MSD Strong,” the community motto adopted after the shooting.
Also paying his respects at the memorial was Officer Mike Leonard of the neighboring Coconut Creek police department, who spotted and arrested the gunman about an hour after the shooting as he was walking through a nearby neighborhood.
“I think about it every day,” said Leonard, who became a school resource officer afterward. His K-9, a black lab named Taylor, is trained to sniff out hidden guns. “It reminds me how important it is to keep the schools safe.”
The now-unused three-story building where the shooting happened still looms over the Stoneman Douglas campus and the memorial, sealed off by a chain link fence and virtually untouched since. Inside there are still vestiges of the Valentine’s Day celebrations that ended with the gunfire — cards, withered flowers, deflated balloons.
The shooter, a then-19-year-old former student, received a life sentence in November after a jury voted 9-3 for death, short of the unanimity required. The Legislature will consider a bill this year to change that law, something the victims’ families are advocating.
“That was a bitter pill when that happened, and all I can say is we’re doing something about it,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday.
Jurors walked the building’s halls and classrooms during the death penalty trial, and it remains standing only because it may be visited again during the trial of the school’s then-campus sheriff’s deputy, who is charged with child neglect for failing to enter and confront the shooter.
The Broward County school district then plans to demolish it.
Tony Montalto, who lost his 14-year-old daughter Gina in the shooting, said he hopes the world will remember her and the other victims not for how they died, but for the lives they lived and the promise they had.
“It is important to remember who they are and who they were before this tragedy,” he said, “and not stay so focused on the episode that took them from us.”