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‘It never gets easier’: A year after Parkland, communities grieve and the state debates

Nearly 1,200 people have died from gun violence since

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Parkland vigil

More than 200 people listen to six speakers Thursday on Plaza of the Americas during the vigil for the one-year anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting.

Anisha Saripalli said she didn’t give herself enough time to grieve. She’s been numb for most of the last year.

With the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting anniversary approaching, she has started to mourn her friend all over again.

Months before, Saripalli and Carmen Schentrup nervously completed their college applications together and planned to be roommates at Hume Hall if they were both accepted to the honors college.

Plans changed after a gunman killed 17 people and injured 17 more at their school on Feb. 14. Carmen was among the dead.

Saripalli, a now-17-year-old UF biomedical engineering freshman, realized she would never be able to move in with her best friend. She and 47 other Douglas students would be starting school at UF without several of their friends.

Anisha Saripalli

Anisha Saripalli, a 17-year-old UF biomedical engineering freshman, survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year. She will spend the first anniversary of the shooting by participating in March for Our Lives activities in Gainesville to remember her friends.

“Part of me still thinks that ‘Oh, she’s enjoying life at University of Washington’ because that was her other choice,” she said. “A part of me still hasn’t come to terms with the fact that she isn’t with us.”

The shooting motivated the Parkland high schoolers to start a movement which began the next day at 3 p.m. with the hashtag #NeverAgain on Twitter, to increase school safety and create stricter gun laws to prevent future mass shootings. Young people throughout the country followed their lead.

Despite the movement, new gun control legislation, and vigils, nearly 1,200 people have died from gun violence since Parkland. So, some still ask, “How much has really changed?”

Teachers could be armed

The protests and quick reaction of students and families to start the #NeverAgain movement caused legislatures to act quickly in making new laws to strengthen school security and reform gun laws.

Less than a month after the shooting, the Florida Senate passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act on March 5. As of Tuesday, legislators are still pushing to update one part of the act.

As part of the safety act, the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program — named after the football coach who died in the shooting — allows non-teacher staff at schools to be armed with the district’s approval, said Tina Certain, an Alachua County School Board representative.

The program requires 132 hours of comprehensive firearm safety and security training as well as a psychological evaluation and drug test.

Certain said the Alachua County School Board voted 5-0 against the Guardian Program last March, but more than 20 counties approved the program.

For now, Florida teachers can’t be armed, but a key State Senate committee passed an expansion to the Senate Bill 7030 that would arm teachers. The bill will be considered by the Senate when it starts session in March.

Not all teachers are on board, though. F.W. Buchholz High School art teacher Kristy Foster said having a gun wouldn’t make her feel safe. When she became an educator 29 years ago, it wasn’t to be an armsman.

“My passion is to teach and educate my students,” Foster said. “I can’t imagine bringing a gun to school. I'm not prepared for the ramifications of that in my classroom.”

Foster prefers learning the state-mandated safety drills such as Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate, or the ALICE protocol.

“It wouldn't make me feel safer,” Foster said. “The things that we're doing now, with ALICE, those things make me feel safe.”

New safety requirements, not enough money

Alachua County Public Schools had already been training faculty and staff for active shooter drills. After Parkland, it became legally required to also train students.

While parents were concerned about their child’s safety, several of them didn’t agree with the fact that students would have to go through the training.

Several Alachua County parents called the district asking if their children could be excused from the ALICE active shooter training, said Jackie Johnson, a spokesperson for Alachua County Public Schools.

School faculty and staff began practicing active shooter drills in Summer 2016, Johnson said, but the Parkland shooting made it clear that students should be trained too.

The county started training students with this program last Fall, which is now required by the safety act, Johnson said. Originally, it was planned once per semester, but the county has been notified by the state since January to implement it monthly.

The state gave Alachua County $1.6 million to put at least one resource officer in every school, but the district still paid another $600,000 to cover the costs of all the officers, she said. The Gainesville Police Department also helped with the expenses.

After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission studied that Douglas had unsecured points of entry at the time of the shooting, school boards and law enforcement reviewed school safety in all 67 counties.

They examined the placement of cameras, fencing and single-point entries as well as campus visitors and procedures on when to lock gates and doors daily, Johnson said.

The district will receive a state grant for over $1 million to further strengthen security on campuses where lapses were found. But Johnson said that will not be nearly enough to cover it.

“A lot of the things that the state required cost a lot of money,” Johnson said, “and they didn't provide anywhere near enough money to cover all of the things that they were requiring us to do.”

A Valentine’s Day spent alone

Sarah Lerner’s morning on Feb. 14, 2018, started like any other.

She had probably slept through her alarm, hurried to get ready for work and shuffled herself and her son into the car for their five-minute commute to school.

She dropped her son off at his middle school, right next door to where she worked as an English teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

She brought Hershey Kisses to cheer up her students and celebrate the holiday while she quizzed them on “1984.” Their quiz was interrupted by a fire drill, and then erupted rounds of gunshots.

“In my head, I’m screaming. But I can’t make a sound,” she said. “So you just have to sit there quietly and have all of these reactions internally.”

Lerner will not go to school Thursday. Or the day after. She plans to get a massage or a manicure instead.

“I need to take care of myself and not be in an environment that may trigger and bring up feelings,” she said. “I'm planning to take it easy and just do stuff that makes me feel good.”

Several students of Lerner’s led the #NeverAgian movement. She’s proud of her students for organizing marches, registering young voters and speaking across the country, she said.

“I had Emma Gonzalez,” Lerner said. “The Emma everybody sees is the Emma I know. She's a badass, she's opinionated, she's strong and now everyone gets to see that.”

Today will be a regular school day for every Broward County schools except Marjory Stoneman Douglas, where attendance was optional.

Alachua County middle and high schools will have a moment of silence Thursday, per a statewide request from the Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie, Johnson said. The reflection will occur at 10:17 a.m. to remember the 17 victims and 17 injured.

All of Florida’s 67 county school districts will participate.

UF remembers the 17 dead

Saripalli credits her smooth transition to college to the love and support she’s received from people at UF.

She quickly became friends with her Hume Hall dorm room floor neighbors. She said they’re a little family.

At UF, she joined the March for Our Lives Gainesville chapter and became the community outreach chair. She helped plan Thursday’s vigil on Plaza of The Americas.

More than 200 people sat on the middle of the plaza. Burgundy and silver, the Douglas school colors were mixed among the crowd. Some wore shirts that read “MSD Strong.” Others with #NeverAgain across their chests.

One by one, each of the six speakers who graduated from Douglas gave speeches to commemorate those who died and asked that this be a night to celebrate their lives.

White tealight candles laid out in a row on a table were lit for each victim. The sound of soft cries and sniffles pierced the silence.

Vigil candle

Lily Alperstein, an 18-year-old UF chemistry freshman, pays tribute Thursday on Plaza of the Americas to the 17 victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting at a vigil honoring the one-year anniversary of the tragedy. She wanted to honor those who lost their lives and to provide solace for the survivors, Alperstein said.

Seventeen white paper bags with the names of each victim written on them in black Sharpie sat on the ground lining the edges of the plaza. A lit candle flickered in each.

Groups of students hugged each other and shared their favorite memories of high school. There were talks about the nerves of their first days of high school and friends who stole their phones during lunch to take silly pictures.

When it was Saripalli’s time to speak, she spoke about Carmen.

She talked about how Carmen was always able to open her snack container at lunch even when their strongest friends couldn't. She said she has had several breakdowns this week and was dreading the anniversary.

A year ago, Saripalli was thinking about her potential plans to room with Carmen in college.

Thursday, she instead reflected on healing and coming to terms with her best friend’s death, she said.

Robert Schentrup, Carmen’s brother, found out about the shooting when a friend sent him a text letting him know there was a gunman in their high school. They spent the rest of the day huddled in front of a TV at the University of Central Florida, watching the news and sending updates to each other and family.

His family knew Carmen had been shot when they couldn’t contact her. They had already come to the conclusion she died before they were told at 2 a.m. by a Broward sheriff deputy, he said. The day after the shooting, he and a friend drove over two hours to Parkland to see their families.

“I didn’t sleep the night before. It all felt like I was in a video game,” he said. “It was like I was observing reality instead of participating in it.”

On March 16, he will visit his family, who moved to Bellevue, Washington, to spend Spring Break with them. He has worried about his younger sister, Evelyn, who survived the shooting and decided to be homeschooled after having panic attacks at her new school.

He and his parents are activists now, and they will use spring break as a time to enjoy each other’s company and remember Carmen, he said.

“We’re still a long way away, but we’re taking important baby steps,” he said. “This is better than nothing.”

While Robert spent Thursday in Orlando working on getting legislation that supports gun reform passed, Saripalli spent it at school and at the vigil. She said she wishes she had taken more pictures with Carmen and told her more often how much she loves her. Carmen should be at UF, and it’s not OK that she’s not, she said.

“The 17 aren’t a statistic,” she said. “They’re not a number. They’re real people who had hopes, dreams, ambitions, families, friends. And these people cry every day because they’re not with them anymore.”

Contact Kelly Hayes at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @kellyrhayes.

Contact Josephine Fuller at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JomarieUF.

Josephine Fuller is a fourth-year student studying journalism and women's studies. She is originally from Hialeah, Florida.