Two of the teenagers are headed to Harvard. Two of the adults are fighting for their jobs. But all who rose to prominence in the painful hours and days after a gunman’s brutal rampage at a Florida high school one year ago have been forever transformed.
On Valentine’s Day in 2018, authorities say Nikolas Cruz walked into the freshman building at sprawling Marjory Stoneman Douglas High with a bag containing, among other things, a semiautomatic rifle. The ensuing numbers were excruciating: six minutes of shooting, more than 100 rounds fired, 17 students and staff killed and 17 wounded.
Cruz, who had been expelled from the school the year before, walked away and was arrested more than an hour later. Students David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, Jaclyn Corin and Alex Wind were among a group who would gather at the home of Cameron Kasky, determined to ensure that the deaths of their classmates and friends would not be shrugged off with “thoughts and prayers” and forgotten.
Thus, the “Never Again MSD” movement was born. The group was a crucial organizer of the National School Walkout of March 14 and, 10 days later, the March for Our Lives that drew more than 1 million people across the nation to rallies for safe schools and an end to gun violence.
The teens haven’t stopped working, urging young people to register and vote even though some of the students thrust into celebrity are barely old enough to vote themselves. They’ve been lobbying for tighter restrictions on firearms and challenging the National Rifle Association and the politicians it supports.
More: After Parkland shooting: A day-by-day fight over guns in America
“I’ll always care about the issues that face our nation,” Kasky told USA TODAY. “And I will always feel dedicated to helping play a part in solving them.”
Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, lauded the students as articulate – and understandably angry. He noted that after the 2012 attack at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, the survivors were very young children whose parents took up the challenge. High-schoolers made the scene different, he said.
“A lot of time the media is rushing to the site of a mass shooting but not finding a lot of people to talk to,” Brown said. “Here, you had people willing to talk, and articulate.”
Gonzalez’s mother, Beth, told “60 Minutes” her daughter was a normal high school senior. Then came the shooting.
“It’s like she built herself a pair of wings out of balsa wood and duct tape and jumped off a building,” Beth Gonzalez said. “And we’re just, like, running along beneath her with a net, which she doesn’t want or think that she needs.”
Last week, Kasky attended the State of the Union address and a House Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence. Hogg has offered to speak on gun violence at any high school or college that wants him. Corin has promoted a March for Our Lives New Jersey to fight an effort to put in armed officers in Chatham schools.
While the students shine, some local officials struggle. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, set up to examine the tragedy, criticized Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel for a policy that deputies “may” confront active shooters rather than “shall” do so. Deputy Scot Peterson, the school resource officer and first law enforcement on the scene, was among those who did not.
School administrators, led by Superintendent Robert Runcie, also drew scrutiny in the report. The panel said school staffers were not prepared to deal with a mass shooting. Runcie has since ordered safety upgrades. Two school security monitors were fired, and three assistant principals and a security specialist were reassigned.
The school will mark the tragic anniversary Thursday with a Day of Service and Love. Students will be serving breakfast to local first responders and packing meals for undernourished children. Mental health experts and therapy dogs will be there. At 10:17 a.m., the entire district and the community is asked to observe a moment of silence to honor the 17 who lost their lives.
The effect of the shooting and its aftermath on school safety and gun policy remains mixed.
Jeremy Finn, a professor at the University at Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education and an expert on school safety, said expenditures for school security have been on the rise since 1999. He said highly publicized shootings such as Parkland “cause an additional spike in the curve.”
But that may not make students feel safer. He said studies show that in schools with high levels of security – five or more obvious security measures – students feel less safe than they do compared with schools with lower levels of security.
“The measures – whether school resource officers or other guards, cameras, locker checks, dog sniffs – seem to act as a constant reminder that there is always the possibility of harm,” Finn said.
States approved dozens of gun control measures last year, some to keep firearms from people convicted of domestic violence or considered suicidal, others to increase background checks and to restrict concealed carrying.
There was no significant federal legislation, but the Trump administration did issue a federal regulation banning bump stocks.
The shootings “started a journey that we are still witnessing,” Brown said. “These kids are still out there, and they have made change.”
Here is a look at some of the people thrust into the spotlight by the tragedy:
Kasky was a junior “theater kid” who had just left a drama class when the carnage began. His stature grew a week after the shooting when, during a CNN-hosted town hall, he grilled Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio for his close ties to the NRA. “Sen. Rubio, it’s hard to look at you and not look down a barrel of an AR-15 and not look at Nikolas Cruz,” he said.
But months later Kasky grew to regret his treatment of the senator. Kasky says he wants to encourage bipartisanship. “If it weren’t for the awful mistakes I’ve made and the many things I regret, I don’t know if I would’ve ever grown up or learned to hold myself accountable for my actions,” Kasky recently tweeted.
But he wants others held accountable, too, telling USA TODAY that “Sheriff Israel is gone and that’s terrific.” He wants Runcie to resign and said he believes some school officials should be fired for their inaction.
Kasky shrugs off his efforts: “Can activism be the act of simply tweeting? Hashtag-driven solidarity?”
As for his own future, Kasky said he is “really trying to get into colleges for next year. God knows if it’ll work.”
Gonzalez, 19, was a senior and president of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. She was in the school’s auditorium when Cruz struck – hiding, comforting fellow students and searching the Internet for updates until authorities crashed in and ordered them to flee. Gonzalez rocketed to fame after taking on President Donald Trump, the NRA, politicians and every foe of stricter gun laws in an electrifying speech in Fort Lauderdale days after the shooting.
“We call B.S.” was her recurring theme at the rally, taking aim at those who say nothing could have prevented the attack, or that stricter gun laws won’t help or that good guys need guns to stop the bad guys.
Her Twitter handle, @Emma4Change, has more than 1.6 million followers. She recently noted that Trump associate Roger Stone was processed at the same courthouse where she gave her speech. “Sometimes the universe has a funny sense of humor :-),” she tweeted.
Gonzalez, now attending New College of Florida, was honored by Variety as one of its five 2018 Power of Women. But the fame isn’t the biggest change in her life since the shooting, she told the magazine. “There are always moments in the day when I get hit with a sadness about the people who have been lost in this tragedy,” she said. “That has directly affected me.”
Hogg was a senior at the school, unsure whether to pursue a career as an engineer or a journalist. He had an internship at the local newspaper, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He crouched in a dark classroom when the shooting started, then waited for a SWAT team to escort him and others to safety. While waiting, he turned on his phone’s video recorder and narrated the events. Hogg and his classmates at first believed it was a safety exercise. But when more gunshots rang out, “we realized this was not a drill.”
He went home and gave his video to the Sun-Sentinel. Later, he went back to the school and began recounting the tragedy to the phalanx of TV crews that had descended on Parkland. He urged the media not to allow Parkland to become just one more mass shooting. He was on “Good Morning America” the next day, and already his pitch for safer schools and gun control was sharpening.
Hogg has written a book with his younger sister Lauren, “#NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line.” In the months after the shooting, Hogg failed to gain admission to UCLA and a few other top schools. That drew venom from Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who accused him of “whining” after the rejections.
Ingraham, under pressure, later apologized. Hogg took a gap year, advocating across the nation for youth activism and gun control. He continues to clash with the NRA and conservative broadcasters. He says he will enroll at Harvard in the fall.
Corin, president of the school’s junior class, was hiding in a classroom during the tragedy that would take the life of her good friend Joaquin Oliver. Corin helped drive a social media campaign using the hashtag #WhatIf aimed at ending gun violence. Her own #WhatIf video drew more than 1.5 million views. She also was prime organizer of a “lightning strike” bus trip to the state Capitol, six days after the shooting, that saw scores of Marjory Stoneman Douglas students rally for tighter gun regulations.
Corin continues to advocate via social media. Recent posts include accusing Trump of pressing “false narratives” on gun violence and one quoting Martin Luther King Jr. saying “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Corin will graduate in the spring and says she will attend Harvard in the fall.
Wind was a junior and drama club member who was among the first students to call out the president. That afternoon, when Trump tweeted condolences to families of the victims, Wind quickly responded, “Make stricter gun laws then.”
Wind made a splash days later when he sang the national anthem as part of a tribute to the victims at a Miami Heat basketball game. Now a senior, Wind recently joined other students in a book co-written by the March for Our Lives founders called “Glimmer of Hope: How Tragedy Sparked a Movement.”
“We want to be the ones who tell the story because we were there,” Wind explained. “We know what happened. No one else.”
Cruz, now 20, is accused of the six-minute shooting rampage. Adopted at birth, he was orphaned when his mother died three months before the attack. Cruz had been expelled from the school in 2017. School records obtained by the USA TODAY Network show Cruz had a history of problems at school: More than a dozen school officials, teachers and administrators cited Cruz in at least 41 disciplinary incidents from May 2012 to January 2017, often for fighting, minor assaults and profane insults.
After the shooting, Cruz exited the school among the fleeing students. He walked to a Walmart, bought a soda at the Subway, then walked to a McDonald’s. He was walking along a street when he was arrested, more than an hour after the massacre.
Cruz is being held without bail on 17 counts of premeditated murder and other charges that could result in the death penalty. Defense lawyers have acknowledged that Cruz was the killer and have focused on avoiding execution.
Trouble has followed him to jail – Cruz was charged in November with attacking a guard.
Public defender Melisa McNeill described Cruz as a “broken child” who suffered from brain developmental problems and depression but is remorseful.
Peterson, a deputy sheriff and the school resource officer, heard the gunshots but drew criticism for failing to confront the shooter. Sheriff Scott Israel called Peterson a “disgrace,” saying the deputy should have rushed in, “addressed the killer, killed the killer.”
Trump even chimed in, saying Peterson “didn’t have the courage or something happened. … That’s a case where somebody was outside, they’re trained, they didn’t act properly or under pressure or they were a coward.”
Peterson said he at first believed the shooting was firecrackers outside the school and then could not determine where the gunshots were coming from. He said he followed protocol by taking up a tactical position outside the building. The commission, however, determined that he lied – that Peterson knew the shooter was inside Building 1200 but did not want to confront him. Peterson ultimately resigned but has drawn criticism for collecting a pension of more than $100,000 a year.
Israel appeared calm and in control in news conferences in the hours and days after the shooting. He lives in Parkland, and his kids graduated from the school. He drew positive media reviews after calling for more stringent background checks and tighter gun control laws.
Israel, however, drew scorn from the families of some victims for not requiring deputies to confront active shooters. Israel said he had eliminated the policy requiring such action because he didn’t want deputies charging into “suicide missions.”
One of the first acts of Gov. Ron DeSantis after taking office last month was suspending Israel, accusing him of “neglect of duty” and “incompetence.” Israel has requested a hearing on his fate before the state Senate.
“I wholeheartedly reject the statements in the governor’s executive order,” Israel said. “There was no wrongdoing on my part.”
Runcie, the schools’ superintendent, also drew fire from families of the victims and the public safety commission for possibly lax security on campus and a PROMISE program designed to prevent some young violators from getting police records.
Last week Runcie met with parents at the school amid criticism for keeping the meeting closed to the public – and even to members of the school board.
Kasky called Runcie a “total disgrace.” But he does have some support. Adora Obi Nweze, president of the NAACP Florida State Conference, warned that removing Runcie “would be an extreme overreach, highly political and racist.”
Runcie will keep his job for now. DeSantis said last month that he doesn’t have the power to remove him. But before Gov. Rick Scott left office in January, he appointed Andrew Pollack – whose daughter, Meadow, was killed in the attack – to the state Board of Education. Pollack has vowed to drive Runcie from office.
Runcie has held his ground. And he recently outlined plans to implement key safety recommendations.
“There is a tremendous amount of work that has taken place across the District focused on safety and security,” he said. “For the 17 students and staff who died, the 17 who were injured, and the 271,000 students we educate every day, we won’t rest until we have the safest school district in the state of Florida.”
Contributing: Doug Stanglin