Two weeks after the tragedy, I had the opportunity to speak with Marjory Stoneman Douglas alum’ Julia DeFinis about the lives of three victims, #NeverAgain, and the growing problem of school shootings in the United States.
On February 14, 2018, a 19-year-old gunman opened fire on students, faculty and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen people were killed, and seventeen more were wounded. The event constitutes one of the world’s deadliest mass shootings in a school.
The seventeen victims were students, teachers, coaches, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. All of them had their own dreams and were on a path to pursue them. They all woke up and went to school on Valentine’s Day.
The median age of the victims was around fifteen, the same age as my sister.
This event hit me very hard, two-thousand miles away from Parkland. There is no telling which school might be next. Reading about the victims and watching videos recorded by the survivors on social media brought me to tears. I saw kids hiding under desks. I saw heart-shaped balloons scatter as response units searched the school. I saw mothers, with freshly painted ash crosses on their foreheads, in tears.
Upon logging onto Snapchat, I saw something that brought this closer to me. I know people who go, and went to, Stoneman Douglas.
I first met 19-year-old Julia DeFinis in Washington D.C., during the summer of 2016. She was representing a student-run company in the Junior Achievement National Student Leadership Summit (NSLS) – a competition celebrating the hard work put in by fifteen student startups from around the United States – while I was attending as an Alumni Ambassador for the program. Her team represented “FitKit,” a Junior Achievement company founded and operated by a group of high school aged entrepreneurs from Stoneman Douglas High School. They had traveled to Washington with their teacher, Mitchell Albert.
I was immediately drawn to the spirit that DeFinis and her team brought from Florida. They were one of the most hardworking, passionate, and professional sets of students I had met. Most have stayed in contact with me, one way or another.
For two summers in Washington D.C., I met a handful of inspirational young entrepreneurs such as DeFinis. We remained good friends. I’ve watched her grow as a talented young marketer at the University of Central Florida.
DeFinis didn’t have class on February 14, 2018. She was on her computer, going about her day, until she got a text from her mom. There was an active shooter at her alma mater. Immediately, DeFinis began to search the internet to find out what was happening live. There was a chopper above the school she’d spent four years in. SWAT teams and FBI agents were scattering, entering classrooms and buildings she’d been inside just months ago.
She spent the entire day reading about and watching the Stoneman Douglas shooting on her phone. A feeling of helplessness, miles away at college, sent Julia into shock and disbelief. It had started with one fatality. As time passed, the numbers escalated. She stayed online, scanning for the names of people she knew.
Once in awhile, back in high school, DeFinis would find herself late to class. Minutes after the bell, Coach Aaron Feis, the assistant coach at his own alma mater, would stand by the gate – knowing that seniors would arrive late for first period. Typically, security would close the gate on time, and students would have to go to the front of the school to sign in as tardy. This was not the case when Coach Feis was in charge.
“Everyone knew him as a very sweet guy,” DeFinis said. “I never sat down and had a conversation with him, but he was polite and respected the fact that we may be late, but we are trustworthy. He never thought badly of us.”
Though she did not know him well, DeFinis also remembers riding the bus with her neighbor, Nicholas Dworet. He was a senior at Stoneman Douglas when he died. They’d attended the same elementary school, but never had the same class, since he was a year younger. Many remember him as the leader and spirit of the Stoneman Douglas swim team. He’d signed on, earlier that month, to join the collegiate swim team of the University of Indianapolis.
Nicholas and his brother, Alexander, were in the same building when the shooter arrived on campus – but in different classes. Alexander was grazed in the back by one of the bullets.
“He believed he could accomplish anything as long as he tried his best,” the Dworet family said of Nicholas in a statement released days after the shooting.
After finding out about the shooting, DeFinis immediately texted her former teacher, Mitchell Albert. Through the time they’d spent together in the Junior Achievement program, DeFinis and Mr. Albert had grown close. Though she knew many people who still went to Stoneman Douglas, she considered Mr. Albert to be her best friend. He replied “Yes, I’m okay,” and she didn’t hear from him again until the next day.
DeFinis claims that, though he might not admit it, she was once his favorite student. A week after the tragedy, she spent an afternoon with Mr. Albert. He told her about a new student named Jamie Guttenberg. Mr. Albert had seen many traits in Guttenberg that he’d seen in DeFinis. “Even though Jamie is a freshman, it was nice for me to know that Mr. Albert had had someone like me for him again at the school,” she told The Chron’. “To him, Jamie was me. She was my successor at Stoneman Douglas.”
Jamie’s mom called Mr. Albert to do the eulogy. “She said that all Jamie would talk about was Mr. Albert,” DeFinis noted, “and that’s exactly how I was. I loved his class. I saw myself reflected in Jamie.”
Aaron Feis, Nicholas Dworet, and Jamie Guttenberg are just three of seventeen victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Though she was not directly close to them, DeFinis’s heart is broken by the knowledge that she will not see three familiar faces again; that there will be no new Jamie stories from Mr. Albert.
“So many of these people had such bright futures ahead of them,” DeFinis said. “For it to be cut short is honestly devastating to everybody. You don’t have to be their family or their friends. It hit close to home. You don’t realize how scary it is… how it affects your community. It’s really upsetting to hear, but you never think it’s gonna happen to you.”
The suspect took an Uber to his former high school armed with an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle and multiple ammunition magazines. The high school had completed a fire drill earlier in the day. Upon entering the premises, Cruz activated the alarm again, and began firing at students and teachers as they emerged from classrooms. The shooting lasted six minutes.
When Cruz was through with the massacre, he walked to the closest Walmart and ordered a drink at Subway.
“He planned this,” Julia said. “He wore a Douglas shirt. He planned everything out for himself. He planned it to be on Valentine’s Day … It was supposed to be a day full of love and kindness, but this is something the world will remember. He took Valentine’s Day away from so many for the rest of our lives.”
Many students who survived the shooting formed Never Again MSD, an organization that advocates for regulation of guns to prevent gun violence – especially in schools. The group is popularly known on social media as #NeverAgain. These survivors fought for gun control measures just days after the shooting. They played a prominent role when Florida’s legislature voted for new firearm regulations in March 2018, defeating the National Rifle Association, leading the charge for an increase of funding for school security and an increase in the age required for gun purchases: from 18 to 21.
DeFinis is friends with Alex Wind, one of the founders of #NeverAgain. The two had served together as counselors at a drama camp. She remembers working at the camp with Wind, a “true drama kid at heart.” During a memorial, she met with him to talk about his experience and the direction of #NeverAgain.
“He was in drama class,” she said. “The fire alarm went off for the second time that day. He was the first one out of the building… someone screamed for him to go back, so he pushed everyone back into the drama room, where they hid underneath the tables in the office until a SWAT team arrived.”
On March 24, 2018, crowds took the streets in the United States and around the world to call for an end to gun violence and mass shootings in America with March For Our Lives. In the heart of the protests in Washington, D.C., young people took the stage to demand action from leaders. #NeverAgain led the way. Hundreds of thousands of attendees were encouraged to register to vote and spark a change.
Since 2013, more than 300 school shootings have taken place in America. That averages approximately one a week. Between 2013 and 2015, 59 people were killed in shooting incidents in schools or colleges. 65 shootings were reported on school campuses in 2017.
Gun violence is a growing problem in America. It is a problem that cripples our education system. From the 20 children between six and seven years old who were killed in Sandy Hook in 2012 to the 17 high school students who died in Marjory Stoneman Douglas last month, each deserved the right to a safe educational environment.
This month, a temporary memorial at the U.S. capitol displayed 14,000 empty shoes. Each pair represented one of the 7,000 children killed by guns since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
One’s rights to bear arms, for whatever purpose, should not conflict with a child’s right to live.
As thousands of students inspired by #NeverAgain take the streets to fight for their rights to a safe educational environment, there are many ways to influence the future. “I have been sending letters to senators,” DeFinis says, “Marco Rubio came to South Florida… I gave him respect for listening. I hope he takes these things and take them to higher power and make a change.”
Though #NeverAgain faces a long battle, change has already come in favor of gun control. One decision made by Florida lawmakers a month after the Stoneman Douglas tragedy echoes the voices of students, teachers, supporters, brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers who demand change. A $400 million gun control and safety bill was passed by the House, defying the NRA’s opposition to firearm restrictions. Dick’s Sporting Goods has also announced that it will stop selling assault-style rifles and ban customers under 21 years old from purchasing guns.
Weeks after the tragedy, DeFinis, like millions around the world, are fighting for change in gun culture. With the 2018 elections on the horizon, many intend to use this opportunity to make a change. “I can’t wait to vote,” DeFinis says. “I’ve never voted before. It’s exciting to know that I can have this power to bring change to the gun culture.
“Douglas is a different breed of people. We’re not gonna stop. None of us are gonna stop until something changes.”