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Students who survived Parkland school shooting reflect on repeated mass shootings

Rachel Schwartz | Assistant Photo Editor
GW students who survived the Parkland shooting said they’re looking to honor the victims by continuing to tell their stories and reflect on the grim impacts of gun violence as similar mass shootings occur at schools nationwide.

Updated: Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, at 10:04 a.m.

Sophomore Eden Samara was reuniting over dinner with friends from her alma mater Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School earlier this month when news broke of a deadly shooting at Michigan State University.

Despair and dread set into the group from Parkland, Florida, who know tragedy all too well – they were meeting the day before the fifth anniversary of the shooting that killed 17 classmates, teachers and coaches. One of them was Samara’s childhood friend Alyssa Alhadeff, the studious and soccer-loving 14-year-old girl who lost her life in the shooting.

“Every time I hear about a shooting at a school, my stomach drops because I know the feeling, and I know that it’s the worst thing,” Samara said. “I know that it’ll be with these people forever because it’ll be with me forever.”

Samara is one of several Parkland school shooting survivors at GW who have been transported back to the 2018 tragedy after viewing retraumatizing headlines of recent school shootings, like the recent one at Michigan State that killed three students and the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas where 21 students and teachers died. GW students who survived the 2018 shooting said they’re looking to honor the victims by continuing to tell their stories and reflect on the grim impacts of gun violence as similar mass shootings occur at schools nationwide.

Samara said she remembers sitting in her art class on the day of the shooting when the high school’s fire alarm began to ring. Upon leaving the building, she realized that the alarm wasn’t a fire drill, seeing students running across the campus and hearing gunshots from the building as she traveled farther into the parking lot. 

Samara said she ran from the high school’s campus with friends, where her dad safely picked her up at a Walmart a few blocks away.

She said during the following hours, her family sat around the TV at home, watching the news muted to omit the graphic details of the shooting. She said they waited for updates on the climbing death toll as pictures of victims flashed on the screen and authorities confirmed the deaths of classmates, teachers and coaches. 

“We’d be staring at the TV all day, and then a face or a picture would flash on the TV, and you would just cross your fingers that you didn’t know who they were,” Samara said.

Samara said after the tragedy in Parkland, survivors from Columbine High and Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings wrote letters to her and her classmates to offer support for the high schoolers, sharing their own experiences and listing contact information to stay in touch with students. 

Samara said she’s saved some of the letters that she’s received from survivors of mass shootings over the years, and she and her friends wrote their own letters to survivors of the shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas in May 2018, where 10 students and teachers were killed. 

“It was a weird thing to bond with a person over a shared school shooting,” Samara said. “But unfortunately, it’s not even that niche anymore.”

Sophomore Christine Yared, a freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas at the time of the shooting, said it’s challenging to continue to see recent acts of gun violence spread to schools across the country, especially after seeing news of the Michigan State shooting on the day before the anniversary of the Parkland tragedy, which is a day Yared usually takes to reflect on the lives lost at her high school.

“They’re going through what I went through exactly five years ago,” Yared said. “It’s difficult to watch back.”

On the day of the shooting in Parkland, she said students in her finance class, located in a facility directly across from the building where the shooting took place, hid in a closet inside of the classroom for two hours before authorities cleared them from lockdown. As deaths were confirmed in the following hours, Yared learned that one of her friends, Gina Montalto, died in the shooting.

Yared remembers Montalto as the creative 14 year old who sat next to her in her art class, a Girl Scout and an avid reader of the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books series. Years later, wearing a rose pendant necklace in memory of Montalto’s middle name, Rose, Yared still thinks of Montalto’s color guard performance when she hears “All I Ask” by Adele. 

“She was just so nice,” Yared said. “Legitimately the sweetest.”

Yared said during this month’s fifth anniversary of the shooting, she joined other Parkland shooting survivors and gun control advocates at Black Lives Matter Plaza to protest a lack of government action against gun violence with a bus blockade which concluded with a vigil at Trinity Washington University later that evening to remember the lives lost to the tragedy. 

She said at the protest, she was able to speak about her shared experiences with the mother of Joaquin Oliver, a 17 year old killed in the shooting, who was in D.C. for the protest. Yared later connected over brunch with a former Parkland teacher who now lives in the District. 

“It’s so nice to have the support from someone who gets it,” Yared said.

Yared appeared on the Dr. Phil show last year to offer support and advice to an 11 year old named Khloie, who survived the shooting at Robb Elementary. Khloie’s 10-year-old best friend Amerie was killed in the shooting, and Khloie’s parents said she was experiencing survivor’s guilt following the deaths of her classmates.  

Yared said she advised the young girl to allow herself to fully embrace her emotions, even her negative feelings. Yared said she wishes she could have given her 15-year-old self similar advice about processing the traumatic experience.

“Don’t feel pressured to always be upbeat and things like that,” Yared said. “Don’t be mad at yourself for it.”

Freshman Sinan Kassim, a native of Parkland, said he was an eighth-grade student at Westglades Middle School at the time of the shooting, separated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas by only a football field. He said before the shooting, students at the middle and high schools built friendships with each other through activities like after-school trips to nearby restaurants and speech and debate mentorships between Westglades and Stoneman Douglas students.

He said while his own friends from the high school weren’t injured in the shooting, many of them lost close friends to the tragedy.

“It was forever changed,” Kassim said. “You just felt this hole.”

Kassim said he was sitting in a science class at the end of the school day when Westglades went into lockdown, and he and his classmates huddled in a corner of the classroom with their heads ducked for what felt like hours. He said he didn’t understand the gravity of the situation until a classmate picked up his phone after the lockdown and told him people had died in the school next door.

“It wasn’t easy for any of us,” he said. “But I think because of how strong we were as a community, so many of us turned our grief into action.”

Kassim said following the shooting, he saw his hometown rally around gun reform, demanding an end to mass shootings nationwide. He said Florida’s passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act and a walk-out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Westglades to protest federal inaction regarding gun control were signs of resilience within the state in the following weeks.

“We’re a strong community, I’ll tell you that,” Kassim said. “We’re a strong community. The way that they bounced back – I don’t think anybody else could have done with what they’ve done and what we’ve done in that sense.”

Kassim said he remembers his initial belief following the 2018 shooting that Parkland could be “the last tragedy.”

He said it shouldn’t take mass shootings to prompt government officials to take action on gun control. Five years since the Parkland shooting, there have been more than 900 shootings in K-12 schools, according to data from PBS News. 

“Five years after, I would have never thought that I’d see something like that,” Kassim said. “And it really just saddens me.”

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About the Contributor
Faith Wardwell, Senior Staff Writer
Faith Wardwell is a junior majoring in journalism from Boston, Massachusetts. She is a senior staff writer for The Hatchet's investigations team. She previously served as an assistant news editor for the Student Life beat for Vol. 119.
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