On Feb. 14, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School lost 17 victims to a tragic mass shooting.
In the days and weeks afterward, as students and families grieved and returned to class, many of the teens who attend the Parkland, Florida, high school have been speaking out about their experiences and demanding there be changes in gun safety legislation so that something like this can never happen again.
As part of a social media initiative called #whatif, photojournalist Jeff Vespa captured students’ heart-wrenching tales of survival — and their determination to create a future free of gun violence.
Their powerful words and portraits are featured in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Jensen Clark, a 17-year-old junior, had left campus that morning for a doctor’s appointment and with a light afternoon class load, she decided to stay home.
In the video above, she recalls receiving Snapchat messages from her best friend, Julia — first about a fire alarm at school and then, more urgently, about Julia hearing “bangs.”
Watch more Voices of Parkland Survivors on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite mobile or connected TV device.
Clark continues: “And then she was like, ‘Jensen, it’s real,’ and all of a sudden — I live right next to the school and all of a sudden I heard all these sirens, and I was freaking out. I was like, ‘Mom, come here, do you hear these sirens? Julia said it’s real, she hears gunshots.’ ”
Clark’s brother called the house from his job. “Is Jensen at school?” he asked. “Put on the news,” he told them. “And it was crazy because he knew before we did.”
“I was so scared and shocked and afraid for all my friends and teachers,” she says. “I know a lot of teachers in that building, and I was really scared, but to see the magnitude that came out of this was the craziest.”
In the wake of the shooting, the supportive bond now built with friends and family through vigils, memorials and a trip to meet with lawmakers in Tallahassee “helps so much,” Clark says. “We’re so much closer than ever before, that’s for sure.”
The teens have planned the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., on March 24 to demand changes in gun legislation and already the event has expanded to include more than 400 related demonstrations in cities across the globe.