Grief and Outrage: After a Gunman Kills 17 in a Florida School, Shattered Survivors Demand Change

Teens who lost friends and teachers in the attack at a Broward County high school plan a march to urge action against gun violence

The staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, had been told to expect a surprise emergency drill this semester, yet the fire alarm that rang near the end of classes on Valentine’s Day felt strange to English teacher Melissa Falkowski: No drill would be scheduled to interfere with regular class dismissal, she thought.

But following the procedures she’d learned and taught to her students, she began shepherding them into her second-floor hallway and toward the building’s exit. She was 15 to 20 steps outside her classroom door when a school safety officer urgently turned the group around.

“Go back!,” the officer yelled. “Code red!”

The verbal alarm sent Falkowski and 19 kids into her classroom closet where, hidden in darkness broken only by the light of their cell phones, they learned of the horror unfolding on their campus.

Shooting At High School In Parkland, Florida Injures Multiple People
Joe Raedle/Getty

“There’s a shooter in my hallway,” one teacher texted Falkowski. Another said she’d lost two students and been grazed by a bullet.

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By the time police freed them from the closet an hour and 15 minutes later, 17 innocent victims had been fatally wounded, sprayed with bullets from an AR-15 assault rifle allegedly wielded by a former student, Nikolas Cruz, 19, now charged with 17 counts of murder, who had been expelled for disciplinary reasons.

Members of the community attend a vigil to honor the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Saul Martinez/The New York Times/REDUX

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“We were running from the shooter, and I didn’t know if he was getting closer,” student Jordyn Luadanno, 17, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. After being found and rescued by SWAT officers from another closet she shared with dozens of others, “they told us, ‘Keep your eyes forward and straight ahead.’ They didn’t want us to see any blood or dead bodies.”

RELATED VIDEO: Florida School Superintendent Calls for ‘Real Conversation About Gun Control’ After Mass Shooting

In the aftermath, amidst the usual call for “thoughts and prayers,” the school’s surviving students themselves seized the moment with demands for change. Several have now launched the March 24 March for Our Lives, urging students around the country to “take action to stop the epidemic of mass shootings.”

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“We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks,” 18-year-old senior Emma Gonzalez told a gun-control rally in Fort Lauderdale three days after the massacre.

Gonzalez tells PEOPLE, “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to us,” and added, “We’re taking care of business the only way that we know how.”

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