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.
Jayden Bier, a 17-year-old junior, would have been in one of the classrooms that was shot up except for a teacher who innocently redirected her elsewhere to resume taking a test before the shooting began, she recalls in the video above.
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“All of a sudden I hear someone say, ‘Run for your life, code red.’ I just freeze, and my friend says, ‘Jayden, grab my hand and don’t let go of it,’ ” she says.
“There were people screaming everywhere, ‘Let me in!’ People banging on doors, and my teacher actually let six people in the classroom. … I went into the closet with my friend and we were just still holding hands. We were both crying and people were telling us, ‘Why are you guys crying? This is fake,’ and I knew it wasn’t.”
“I texted my mom,” Bier says. “I was like, ‘Mom I love you. I don’t know if I’m going to die. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just want you to know that I love you so much.’ “
“I can’t imagine any parent who has to go through this now and has to know they’re never going to see their child again, because of this one crazy kid who just never got help.”
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.