'Scars do heal but they don’t go away': Four years after Parkland, closure elusive

Alex Harris
Miami Herald

In a darkened stall, Jade Muller reached out and placed her hand on the soft, warm belly of a miniature horse named Precious. Muller was breathing fast and shallow, on the verge of a panic attack. Precious’ side rose and fell much more slowly and Muller struggled to breathe in sync.

As the musky smell of the tiny horse filled her nostrils, Muller’s breathing slowed, her anxiety eased. And with that came release. For the first time since she saw the black barrel of a gun poke its way into her freshman English classroom at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School four years ago, wounding five of her classmates and killing three, her pain lessened. At least for a moment.

“It’s definitely a core memory when it came to dealing with my trauma. I just felt relief that everything is finally going to be OK,” said Muller, now 18, recalling her first experience in an equine therapy session that would prove a breakthrough. “I did not want to talk about my trauma at all. Being with the horses really encouraged me to start talking about it.”

After postponing the annual beach cleanup in honor of his daughter Gina Rose Montalto, Tony Montalto and his son Anthony Montalto III, right, are photographed with luminaries to raise awareness and charitable giving for the foundation that bears his daughter’s name on Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022.

Monday is the four-year anniversary of one of America’s most infamous school shootings and much has changed for Muller, others who survived that day, the families of victims and the surrounding community. But that sense of closure that well-intentioned people ask about every year remains elusive.

To those outside the Parkland bubble, the shooting – which left 17 dead and another 17 wounded – can feel like something that happened forever ago. But to those within, it feels like yesterday.

Building 12 at the school is still frozen in time as a crime scene in case a jury needs to walk through it. Nearly everything is still exactly where it was left in the panic of that morning, even the long-dried blood. Muller’s English binder is still in there.

The trial to determine whether the shooter dies at the hands of the state or spends the rest of his life in prison is a few months down the road. Other lawsuits unraveling who else is to blame – and how much money they owe – are still ongoing.

The psychological ripple effect is still happening. Abby Mosher, executive director at community therapy organization Tomorrow’s Rainbow, holds individual and group therapy for people grieving over the tragedy, including the equine therapy that helped Muller. She said new clients are still trickling in that have never opened up about their grief over the shooting.

“There were those in our community that felt like they were not entitled to their grief and didn’t seek out services because maybe they weren’t in the room at that moment,” she said. “We will probably see that for years and years and years to come.”

Thousands of protesters carry signs as they gather together at Pine Trails Park during the March for Our Lives in Parkland, Florida on March, 24, 2018.

Grief made concrete

When Tony Montalto talks about his daughter Gina, one of the 17 gunned down that day, his voice is clipped short with pain. The silence between his words is full of grief. But when he shifts to his advocacy work, the energy rushes back in.

“I think people call it instrumental grieving. Making sure that Gina and the other 16 wonderful souls that were taken that day didn’t die in vain, helping other families to avoid the tragedy and the devastation we feel is helpful,” he said.

Montalto heads Stand With Parkland, an organization co-founded by the family members of the victims. It’s pushed for state and federal policy about guns, mental health resources and school safety that Montalto calls “common sense.”

Thanks to their advocacy, red flag laws that allow law enforcement to temporarily take guns away from people deemed a threat have passed in 15 states, and the federal government created a clearinghouse for school safety information at schoolsafety.gov. Every year since the shooting, Florida has passed some kind of school safety bill.

“There’s never gonna be one thing that fixes this problem. I wish we could all be safe with the wave of a wand but that’s not going to happen. We have to chip away at the problem,” he said. “We’ve made our students and parents safer a little bit at a time. Not enough for my family or the 16 other families.“

Beyond federal and state policy, the tragedy inspired a half dozen nonprofits – like the Gina Rose Montalto Foundation – that have gifted tens of thousands in scholarship and philanthropy money to causes around the county.

That grief inspired family members of the victims to run for elected office, to write books, and to install new playgrounds and art installations in honor of their loved ones, and it pushed thousands of youths to the streets to march against gun violence.

A fire still burns

Every time the news of a new school shooting pops up on TV screen chyrons and cellphone push alerts, it rips open mental scars for many survivors.

David Hogg is one of them. One of the most visible members of a movement against gun violence that arose after the shooting, he remains the head of the March For Our Lives organization. Hogg, 21, has spent the last four years trying to build political support for gun control. For him, each new shooting is exhausting and enraging.

“I’m just furious. I’m furious that we’re still here. This does not have to continue. I don’t know how many ways I can say it to get people to wake the hell up and realize it does not have to be like this in the U.S.,” he said.

When he gets discouraged, he said it helps to remember that the laws they’ve championed have saved lives. It’s difficult to quantify the difference. But in 2018, Hogg and his family were able to use one of the policies they helped pass – a red flag law – to remove guns from the home of a man accused of sending a death threat to his mother’s home.

A memorial of flowers and colorful stones and messages were placed at the corner of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school campus on the first anniversary of the shooting massacre in 2019.

Hogg said he’s particularly proud of the impact in Florida. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Florida passed the most sweeping gun control measures in years on a bipartisan basis.

“Had I known the things I know now … I don’t even think I would have thought that what we did was possible,” he said. “The fact that we were able to change that there really does give me hope.”

That hope animates his vision for a future with far fewer gun deaths. He sees the shooter drills in schools and the gun violence protests as an analog to the duck and cover drills and anti-nuclear protests of the 1950s. Back then, the victory was a nuclear disarmament treaty. For the 2020s, Hogg wants to see a new licensing system for gun owners and a “moonshot” to cut gun deaths from the federal government.

“They need to do better because kids are dying every day and they don’t have to,” he said.

The trial. Death or ‘worse’?

The trial to determine the fate of the shooter, who pleaded guilty, is scheduled for April. A jury will determine whether he gets the death penalty or life in prison.

Families and community members differ on which outcome they’d prefer. For Montalto, the death penalty is the ultimate deterrent for such a horrendous crime.

“It’s unacceptable in our society and although our 17 families suffered the most, it could have been much, much worse, and people need to remember that,” he said. “He deserves every opportunity he gave my daughter and the 16 others.”

Some, like Muller, call death too easy. “I hope he gets life in prison because that’s a lot more torture than just death. He should have to suffer for what he did,” she said.

Debbi Hixon, a Broward school board member who never considered herself pro-death penalty before her husband, Chris, a coach at Stoneman Douglas, was murdered, said it’s about making sure the shooter doesn’t take up one more resource from society. She doesn’t believe he could ever be rehabilitated.

She plans to attend the trial, despite the pain she knows it will bring. Every time she sees the shooter’s face it makes her want to vomit.

“As long as I can take it, I will go for Christopher because he deserves to be represented,” she said. “People need to remember that it isn’t about him, it’s about the 17 people that died and the 16 people who were injured and a community that was terrorized.”

Hixon holds fast to the hope that the end of the trial will bring some small measure of closure and allow her to move forward with the grieving process, which she said has felt frozen for the last four years.

“In my own way I have prolonged this because I’m not ready to get through to the other side,” she said. “Whatever happens it doesn’t change our life, right? It doesn’t change our circumstances. Chris isn’t here. We still try to figure out every day how to move forward as a family unit.”

Don’t let grief define you

Many continue to look, and someday hope to find, the closure therapists talk about.

Kai Koerber, a 20-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student who joined in with the protests afterward, graduated and moved across the country to study at the University of California Berkeley. Distance helped, but not enough. His struggle with mental health inspired him to start working on an app, Joy, that helps people access personalized mental health resources.

Closure, for him, comes when the shooter is punished “to the fullest extent of the law.”

But it’s also about “really growing into the person I really wanted to become because that opportunity was almost taken from me four years ago,” he said. “Becoming that actualized version of myself who was able to pursue my dreams rather than die at the hands of a madman.”

Mosher, the community therapy executive director, said there is no “end” to grief. But there is a way through it. What lies on the other side, Mosher said, is the ability to focus on your own life again.

“Are we able in the aftermath of such a tragedy to have healthy, joyous, productive lives that aren’t triggered by the news and the sound of the garbage being taken out?” she said. “Closure is not about closing a door and never opening it again. We heal when we celebrate lives and the impact they had on us and translate that into impact on the world around us.”

Muller, who found her first comfort with that small gentle horse, is in college now. She doesn’t have to walk by that building on her way to class anymore, which used to trigger crying jags and panic attacks.

Now, she works out her anxiety at the gym. She’s finally comfortable talking about that dark day with a therapist. No bullets scarred her four years ago, but she still wanted a physical reminder of what happened. She has an angel wing tattoo on her collarbone with one feather for each of the 17 lives lost. Three are red, for her classmates.

“It’s sort of like a battle scar,” she said. “Scars do heal but they don’t go away.”

In memory of the victims of the Parkland shooting: Alyssa Alhadeff, Martin Duque Anguiano, Nicholas Dworet, Jaime Guttenberg, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup, Peter Wang, Chris Hixon, Aaron Feis, Scott Beigel.