FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Just pretend it’s not there.
That’s how the students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas have handled the continued existence of the worst crime scene in Broward County history on their campus.
Fenced and sealed off for the past four years, the building has lingered as a sickening reminder of the day that destroyed so many families. It will remain there until at least the middle of next year, until the justice system is done preserving it.
Jurors who will decide the fate of shooter Nikolas Cruz walked through to better understand the carnage of Feb. 14, 2018, when 17 students and school staff members were murdered and 17 more were injured. It is the deadliest school shooting to reach a jury trial in American history.
A second jury will visit the outside of the building, and maybe the inside, when they decide next year whether Scot Peterson, the Broward sheriff’s deputy on campus, committed a crime by taking cover instead of trying to engage the shooter.
Julia Cordover, who was senior class president when the shooting occurred, said the structure’s looming presence is an unabating reminder of the community’s worst day.
“When we parked in the senior lot, there was no avoiding it,” said Cordover, 22. “No one acknowledged its part in our trauma. We had to pretend like nothing happened to finish off our senior year.”
Now that she has moved back home after college, Cordover said she feels a tug of emotions as she drives by each day.
“It’s like the elephant in the room,” she said. “You want to look at it but you don’t want to look at it. You want to avoid it but you want to commemorate it. It should be demolished as soon as possible.”
Before demolition can happen, the Cruz jury, which is tasked with deciding whether he should be sentenced to life or death, had to walk inside and retrace the gunman’s steps. Shattered glass was impossible to avoid for anyone stepping into the classrooms. Dried bloodstains marked the places where the dead had lain, and where the injured had suffered.
Tokens of an innocent, joyous Valentine’s Day celebration remained where they were abandoned, contrasting tragically against the signs of sudden horror visited on the students – dried rose petals on top of streaks of blood from bodies that were moved in the shooting’s aftermath.
On the walls, quotes that were posted to inspire a generation of learners instead serve as horrifying, fateful premonitions. “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” The quote from James Dean is on the south wall of the second floor, the one floor of the building where no one was killed.
Jurors saw where teachers crowded students into the safest corners of classrooms, urging them to remain silent as they waited in dread for the killer to reach their door. Emergency 911 operators received whispered calls from inside the structure. Visiting the scene put testimony about those tension-filled moments into a context prosecutors hope will prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the gunman’s actions were especially heinous, atrocious and cruel.
On the first floor, Cruz killed 11 people and wounded 13. On the second floor, he fired into two rooms, but no one was hurt. When he reached the third, a fire alarm activated by smoke and dust from the gunshots brought students into hallways. Cruz fired directly at a fleeing crowd; six died and four were hurt.
English teacher Felicia Burgin was able to escape the second floor. As the trial has proceeded, she thinks not only about how she and her students survived but also all she left behind.
She has been unable to retrieve the mementos of her teaching career that remain in her old classroom, 1259: the first note a student ever gave her in honor of Teacher Appreciation Day; a banner signed by every student on her former middle school team; books given to her as gifts by fellow teachers.
“Every once in a while, I get frustrated about not having access to this stuff,” Burgin said. “I go back and forth: Do I really want these things? Do I want anything from that building? It’s a push-and-pull.”
Over the past four years, Burgin said she has walked by the building and looked up at her off-limits second-floor classroom. Just 10 feet away from her class, there’s a boarded-up window where shots punctured the glass.
Burgin hopes the jury’s visit will allow the school to release the building’s remains.
“I want to get the stuff and then decide whether to keep it,” she said.
A new freshman trailer complex replaced the building. But the school district has not been allowed to demolish the old building until prosecutors no longer need it.
Stoneman Douglas parent Evan Nierman said he anxiously awaits the building’s destruction.
“There’s not a single time I drive past that I don’t look at that building and feel unease and a sense of dread,” Nierman said. “It’s like a splinter in your finger that needs to be extracted. You know it’s there, but even if the feeling is dulled, it’s inescapable.”
His son, Gabe, a sophomore, was in fifth grade during the ordeal and remembers classmates whose siblings were shot. But he said he gave the building minimal attention last year when he was a freshman.
“Most of the time I didn’t think about it,” he said. “There’s a lot of talk about code red drills and procedures, but most of the time it’s a normal school.”
Burgin said she hopes the Broward school district figures out a sensitive way to commemorate what happened, once the building is gone.
“They can’t just make it a parking lot,” she said. “You have to keep in mind 17 families lost someone. It will be a huge, monumental day in the history of our school when that building comes down.”
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