Many blog readers know that my niece Carly is a survivor of the Parkland shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. You may know that my father also survived a mass murder, and like Carly, hid in a closet until the police arrived. Almost 70 years separated the two tragedies. Our guest blogger this week is my sister Merri, Carly’s mom. Merri shares her first-hand account of what happened the afternoon of February 14, 2018, when Carly sent this text, “Mom don’t freak out but we are on a code red, there is an active shooter on campus. I think it’s real.”
Recent blogs have featured the voices of parents, sharing their lived expertise. I am so proud of my sister and niece for using their voices for the greater good, to promote school safety, sensible gun control and supportive services for schools. I made a promise to them that I would do whatever I can to promote prevention and treat gun violence as a public health crisis. I want to publicly thank Merri for sharing her story with us.
My name is Merri Novell, I want to share my family’s story. When my father was 12 years old, his mother, father, and grandmother were gunned down in the first mass murder in the country. My father survived by hiding in a closet. That day, September, 6, 1949, the gunman killed thirteen people, three were children. Almost 70 years later, my daughter also hid in a closet while a lone gunman killed fourteen students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
I grew up bearing witness to my father’s grief and pain. He tried to hide it as best as he could. He was loving and funny. He was happiest surrounded by his family. He cherished our time together, but was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. He knew he could lose it all in minutes. I inherited his fears and worries and as a child, I would try to imagine places to hide if a gunman entered my home. As I got older and had my own family, my fears began to plague me. I became anxious about going to public places like a movie theater or mall. I was on high alert way before 9/11.
When my son wanted to attend Stoneman Douglas High School in 2011, I finally went to therapy. The therapist made me realize that I didn’t want to impose my anxieties and fears on my children. That resonated with me, I didn’t want my children to live in fear the way I had. I sent Alex, my son to Stoneman Douglas High School and then four years later, I sent Carly. About a week before the rampage at Douglas, I thought to myself…we’ve been at Stoneman Douglas for almost eight years and nothing has happened, my therapist was right…I can’t live in fear.
On February 14th at 2:34 in the afternoon, I received a text from Carly, “Mom don’t freak out but we are on a code red, there is an active shooter on campus. I think it’s real.” I had just had an active shooter training in my school. I am an elementary art teacher and work about five miles from Stoneman Douglas High School. I texted back…are you in the closet? Are the doors locked, are there any windows in the closet? She texted back that the doors were locked and that she was in the closet with no windows. I ran to the front office looking for our school resource officer. The office manager told me that he had “run out of here like a bat out of hell”.
I knew it was real and I had to get to Stoneman Douglas. As I drove, I pulled over constantly to get out of the way for emergency vehicles, ambulances, and fire trucks. The drive is around ten minutes but it felt like forever. I live close to the school, that I can walk there within minutes through my backyard. When I walked through my backyard and got to the street, I saw a war zone. There were swat cars and people in army looking fatigues all in gear holding semiautomatic weapons running towards the school. There were helicopters buzzing overhead, caution tape blocking hysterical parents from getting too close to the school, and police cars were everywhere. It was all so shocking and so surreal. We live in such a quiet and peaceful town. It recently was written up as one of the safest towns in America. That’s why we had moved here in the first place.
I was still in contact with Carly, she was still in the closet. I started to calm down because I had learned from the active shooter training that statistically their incidents usually get resolved within minutes and it had been at least fifteen minutes since her first text. I knew it would take swat time to clear each room. I started to go into help mode. I saw a friend’s daughter, she ran into my arms and was in total shock. She told me that she just saw her best friend and others in her class get shot and killed. It was difficult for parents to get to the school, traffic was at a standstill and all roads were blocked. I walked her to my house and on the way contacted her mom so they could be reunited. I left them and gathered every water bottle in my house and ran back to the corner. The water bottles were gone in seconds. The kids were in shock. One student was having a full blown panic attack.
Everyone was trying to help these poor kids in any way they could. I walked another student I knew to my house when Carly texted me that Swat had moved them to the media center, another good sign. I got back to the corner and stood next to another mom, who I have known since Carly was in preschool. She asked if I was in contact with Carly…because she couldn’t get in touch with her daughter. I asked her about texting her daughter’s friends to see if they had heard from her but she was frozen, it’s as if she already knew. Shortly after that, Carly was escorted out of the building, it was around 5:30. I walked Carly and her friend home and then ran back out to see where that mom went…but she was gone. The parents who weren’t reunited with their children were sent to the Marriott nearby. The victims didn’t have identification on them so it was a difficult, painful night. That mom wouldn’t get confirmation until 2:30 a.m. My heart broke for her, it broke for our entire community. Our community has become the epicenter of communal grief and pain. It also has become a community of organizers and activists.
Prior to February 14th, Carly was quiet and a bit reserved. She was an editor on the newspaper and beginning to find her voice. Carly didn’t intend on becoming an activist or so outspoken. She woke up early on February 15th and saw a tweet from Tomi Lauren that offended her. Carly innocently tweeted back. The tweet became viral. She casually mentioned it to me that morning, but honestly, I had never heard of Tomi Lauren. Next thing I know, The Huffington Post called for an interview. Shortly after that, she was contacted by CNN to be interviewed that evening. From there, my daughter became an activist outspoke about gun violence, mental health issues and changing legislation for stricter laws on guns. She was caught up in a media frenzy, a whirlwind of trips to NYC, Tallahassee and back to NYC.
Carly found her voice and she was sharing her beliefs with the world. I didn’t lose my teenage daughter on February 14th but she lost her innocence and became an adult. As a mother, I am so proud of her for speaking from her heart and her truth. I am so deeply saddened for her too. She feels a burden that no teenager should feel. She feels compelled to speak when asked, to write opinion pieces, to be interviewed but part of her just wants to be a normal teenager. She feels obligated to speak on behalf of the lives lost but she also feels ridden with guilt and doesn’t want to gain any notoriety from being part of this tragedy.
All has changed for me as a mother, I’ve learned to let go. About three weeks after the shooting, the news organizations were camped out just down the block and Carly had just finished her umpteenth interview. We were walking home and Carly broke down in tears. She begged me to let her get out of Parkland for a few days to visit her friend in Atlanta. My immediate response was no, you need to stay home with me. Her words were profound and have stayed with me…. “Mom you’ve worried about me my entire life, I can’t even go for a bike ride without you panicking that I will be hit by a car, I survived a school shooting at my school! You’ve got to let me go, you’ve got to let me live and you have to stop living in fear that something bad might happen because it already did?” From that point on, I’ve let her go. I realized the worrying about the “what ifs” doesn’t help to keep her safe. That being said, I still worry when she wanders around the city at night or takes a flight somewhere. But the truth is, I have no control of the “what ifs” and I can’t let my worries stop her from living.
Much has changed in the Broward Country Schools but much has stayed the same too. We keep our doors locked at all times. All students and staff must wear identification around their necks. Many people think it’s so we can identify a stranger that walks on campus but I think it’s because they couldn’t identify the bodies at Stoneman Douglas until families came forward to say their children were missing. So now, we wear our identification as dog tags around our neck. We have state-mandated code red drills. Last month, I had a code red drill with my kindergarten class and they told me that it was fun. They liked hiding in my dark closet with me and pretending a bad guy was coming to get us. How pathetic that this has become the new normal? Our school resource officer walks around with an oddly shaped backpack, it holds his semi-automatic weapon. It is ironic to me that here we are in a civilized country, I teach at an elementary school, yet we have an armed guard on campus.
To me sandwiched between intergenerational survivors seventy years apart, nothing has really changed in the United States. Hardening schools against gun violence do not protect our society. Keepings doors locked and gates manned at all times might act as a deterrent, but I think it’s a false sense of security. Let’s be real, if someone with a semi-automatic weapon wants to come to a school and go on a rampage, a single point entry a higher fence isn’t going to do much. We have to get to the real issue. This is so black and white to me that I don’t understand why there is a debate. We need to change our laws on guns and we need to identify and help children and adults in society who are suffering from severe mental health issues. We shouldn’t be debating about our second amendment rights. Anyone who wants to enjoy going to the movies or out to dinner should want to fix the laws so they are protected. I feel like my grandparents and great-grandmother died in vain. I should have grown up more outspoken about gun control and mental health issues. I should have spoken up every time there was another mass shooting. Honestly, I was too afraid. My daughter and her classmates have taught me not to live in fear and to speak up and fight. I’m not hiding anymore. – Merri Novell