This week marks four years since 17 students and staff were murdered in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida: Alyssa Alhadeff, Scott Beigel, Martin Duque, Nicholas Dworet, Aaron Fees, Jaime Guttenberg, Chris Hixon, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup and Peter Wang.
While February 14, 2018, forever changed the community, it’s the countless bright moments in the way the 14 students and three staff members lived that will forever be remembered.
Some of their loved ones are sharing their legacies.
Nicholas Dworet’s parents describe him as a passionate swimmer and humble leader with a goal of competing in the Olympics. He wrote on a piece of paper he would let nothing stand in his way and train hard both in mind and body, they said.
“It was difficult but through swimming he learned leadership, discipline, learning to lose and win in competition. He met so many friends, met his girlfriend who he was so in love with, through swimming. He loved life, just larger than life, he was at the cusp of so many things and just really becoming a man and getting out there,” said his father, Mitchell Dworet.
“He was just super happy and very successful in all parts of his life. Like Mitch said, so in love with his girlfriend. He was very organized with his studies, organized his time really well,” his mother, Annika Dworet said.
“He was a great brother, they had a fantastic relationship were really great friends, always looked out for his little brother.”
His parents recalled how he knew the restaurants with all-you-can-eat specials, loved Oreos (they found the stash in his closet) but understood the nutritional aspect to food and competition. He didn’t hesitate to stay after practice to talk the younger kids. He was confident in himself and a cheerleader to everyone.
Dworet had a scholarship to compete for the University of Indianapolis. It should be his senior year there. Now his parents carry on his passion for swimming through Swim4Nick. They hold swim clinics, give scholarships and have a relationship with Special Olympians to help inspire others.
He wrote inspirational sayings on his white board in his room. His parents recall quotes like “Never let a stumble in the road ruin your journey” and “train harder, let nothing stand in your way.”
“'Keep on keeping on’ is something he would also say,” said Mitchell Dworet. “That’s the positive energy we try to convey if we can go through such trauma and grief, and we do daily all the time, and I think someone like Nick can help us stay above water, stay afloat, keep swimming.”
Gina Rose Montalto’s father describes her as bubbly and bright with a personality and smile that lit up the room, and the best daughter.
“Gina’s legacy is pretty much the fact she was going to go out there and change the world,” said her father, Tony Montalto.
She was a big sister, a cousin and loved her family.
Montalto said she had a passion for STEM subjects, was a Girl Scout, part of the MSD Color Guard, volunteered with their church group, was a straight-A student, worked with kids of differing abilities, loved the freedom on the water at surf camp (and was helpful to the counselors with younger kids too), was often the first to offer new kids friendship and was a talented artist. One of her sketches includes a quote, “Tell the Sun and Stars Hello for Me.”
“She really was the whole package and the world is a poorer place without her,” he said.
Gina brought people together. Now her parents keep her light shining through the Gina Rose Montalto Memorial Foundation. They work to help others achieve their goals. They award scholarships, including those for STEM, arts, Girl Scouts and during the pandemic for nursing.
“These are the kinds of things Gina would have done. Things that bring people together, things that promote change and bring happiness,” Montalto said.
Luke Hoyer’s parents describe him as a laid back teen. His mom, Gena, said he was a mama’s boy. His father, Tom, said he looked like him. He was the youngest of three.
“Loved sports, liked watching them, liked playing them. Particularly liked basketball. And liked being with his friends. Loved his dogs, loved his family, loved chicken nuggets — that was pretty much the only thing he ate,” said Tom Hoyer.
He recalled how they would go for honey sriracha chicken wings after Luke mowed the grass on the weekends.
“I think he kind of liked the rhythm, routine of just kind of living a chill life, which he did, he had a good life,” he said.
Gena Hoyer recalled how Luke always left enough ice cream in the carton for her and never missed finding her to say good night.
“He was a mama’s boy and he was just so sweet and funny. I was lucky to have him as long as I had him. He was always looking out for me. Always liked to play jokes on me,” she said.
They said they’ve learned more stories through Luke’s friends, including how they made them laugh, how he brought them together and how he would take the time to play basketball with a child with autism who also was always at the courts.
The Luke Hoyer Athletic Fund now helps foster children in Broward County with expenses and equipment needed to play sports.
Gena said it’s hard to believe he’s gone, it stops her in her tracks walking through the house. She wears bracelets with the message “LukeStrong.“
“He may not be here with me on Earth but I know he’s with me every day. I can feel him every day,” said Gena Hoyer.
“Honor Luke, remember Luke, but don’t be defined by what happened. To be strong in your own life. That’s what it means for me,” said Tom.
Carmen Schentrup’s mom says she was driven and accomplished what she put her mind to. She was a week away from her 17th birthday.
“Carmen was the daughter that every mom wishes for. She was caring, brilliant, kind, just had this, it’s hard to talk about her in past tense, but she had so much going for her,” said her mother, April Schentrup.
The senior was waiting for acceptance letters from the University of Florida and University of Washington for school. She was a national merit scholar. She was musically talented. She wanted to become a medical researcher to cure ALS after a family member passed from it.
Her mother shared a memory when Carmen wanted to go to Germany. She planned an itinerary and budget, worked on learning German and served as the family’s tour guide on their trip, staying even longer with family friends to be more immersed. When she came back to school, she started taking a German course at the local community college at night.
“We wish she was here but we know that that’s not the case, so we’re going to continue what we feel will help carry on her dreams beyond her,” said Schentrup.
Her family used her savings from birthday and Christmas money to start a fund called Carmen’s Dream through the ALS Association to help fund research. There’s also a music scholarship in her name.
Alyssa Alhadeff’s mother says she was captain of her soccer team, loved the game and even though she may have been the smallest person, she had the biggest voice.
“Alyssa was amazing, vivacious, talented soccer player. Wore the number 8. She loved the beach, loved boys, loved shopping, just all-American girl,” said Lori Alhadeff.
Alhadeff said Alyssa wanted to play in college and was also strong academically. She would be a freshman in college now.
Her mom wears a bracelet that says "Play for 8."
“Just have a great time, have fun, live life to its fullest because unfortunately you don’t know when it’s going to be your last,” she said.
Alex Schachter’s father describes his son as a great athlete, musician in the marching band, good soul and the sweetest boy.
“Alex had a beautiful smile and he had the cutest little dimples, and we miss him. He would have gone on to do great things, he would have been successful and he would have had great friendships, and I’m sad Alex isn’t here because we miss him,” said his father, Max Schachter.
His favorite dessert was a Nutella crepe. He was always on the go. He loved sports and music. He wanted to be with his friends, he loved his family. His father recalls how Alex let his sister do his hair while he ate breakfast and played basketball with his brother.
“Alex should be here today, he should be with us, he should be with his family, he should be with his friends, he should be in college, it’s just not right,” Schachter said.
Chris Hixon’s family describes him as an extraordinary person living an ordinary life. He worked as the athletic director at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He was a U.S. Navy veteran and military police officer.
“He was one of those people that just filled the room when he walked in. He was just very self-confident. He was very friendly. If you were lucky enough to get into that close circle that he had of friends he was loyal to the end,” said his wife, Debbi.
Corey Hixon, their son, recalled how they loved sports.
Debbi said he wanted to be in a seat where he was making change, had ideas about what things should look like including in terms of safety, and was the rock of their family.
“We had very similar goals for our kids, for the students that we served in our schools, and we just we had a means to be able to help them particularly be successful then that’s what we were going to do,” said Hixon. “I think it’s very rare that you find people that match your vision of what the world should look like, and it was just so special for us and to me to have someone who shared that personality with me.”
Hixon said all 17 people brought something special to their families and the community, and to celebrate them.
“It’s about what we miss in all those years they were here with us on Earth,” she said.
In the four years since, some families carry on their loved ones' passions through foundations, some have taken elected seats, some have formed organizations that advocate for reforms and change in their names.
Hixon now sits on the school board. Running was never on her radar, but she felt Chris pushing her.
“It’s so important to not just ask for change but to be the agent of change,” she said. “In the case of Chris, you always have to do what you believe is right no matter what the cost ends up being.”
Lori Alhadeff was elected to the school board.
"Alyssa’s voice, she lives within my heart. She drives me to make an impact," she said.
Alyssa’s parents also founded the organization Make Our Schools Safe. They worked to pass Alyssa’s Law in Florida and New Jersey to require panic buttons in schools. The idea is if there’s an emergency, a teacher can push a button directly linked to police. They’re working to make it a standard safety protection with bills on the federal level and in other states.
Max Schachter started Safe Schools for Alex. He travels the country in an effort to push for change and prevent more tragedy.
He spoke with Newsy as he was in Arizona to meet with state lawmakers and for a school safety conference.
He said the organization has rolled out school safety dashboards in multiple states, and were approved for a DOJ stop school violence grant recently.
"Many, many school districts have not implemented the lessons learned from our tragedy and it’s, it’s upsetting because I know that we can save lives if that’s done,” said Schachter.
Parents also formed the group Stand With Parkland. The group's approach is to bring people together to address school safety enhancements, mental health and responsible firearm ownership. They advocate for legislative changes.
“Sadly, nobody’s promised tomorrow, so let’s start working today to make the world a better place, let’s work together to find common ground to listen to one another and then to move forward and enjoy life,” said the group’s president, Tony Montalto. “It’s hard to outlive your child. It’s hard to understand how this could happen. Because after the fact we learned a lot of the things that could have saved Carmen were preventable. And we want to make sure that whether it’s a law or holding people accountable, that that’s what we fight for as a family because we know that if something would have been done, one person, one act, maybe Carmen would still be here,” said April Schentrup.
“We’re here at the four-year mark and it’s not the only shooting since Feb. 14, 2018. I think parents need to be more aware of their schools and their counties and be more aware of their school boards about what policies they pass,” said Gena Hoyer.
The same year, Florida passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, and formed a commission bearing the school’s name.
“We made progress, we need to continue down this path and we can’t let up,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chair of the commission.
He said there’s a change in culture and more of an emphasis on the priority of school safety, though he said some districts still resist it. He notes now there’s at least one armed person on campuses. But he pointed to a need for information sharing and robust threat management, from inter disciplinary teams.
“There are threat assessment teams that are required at every school but they’re not where they need to be. Law enforcement agencies are not where they need to be on threat management, and I think that’s what at least for me and the Stoneman Douglas commission, that’s something we’re going to tackle here in the next couple months and try to move that needle even further because that is the greatest opportunity,” said Gualtieri.
There are bills still pushed for at the federal level, like the Eagles Act, which would re-authorize the National Threat Assessment Center; the Mental Health in Schools Excellence Program, which would help fund graduate students going into school-based mental health services; and the Luke and Alex School Safety Act, which would codify a national clearinghouse for best practices involving school safety.
Currently there are bills on school safety and mental health in the Florida legislature.
“I want to make sure especially every year at the commemoration we remember them. I actually have up in my office something hanging in my office that has all their names on it so that I never forget,” said State Rep. Christine Hunschofsky.
She said they’re working to incorporate lessons learned into legislation. She is also the former Parkland mayor. She said the community was forever changed.
“Maybe if we realized that as a society, as a whole, it doesn’t get better maybe a little bit of progress, but it doesn’t go away, that we would use that to be more mindful and purposeful in the word we do in making sure it doesn’t happen again,” she said.
For families, the pain doesn’t go away. Time moves differently.
Yet as Feb.14 comes around again, the focus is not a single day.
It’s the vibrant lives the world is missing and the immeasurable impacts they continue to leave.