Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, may look like any other American high school from the outside.
But former students who spent their teenage years in its hallways and classrooms will tell you there’s something special about the school’s culture.
So special, in fact, that when news spread last week that a gunman had killed 17 people at the school, thousands of alumni felt compelled to reach out to each other, springing into action to offer practical and emotional support to survivors and the local community.
“We’ve always felt this deep love of our community and our school.”
But they refused to stop there; they’ve also banded together to echo current students’ refrain of “Never Again,” and have started using their professional experience and connections to hold politicians accountable and push for policies that would prevent another mass shooting.
“We’ve always felt this deep love of our community and our school,” says Judith Danovitch, who graduated in 1996 and, soon after the shooting, created a closed Facebook group to connect and mobilize alumni. A separate website points people to fundraising and organizing events and activities across the country.
“Really, what we did was just provide a place where everyone could meet virtually to come together and make difference,” she says of the Facebook group, which now has more than 10,000 members. (Administrators vet each membership request by prompting a Facebook user to answer questions about the school.)
A banner created by the class of 2010 hanging on the fence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Image: Adam Tanner
The school’s alumni have stepped up in countless ways since the shooting. They’ve provided food to family members of hospitalized victims. They’ve reached out to a school memorabilia company to secure class rings for students who died. Alumni who are professional therapists have offered free counseling to survivors and their families. People are creating banners signed by members of past classes to hang at the school.
One alum, who is a filmmaker, created a moving video featuring messages of support from alumni for students and teachers. Alumni have also raised money for the victims’ fund and the March of Our Lives fund.
Danovitch, who is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Louisville, says the level of alumni engagement may, in part, be linked to the fact that all of its former students are in their mid-40s or younger. (The school graduated its first class in 1992.)
“We feel very connected,” Danovitch says. “We were the ones that founded the school, and the more recent graduates have carried the torch forward.”
While the school’s graduates have moved rapidly to offer comfort to their devastated community, they’re also focused on demanding political change. An alumni petition asks politicians in Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee to pass specific policies, including a “red flag” law that would allow family members and law enforcement to obtain a court order to temporarily restrict a person’s access to guns when they are deemed a risk to themselves or others.
“I don’t know how to cope except to make it better.”
“I don’t know how to cope except to make it better,” says Rachel Nyswander Thomas, who graduated in 1998 from Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
“We want to support, in whatever way we can, the victims … and then we want to make sure that there are no more victims.”
Nyswander Thomas says that while alumni coordinators currently have limited contact with students — who’ve spent the past few days appearing at the White House, a CNN town hall, and on The Ellen Show — alumni are mindful of amplifying the students’ voices and aligning their efforts with the nascent student-led movement.
Nyswander Thomas, who’s worked in public policy in Washington, D.C., for the past decade, says that many of the alumni working on the group’s political efforts bring an understanding of “how to craft a policy agenda that is both effective and actionable — and politically feasible.”
She applauded the student survivors, who’ve quickly become gun safety activists, for engaging both Republicans and Democrats on the issue and for helping to upend the political narrative on gun violence. Nyswander Thomas says that Cameron Kasky’s viral confrontation with Florida Senator Marco Rubio at the CNN town hall, for example, is a model for the type of conversation everyone should have with the lawmakers in their districts.
MSD ALUMNI,TAKE ACTION! We have organized a national petition on behalf of the MSD Alumni community calling for an end to gun violence in America. PLEASE TAKE A MOMENT TO SIGN THE PETITION AND SUPPORT IT’S CALL TO ACTION! https://t.co/GAWBzYSa1x
— Mobilizing MSD Alumni (@MobilizingMSD) February 20, 2018
While the activism that’s emerged from the Parkland shooting is just one part of ongoing gun violence prevention efforts waged by survivors, bereaved loved ones, and, particularly, communities of color whose work is frequently overlooked, those with ties to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are leveraging their connection to each other and the school’s culture to uniquely advance the cause.
“The mobilization of alumni speaks to the school itself and the kind of activism and leadership potential Douglas helped to instill in us,” says Nyswander Thomas.
She also wants current students to know that they can count on alumni — and not just to hold lawmakers accountable or provide support for events like the March of Our Lives, but to help them take a step back from the long battle and continue to be just students and children.
“They have this force at their back that they can rely on,” she says, “…making sure they can live the lives that they should’ve been living had February 14 not happened.”