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PARKLAND (CBSMiami) – It’s been one year since the deadly Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Since that day, the families of the 17 murder victims have suffered and grieved and in truly remarkable fashion. Many of them have taken that suffering and anger and they’ve turned it into substantive action.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent time with more than half of the victims’ families to hear their stories of loss and activism and their turning points when they decided they needed to lend their voices and their efforts to causes they believed in.
They each come with unique philosophies and use different tactics and mediums, but they share a singular focus — how to prevent any other families from going through what they went through on February 14, 2018.
We met with Manny Oliver, whose son Joaquin was murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, at his South Florida office in January.
He spoke about how perfect his life was prior to February 14.
“I was very, if not on the American dream, I was pretty close to it,” he said.
Manny said his life was close to perfect prior to February 14th — a happy family, a fulfilling job and time to pursue his passions. Then February 14th happened.
“Suddenly it’s not [perfect] anymore,” he said. “It’s far from being a perfect life.”
Manny said he remembers hearing about the shooting.
Then he made a frantic flurry of phone calls and texts to Joaquin and his friends.
“It’s me texting Joaquin. And no answer. ‘Hey. Where are you? What’s going on? Give me a call. Hey. Grab the phone,’” he recalled. “Not to mention the text messages. And then you start calling his friends. And they answer. ‘Hey Mr. Oliver. Where’s Joaquin? I don’t know I saw him earlier. He should be fine. Someone told me they saw him in another building.’”
Joaquin Oliver was among the 17 murder victims.
Manny said that’s when he suddenly came face to face with a loss that he could have never imagined — the death of his best friend.
And after a few days Manny came to a realization.
“It’s easy to feel like you’re the victim,” he said. “Poor me. I’m not given enough time to feel better. No. Poor Joaquin. I need to find a way to do something every single day. I go to bed at night thinking this is what I did today so I feel good. My son would be proud of me. I’m still a father. I’m still a father I just don’t have my son with me.”
Manny is an artist. He expresses himself through his creativity, like a billboard he put up in Boston last fall.
It shows Joaquin’s face with the message, “If I had attended high school in Massachusetts instead of Parkland, Florida, I would likely be alive today.”
Manny’s efforts are raw, uncompromising and designed to get attention and make people question their beliefs, mostly about guns.
He also pointed us to a recent effort that included a mock advertisement for greeting cards to send someone who’s loved one died in a school shooting.
The video shows unsuspecting people reacting to the shock of seeing these greeting cards.
“We like to send our messages in a very graphic way,” he explained.
For Manny, these projects are how he’s turned his grief into action to create tougher gun laws in the U.S.
“When it comes to guns, we don’t care and 40,000 people [each year] are losing their lives,” he said.
It’s also how he’s keeping Joaquin alive.
“I’m giving my son a voice,” he said. “But they say, ‘Ok but you’re the father of the victims.’ I say, ‘No. No, dude. We are the victims. We represent the victims.’ When some people say he’s crazy. He’s lost his mind. No. I lost my son.”
WATCH: CBS4’s Carey Codd discusses talking with Parkland parents and family
Fred Guttenberg’s daughter Jamie also died on the 3rd floor of the Freshman Building.
We spoke with Fred recently outside a dance studio in Coral Springs where Jamie trained.
“This was our life,” he said, as we sat on a bench outside the studio and spoke for the better part of an hour. “Coming to this dance studio, dropping Jaime off, picking Jaime up. My wife sitting inside, on these benches, hanging out with the other dance moms, going in the back as they’re learning their new dances for the dance competitions. Every day we have a reminder of what we don’t have. I’m not trying to fake it. I am emotional.”
He and Manny Oliver share more than the grief of losing a child. They share a passion for gun control.
“What Manny does with art, I do with words,” Fred said.
For Guttenberg, his turning point came quickly after the shooting and he soon had a national stage at a televised town hall to speak his mind.
His angry, determined comments to Florida Senator Marco Rubio helped shape his persona as an activist.
“When my daughter died and almost immediately I saw elected leaders — my elected leaders — Rubio and Trump — not be able to say the word “guns” – in the violence that took my daughter, that was my turning point,” he said. “That was when I said these guys are so beholden to this environment that the gun lobby actually is the problem because they’re afraid to cross it.”
Fred went on to describe the week after Jaime’s murder and how he focused on his course of action.
“That week is kind of a blur except my constantly saying, ‘I’m gonna break that (expletive) lobby. I remember that about that week. I remember thinking that those who are so beholden to that lobby that they can’t talk about what killed my daughter, I’m gonna work to fire them,” he said. “That’s what I decided that week.”
He took his message to Twitter and it’s resonated. He has more than 150,000 followers.
“I think the reason people started responding is very simple,” he said. “I did it as Jaime’s dad. That’s who I am. I didn’t try to be a political person. I am not a policy wonk. I am not the guy who knows the most about gun laws and gun safety. I’m Jaime’s dad.”
As individuals, many of the victim families have taken on their specific causes, and they all agree that there is plenty of blame to go around for the massacre of February 14th.
For Fred Guttenberg, Manny Oliver and several others, the focus is on gun control.
LINDA BEIGEL SCHULMAN
Scott Beigel died at Stoneman Douglas, where he worked as a geography teacher.
His mother, Linda, lives in New York, where she’s lent her voice to the cause of gun control in that state.
“I wouldn’t call it an effort,” Linda said. “I would call it a mission. That’s like my mission.”
We spoke with her on a Saturday in January when she visited a Boys and Girls Club in North Lauderdale.
She was there for a service event honoring Scott as young people planted an herb garden, planted flowers and painted part of a hockey rink.
She told me that kids mattered to Scott and she’s working to make sure his legacy is one of protecting them.
“I said it out loud and it’s kind of if you say it out loud or put it on a list, you have to do it,” she said. “So I said no matter what it took I was going to make sure some sort of reasonable gun control legislation was passed.”
She’s met with political candidates in New York and helped push for common sense gun control in that state.
She said when she learned of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas and learned the facts about the confessed shooter and his access to a high powered weapon, she knew she had to advocate for change.
“The whole thing was absolutely ridiculous, that a 19-year-old who couldn’t buy a beer could buy an AR-15 assault rifle in Florida. It was crazy,” she said.
Linda said she hopes to make sure that Scott’s death was not in vain.
“I can’t bring Scott back so to make something good of a tragedy that we can have legislation passed or something done to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
Many of the Parkland families describe a moment or a conversation when they decided to marry their pain to a purpose.
For Max Schachter, whose son Alex was murdered at Stoneman Douglas, his turning point came after a conversation with his family.
“There was a moment where I said ‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’ you know? I just remember lying in the bed with Alex and I used to lie with him at night and cuddle with him, just the sweetest little boy,” he said. “There was a lot of times I didn’t know if I could go on or get up every morning. When we were sitting shiva for Alex, my family said, “Max, it would be great if we could do something good in Alex’s memory.’”
And Max decided to act. He has three other children in schools in Broward County so it was natural for him to commit his efforts to school safety.
“I had to do something to make these schools safe and protect them,” he said. “I couldn’t rely on Broward County they had already failed me and I had lost one son. It was that drive and that anger that fueled my devotion.”
Max made those issues a priority while he served on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission.
That’s the commission that investigated the shooting. Max’s school safety efforts are wide ranging and could lead to substantive change.
As part of his action, he’s worked to uncover and shine a spotlight on failures in policy and procedure that led, in part, to the shooting.
“I wanted to hold those people accountable and protect children around the country and prevent this from happening again,” Max said.
Andy Pollack has been one of the most recognizable and outspoken of the victim family members.
Who can forget his impassioned plea during a listening session with President Trump at the White House just a week after the shooting, when he described the pain of losing a child and demanded action from leaders.
It was gut wrenching to watch a parent expressing such pain with brutal honesty. Andy says that for him time stopped on February 14th.
“My life is over,” he explained. “I don’t have a life. I don’t smile. I don’t pray as much. I don’t have holidays, birthdays. Everything’s gone. Every day is February 14th for me since this happened. Nothing’s different than from the day I found out my daughter was murdered.”
He believes there’s a deep bucket of blame to go around for February 14th.
Andy blames former Broward Sheriff’s Deputy and School Resource Officer Scot Peterson, who was on the Stoneman Douglas campus that day and armed, yet chose not to go into the Freshman Building as the shots rang out.
He also believes suspended Broward Sheriff Scott Israel and Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie share responsibility for February 14th.
Specifically, Andy believes Runcie’s decisions enabled a culture of leniency in the school district.
“People were coming to me and saying, ‘Mr. Pollack, he threatened our lives at the school. We went to the administrators, see something, say something,’” he remembers. “Students went to the administrators and said this kid was going to do something bad. I couldn’t find any reports.”
Then this man who says he was never political in his life resolved to make a difference.
“I’ve been working non-stop on a mission to hold people accountable for what happened,” he said.
Andy and several others point to one pivotal event — more than any other — as proof that their quest for accountability was working.
Less than a month after the shooting many of the victim’s families worked with Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Florida legislature to do something that many thought unthinkable – they passed a comprehensive bill known as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.
“Every student and teacher in Florida is safer because of that bill,” Andy said.
The bill deals with school safety and it created an Armed Guardian program named after victim Aaron Feis.
The bill placed restrictions on purchasing a gun in Florida and put red flag laws in place to allow law enforcement to petition a court to keep guns away from people who are deemed a danger to themselves and others.
Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina, was murdered at MSD, said he believes that bill was crucial to establish momentum in the effort to create action and change after the shooting.
“I think that was a game-changer,” Ryan said.
Ryan told CBS4 News that he sees the passage of that bill as proof that the victim’s families could be successful at turning their grief into action.
“For a lot of people it didn’t go far enough,” he said. “For a lot of people it went too far but it was taking ground that we could take. After so many of these tragedies nothing gets done and this felt like a big step forward. I think getting this passed just 3 weeks later, it was pivotal.
“All of a sudden the families became a political force to be listened to at least.”
Ryan said he understood the focus on gun control in the aftermath of the shooting. But he didn’t believe that should be the main issue moving forward.
“There’s no question that the firearm played a role here but my fear was that this would be the sole focus, the sole point of conversation, the sole point of discussion and like so many tragedies where that has been the only thing discussed, the only political issue that comes out of it and nothing gets done,” he said. “And I felt for the first time in all of this, I started to feel angry. And I said I can’t allow my daughter’s life to be taken and nothing to be done about this. And if we go down the path of arguing about firearms and the role of firearms in society and we focus on more controls and the opposite argument about the absolute right to keep bear arms, we’re gonna go nowhere as a country.”
Ryan said he met with Andy Pollack and they resolved to focus on school safety and then they heard from Governor Rick Scott.
He said that led to the bill being passed and led to Petty serving on the MSD Commission investigating the shooting. For him, it’s been therapeutic.
“It’s forced me to deal with some of my feelings about it and to be able to get to the point where I can talk about it and through the work on the MSD Commission actually relive some of the moments, unfortunately in graphic detail in that search for the truth,” he said.
Ryan and another Parkland parent, Lori Alhadeff, decided to take their pain and anger and run for political office. Alhadeff’s daughter Alyssa died in the shooting.
She won her race for the school board. Ryan Petty did not.
We spoke with Lori Alhadeff after a recent news conference on security changes in Broward schools.
“I miss my life,” she said. “I miss my daughter. I don’t need any of this, if I could just get Alyssa back. Alyssa is with me. Alyssa is in my heart. She has empowered me to be here today. She has empowered me to want to make change to make sure this doesn’t happen again and we make sure our schools are safe for our children.”
We spoke to Lori near an eagle statute in the school board building. That’s the mascot of Stoneman Douglas High School.
The names of the victims are listed on the statute and it’s obvious that it serves as a constant and visible reminder of what was taken from the Parkland families.
“I’m up there on the dais, pushing people,” she explained. “They have to see my face for the next four years and remember what happened to my daughter and 16 others and go past this eagle every day. We need to keep going because at the end of the day, test scores don’t matter if our kids don’t come home alive.”
For each family it’s been a journey to get to this place of activism and action.
“I don’t know that we’ve even started grieving it,” Debbie Hixon said. “We’ve been really busy with a lot things — events honoring Chris, protests, March for Our Lives, safety measures, commission meetings.”
When Debbie Hixon saw news of the shooting she knew her husband Chris — a campus monitor at Stoneman Douglas and a former member of the Armed Forces — would be in the middle of it.
Hixon was shot almost as soon as he entered the Freshman Building to investigate what was going on. He died a short time later.
Debbie Hixon was left to continue her career as a teacher and suddenly became a single mom to son, Corey, who has special needs.
“It’s kind of like standing still but moving forward,” she said. “I get up every day, go to work every day, get stuff for Corey. But I feel like I’m spinning my wheels, like I’m just not sure I’m not sure how to make it work. For 30 years there was not a decision I made that I didn’t make with Chris. So you second guess yourself. We have Corey and he’s medically needy. He had some surgery implants done and there are questions — should he have the laughing gas or should he have this? It’s not that I can’t do it because clearly I’m more than capable of doing it. But I don’t want to do it by myself. That wasn’t the plan.”
Debbie Hixon has used her anger to motivate her action.
“People are like ‘What are you angry about?’ I’m angry which is why maybe I haven’t gotten to the grieving part yet because I’m still very angry about a lot of things,” she said. “School safety being one of them. This is probably one of the most preventable school shooting of any of the school shooting that happened. There were so many warning signs. There were so many things that could have been done on that day that weren’t done. I can’t change it but it makes me mad.”
We spoke with Debbie in mid-January at her home.
She’s got boxes of books, cards and mementoes that people from all over the country — strangers — have sent her. One of the gifts sits in front of her yard.
“This tree was given to us by the Naval reserve unit that Chris was in,” she said. “It blooms in February and it blooms in yellow, which yellow was his color.”
She’s chosen to work on gun buyback programs.
“Whether you’re pro-gun or anti-gun none of us is saying everybody should have their guns taken away,” Debbie said. “We all just believe people with guns should be responsible with them.”
TONY & JENNIFER MONTALTO
Many of the family’s have set up foundations for their loved ones and continue to work on specific issues important to them but many of them also seem to speak with one voice.
In the wake of the shooting, the victim’s families created a group called Stand with Parkland.
They’re choosing to focus on improving school safety, demanding responsible firearms ownership and better mental health screening.
Its president is Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina was murdered Stoneman Douglas.
We recently met with Tony and his wife, Jennifer, at the Parkland Library, where Gina’s artwork was on display.
“Early on we could tell she had talent,” Tony said.
We asked Jennifer to show us her favorite drawing of Gina’s. She pointed to a drawing of Jennifer from her wedding day.
“That is someone I don’t even recognize anymore,” Jennifer said. “She sketched that for us last year for our wedding anniversary and that’s a picture of me on our wedding day.”
The Montalto’s are kind, quiet, thoughtful people struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of a child.
“We didn’t expect to lose half our children,” Jennifer said.
Tony has tried to take the tragedy and the pain from it to try and make a difference.
“Now that I find myself with this voice and this opportunity, we have to make the most of it,” Tony said. “It’s been a difficult transition because even though I’ve met some great people and we’ve seen some great things those all came at a terrible, terrible cost. Gina was our daughter. She was our first born. She was a great, great kid. Every day I have to go out and speak on these subjects she’s the first thing I think of.”
He explained the evolution of Stand With Parkland and why how the 17 families chose their focus.
“Our loved ones were shot at school,” he said. “Firearms were clearly responsible, right? The person who did this clearly had mental health issues and he was able to get access to the campus when it should have been secured. Our one incident clearly all of these 3 things were an issue and that’s what we need to get our policymakers and our lawmakers aware of that it’s all 3 of these things and the interplay among them and need to be looked at to solve this uniquely American problem.
“The issues that affected us here could happen anywhere,” he said. “People hear that but don’t believe that. It’s our job to point that out and shine a light on many of these subjects.”
CHANGE ISN’T EASY
Throughout our interviews, several of the family members told us what they believe is the biggest roadblock to making change.
That is changing people’s belief that school shooting can’t — or won’t — happen in their community.
Certainly, the people of Parkland believed that prior to February 14.
Now, they’re trying to walk a double line — mourning the murder of a child or husband while dedicating themselves to honoring their loved one with work that protects others.
“When people say I’m sorry for your loss, I get their notion but I sometimes want to scream and say I didn’t lose Christopher,” Debbie Hixon said. “He didn’t walk into a building and not find his way out. Someone took him away from me and that’s the difference between people who lose someone in gun violence and people who are sick or they’re in an accident. Someone executed my husband. They executed. It wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t a drive by. They look at him and they shot him in the chest 3 times.”
“A grieving parent shouldn’t have to do it,” Andy Pollack said. “I have to do for my daughter expose these people. They should have accepted responsibility but instead I have to force it, exposing them.”
“I felt a responsibility to my daughter to make sure that she’s not forgotten, the circumstances of her death are not forgotten,” said Ryan Petty. “If there’s a way we can make this more difficult — I won’t say prevent because I don’t think you can prevent anything 100 percent — but if we can make this more difficult or less likely to happen, that’s a way to honor her.”
“(Joaquin) said I want to be remembered for something big — I want to be remembered like John Lennon. Like Muhammad Ali. I want to be remembered as somebody who made something big happen,” Manny Oliver said. “So I owe him that. He was very clear with that message. Part of what I’m doing besides giving Joaquin a voice making a voice that is very impactful. I am also making sure he is remembered.”
One thing that stood out while reporting this story is how the victim’s families that we spoke with — rely on each other. They meet and talk often. They’ve become a support group for each other.
“I like them,” said Max Schachter. “I enjoy being with them. Being with them and the friendship gets us through the hard times. Nobody has to ask each other how they’re doing. We know how they’re doing.”
“We have a shared tragedy,” Ryan Petty said. “It’s interesting. We don’t usually greet each other in the usual ways. It’s not very often that we ask each other how are you doing? We just skip that question and get started. It’s been one of the blessings that has come out of this tragedy is having other families that have gone through what we’ve gone through and be able to talk about it.”
“Didn’t know these people beforehand,” Fred Guttenberg said. “But they’re my family now. When we’re together it’s the only time when we feel, I don’t know if normal is the right word for it — but we feel like we’re in a better place. We feel like we’re among the only group of people who do understand.”
Last February 13th these families were regular people, living their lives, mostly strangers to one another. But last February 14th around 2:21 pm that all changed.
These families have been thrust into the roles of reluctant activists.
They’ve become recognizable names on social media and they’ve lost not only a loved one but a part of themselves and a part of their privacy.
They reminded us often that these are not roles they want to play. They are roles they feel they must play.
“That’s why we’re out there,” said Tony Montalto. “We don’t want anyone else to join this club. Children and staff members should just come home from school. It’s school. They’re supposed to be safe.”