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'A symbol of failure': Demolition of Parkland high school massacre site begins as families of the victims look on

The 1200 building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the 2018 massacre, in Parkland, Fla., on Oct. 20, 2021. (Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel) The 1200 building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the 2018 massacre, in Parkland, Fla., on Oct. 20, 2021. (Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel)
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Parkland, Fla. -

For six years, a building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman killed 17 people, was a nightmare frozen in time. But now, the 1200 building, which contained the bloody and heartbreaking remnants of the massacre, is being demolished.

The demolition of the building began Friday morning, with an excavator tearing into the top floor of the three-storey building under a clear sky. Family members of the victims watched from nearby tents on school property. Some cried. It is expected to take several weeks to complete, according to the Broward County Public Schools district. It will be dismantled in pieces, starting from the top.

“This building has been a symbol – a symbol of failure. I know many in the community are happy to see it go,” said Tony Montalto, who lost his 14-year-old daughter, Gina. His son is concerned people will forget once the building is gone. His wife had grown attached to it from the many times they took lawmakers through its corridors.

“As for me, I’m concerned because we haven’t seen a solid plan yet for what’s going to replace this building. We need something that’s going to reflect the ones who were taken from us, the people they were before the tragedy.”

The district said in May the demolition would take place in summer 2024 following the end of the school year, which was Monday. The demolition was initially set to begin Thursday, but was delayed due to days of torrential flooding rain in South Florida.

In a statement, the district said Friday it “is continuing to work with the families and school staff to determine future use of the site.”

The shooting ripped apart 17 families, including 14 students and three faculty members, on Valentine’s Day in 2018. Seventeen others were wounded; their journey through grief and trauma continues to this day. The gunman was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“This is one more step in our healing process,” Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was killed at the school, told CNN Friday.

“And it’s important that… six years later, that this building comes down and my family, you know, we’re grieving the death of our daughter, Alyssa. We’re healing but we’re also trying to make change.”

Alhadeff founded the non-profit Make Our Schools Safe, which promotes school safety. Alyssa’s Law, which requires that public elementary and secondary school buildings be equipped with silent panic alarms to notify law enforcement, is on the books in six states.

“We know that time equals life,” said Alhadeff, noting that legislators who toured the building – “seeing the blood on the ground, the glass on the floor, the horror” – were moved to action.

Alhadeff, who chairs the Broward County School Board, said she hoped the grounds would be turned into a “usable space” she called “MSD Legacy Field” that can serve as a “teachable area where we can remember and keep the legacy alive.”

“The day before Alyssa was murdered, she played in her last soccer game and she was fierce,” her mother recalled Friday. “She was captain of her soccer team, wore number eight, and we just miss and love Alyssa so much, and we will continue to keep your memory alive through Make Our Schools Safe.”

'There is no closure'

Before the demolition got underway, a rainbow soared over the area where families of the victims later gathered.

Among those assembled were Debbi Hixon and her son Corey, whose father, Chris, 49, the school athletic director and wrestling coach, was killed that day. Alhadeff was there with her family, along with Montalto. And Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son, Alex, was murdered in English class. Once the demolition started, Schachter did not stop watching.

“When I brought people through that building, it changed their lives,” Schachter said. “And everybody that came out of that building was focused to make sure that this never happens again.”

Even after it’s torn down, Schachter said, the 1200 building will always be there.

“I will always remember the horrific images that I saw walking through that building, knowing the pain that Alex was going through when he was being shot and murdered. There is no closure for me. It’s a progress through this journey that I am on.”

His only regret, Schachter said, is that more people will not be able to bear witness to the horror.

“It’s difficult to understand the magnitude of the failures unless you’re walking through that building,” he said.

“In Florida, we’ve passed seven school safety bills since Parkland. We take it very, very seriously. You have to prioritize safety before education because you can’t teach dead children. I’m looking at this building today and it reminds me of all the failures that happened that day.”

It rained earlier but, by the time the excavator went to work, the sky was a clear blue. Some family members greeted each other with hugs. Others stood in small groups and talked.

The school building was preserved pending the trials of both the shooter and Parkland school resource officer Scot Peterson, who stayed outside during the massacre. A jury acquitted Peterson on all counts, absolving him of wrongdoing in the rare trial of a law enforcement officer.

On the day of the massacre, the then 19-year-old gunman grabbed his AR-15-style rifle and magazines and rode in an Uber to his former high school. There, he took out his rifle and loaded it then wandered through the halls of the school. He fired indiscriminately at various students and staff in hallways and classrooms. He eventually left the school and was taken into custody several miles away.

Students initially returned to the campus two weeks after the shooting. But building 1200, where most of the victims were killed, was closed off behind emergency tape with its windows covered. A new building later replaced the temporary classrooms students had been using in the wake of the slaughter.

Survivors and family members of those killed in the shooting were given — at their request — private, individual tours in 2023 inside the 1200 building and described a tragic and grotesque scene, with blood stains in the areas where the victims had been killed, bullet holes puncturing the classrooms, and Valentine’s Day candy still on students’ desks.

Other school shooting sites destroyed

Many schools where mass shootings occur choose to demolish the sites of the massacres to ease the extraordinary trauma experienced by survivors, victims’ families and the rest of the community. Four years after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 26, a newly rebuilt school opened to students — including fourth-graders who were kindergarteners during the bloodbath.

Columbine High School also demolished its school library, where most of the carnage ensued during the 1999 shooting that killed 13, and replaced it with a newly built school library named the Hope Library.

In Uvalde, Texas, where students at Robb Elementary School were marred by the slaughter of 19 children and two teachers in 2022, city officials have said they also plan to destroy the building.

“In many cases, these schools are closed or entirely renovated in an attempt to decrease the traumatic reminders that they have become for community members,” according to the Center for Violence Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Correction

A previous version of this story misstated who absolved Scot Peterson of wrongdoing. A jury acquitted him on all counts.

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