UF students gather for the five-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting  


It’s been five years, but memories of her peers’ screams ringing through the halls of her high school still echo in Rachel Taylor’s mind.

Fire alarms blared. Police stormed the school. Lives in Parkland, Florida, changed.

While people worldwide celebrated Feb. 14 — the day dedicated to love — Taylor, a 20-year-old business junior at the University of Florida, and about 100 other students huddled together in the Plaza of Americas to support and comfort each other at a candle vigil service in honor of the 17 lives lost Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“Being in that situation, for the rest of my life, will just be a reminder that life is too short,” Taylor said.

Usually candles lit on Valentine’s Day are a sign of romance, but candles clutched in the tight, sorrowful grips of University of Florida students on Tuesday night were a sign of remembrance.

Participants of a candlelight vigil place candles and flowers in front of luminaries with the names of those lost in the Stoneman Douglas high school shooting during a ceremony in Plaza of the Americas at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. (Rae Riiska/WUFT News)

Each year since the shooting, Alyson Moriarty has organized the March for Our Lives Gainesville vigil for anyone affected by the Parkland shooting. Moriarty, a recent UF graduate, was not a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School but is from the area.

Because she was not directly impacted, she said she saw this as an opportunity to help. It is important to her that those who are mourning can have an outlet to do so without the burden of having to plan it, she said.

For Moriarty, people feeling what they need to feel at the vigil is what makes it successful; it is not about the numbers. Still, she said she was surprised by the big turnout at this year’s gathering.

The crowd of students sat down together in an area outlined by 17 paper bags with a candle inside, each one illuminating one victim’s name. Everyone listened as three of their peers, who were there the day of the shooting, shared their stories.

Eliza Grunstein (left) embraces Kayla Myers (right) after laying flowers and candles at the luminary representing Jaime Guttenberg during a ceremony in Plaza of the Americas at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. Around 100 students gathered in Plaza of the Americas in Gainesville Fla. to remember the victims of the Parkland shooting. This marks the fifth year since 17 lives were taken at Stoneman Douglas High School. (Rae Riiska/WUFT News)

At the end, everyone entered a 19-second moment of silence — 17 seconds in honor of the victims and two additional seconds for the deaths that were a result of the trauma from the shooting.

Grief hung heavy in the air, with only an occasional sniffle breaking the silence.

The day, the emotions, and the experience are almost impossible to put into words, said Max Kilman. Gathering in a group with familiar high school faces was surreal for the 20-year-old computer science junior at UF.

“It’s very important to me that their memories are never forgotten, and that their lives are considered no less meaningful just because they were cut short,” Kilman said.

Moriarty said she appreciates the strength of the people who spoke in front of everyone because these stories send a stronger message to those who are not a part of the fight against gun violence.

March for Our Lives Gainesville is one branch of the larger March for Our Lives organization that formed after the Parkland shooting. The group lobbies for changes in gun law policies to prevent another moment like this from happening.

A luminary with the name of a Parkland victim, sits surrounded by candles and flowers during a ceremony in Plaza of the Americas at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. A candlelight vigil was held in remembrance of the 17 victims of the Stoneman Douglas high school shooting. (Rae Riiska/WUFT News)

Following the 2018 Parkland shooting, lawmakers made strides toward creating a safer environment. Former Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act on March 9, 2018.

The law included a number of provisions such as raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm and allowing teachers to be armed if both the local school district and sheriff’s department agree.

While the greater goal of activism against gun violence is to see more systemic change such as this, Moriarty said she believes it is best to reserve Feb. 14 as a day of remembering instead of advocating.

“It’s not necessarily a day to think about politics,” she said. “But more so a day to bring a community of people together who have either been directly impacted by gun violence or support those who have been impacted.”

The five-year anniversary of this violent day came hours after another school shooting Monday evening at Michigan State University, where a gunman opened fire and killed three and injured five, according to a report from The New York Times.

Not even two months into the new year, 67 mass shootings have been recorded in 2023, according to the Gun Violence Archive. And based on a seven-year review from the Gun Violence Archive, there was a 127% increase in mass shootings from 2014 to 2020, demonstrating a steadily increasing prevalence of gun violence throughout the country.

“I feel like [we] need to dig deeper and figure out what is causing so many people to go and do this,” Kilman said. “Clearly there are unique issues affecting this generation of Americans, and I feel like they’re not currently fully understood.”

Participants in a candlelight vigil listen to speakers as they recount memories from their time at Stoneman Douglas high school. Around 100 students gathered in Plaza of Americas in Gainesville Fla. Feb. 14, 2023, to commemorate the 5-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting. (Rae Riiska/WUFT News)

Year after year, the organization’s goal remains the same. Each vigil is for members and other UF students to have a safe space where they can come reunite and lean on one another, Taylor said.

Valentine’s Day is a holiday you associate with family and loved ones, Taylor said, which makes it even harder to remember and reminisce.

“You just have this memory of the same day and walking out of a classroom during the aftermath,” she said.

Each year it seems more students are forgetting about it and have less opportunities to feel connected to home, Taylor said, but the annual vigil is a great way to reunite.

This holiday is a day that Michael Robb never looks forward to, but seeing how many students came out to support each other was reassuring to the 22-year-old media production senior at UF.

Robb was a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas at the time and said it is nice to see the younger faces come and show their support.

“People still care about the cause,” he said. “It’s important to see that this far away from home.”

Eliza Grunstein places flowers in front of a luminary representing Jaime Guttenberg, a victim in the Parkland shooting during a ceremony in Plaza of the Americas at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. on Feb. 14, 2023. (Rae Riiska/WUFT)

Across the state and country, people have mourned and honored the tragic events that transpired in Parkland. Even President Joe Biden issued a video statement Tuesday to recognize the school shooting victims and their loved ones.

“I’ve gotten to meet almost all of you,” Biden said in the video. “You’re an incredible group of people. My heart breaks for you. It really does.”

Memories like this will never go away, Taylor said, but demonstrations like March for Our Lives Gainesville gives each person a chance to take this horrible event and turn it into something more powerful and positive.

When she thinks about that day, she remembers feeling only one thing — helpless.

Taylor and fellow students were stuck in a teacher conference room for two or three hours unable to move or make a sound. Hearing noises through the walls and not knowing what was happening in the world just 10 feet away from you felt like something out of a movie, she said.

She walked into school a sophomore that day but left feeling 20 years older.

“Life is precious; time is precious,” Taylor said.

Students sit at a candlelight vigil in Plaza of the Americas in Gainesville, Fla. Feb. 14, 2023. Multiple speakers, some from Stoneman Douglas high school, spoke in front of a crowd of around 100 people. The vigil was in remembrance of the 17 lives lost during the shooting five years ago in Parkland Fla. (Rae Riiska/WUFT News)

About Elena Barrera

Elena is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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