World·CBC in Florida

Students of Parkland, Fla., step up and speak out in wake of school shooting

There’s a familiar pattern that follows mass shootings in the U.S., but the students in Parkland, Fla., are determined to break it. Not content to simply accept the country’s thoughts and prayers, they’re speaking out and holding lawmakers’ feet to the fire on gun control.

Teens ask how country could let them down after 17 killed by a gunman

Students gather during a vigil at Pine Trails Park on Thursday, Feb. 15, for the victims of Wednesday's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. This generation of students has grown up with school shootings. (Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

One mass shooting is too many. I've now covered four: in Orlando, Fla., Charleston, S.C., Las Vegas and now, Parkland, Fla.

The days and weeks following a mass shooting have come to follow a familiar routine: a number of people, often children, die; lawmakers send thoughts and prayers; there are calls for action on gun control; nothing changes; repeat.

When I arrived in Parkland the morning after a former student opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killing 17 people, I was prepared for more of the same.

Less than five months ago, 59 people were killed in Las Vegas in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. There's been little progress at the federal level on the few proposals for increased gun control that have emerged in its aftermath. Politicians, media — even the survivors — seem to have moved on. The cycle seemed destined to continue.

But in Parkland, I met Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Stoneman Douglas. She spoke with the same anguish I'd heard too many times before. Yet she also spoke with fire, conviction, a sense of purpose.

That purpose was evident as she addressed the crowd at a rally for gun control in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday afternoon.

She systematically took apart some of the common talking points of the gun lobby, including the idea that nothing could have been done to prevent this latest tragedy or that a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun, leading the crowd in a chant of "BS!" after each point. The speech has gone viral.

Student survivors of Florida school shooting plead for change at gun control rally

6 years ago
Duration 0:53
Featured VideoThousands of people attended a rally in Florida on Saturday calling on the U.S. government to bring in gun control measures.

Reluctant leaders of an energized movement

The energy of the people listening to Gonzalez in person was palpable. It's the same energy that's driven David Hogg, a fellow senior at Stoneman Douglas.

Student David Hogg became the face of a community crying out in anger, appealing to the country to do something to control guns. (Steve D'Souza/CBC)

When I met him he was bouncing from media interview to media interview, showing poise well beyond his years. He had become the face of a community crying out in anger. He said it was a role he never wanted and that the fact that he, a 17-year-old, had to do it showed how broken the country was.

His call for the government to act on gun control was first delivered in a video recorded while he and other students were hiding in a classroom during the shooting, then on networks from CNN to BBC to Norwegian television.

Cameron Kasky is another of the leaders of the new student activist movement born out of the Valentine's Day tragedy. The Stoneman Douglas student turns 18 three days after the November midterm elections, so he'll focus his energy on getting others out to vote, he said.

He said he and other Parkland students feel abandoned by politicians who have failed to keep guns out of schools. And while he doesn't want to take away everyone's guns, he says he knows the country can do better.

Remembering Sandy Hook

His father, Jeffrey, said he wasn't sure about this son's chances of success. After all, he said, the country didn't act — at least not on a federal level — after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which claimed the lives of 26 people, including 20 first-graders — so why would it act now?

Connecticut did implement some of the nation's toughest laws in the wake of that shooting, and while Kasky is not sure Florida will do the same, he said he also knows what it's like when his son sets his mind to something, so he's hopeful.

School shootings have become the norm for this generation of students. Born after the Columbine massacre in 1999, which left 12 students and a teacher dead, they've grown up regularly taking part in active-shooter drills.

An early morning fog rises where 17 memorial crosses were placed, for the 17 deceased students and faculty from the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

Alexis Tracton, a sophomore at Stoneman Douglas, says this is the first time she and her peers haven't been afraid to speak out. They're trying to let the world understand their experience, she said.

To be fair, many are still reluctant to come forward, but those who have spoken out, are doing so like never before.

And it's hearing from those students that has made the Parkland shooting feel different from past school shootings. The students here didn't shy away from the cameras.

They embraced the spotlight and turned it back on the country and asked how it could have let them down. They looked through the camera lenses into living rooms and asked their fellow citizens to do better.

Role of social media

Emma Gonzalez's mother said she'd often been critical of her daughter and her friends for spending so much time on social media. Now, she says, she understands that what she considered a fault of her daughter's generation could be its greatest strength.

She says she realizes now that Emma's time online is spent researching, connecting and organizing. That Emma and her classmates are using their social media power to amplify their voices.

They will single out any politician for inaction: state and House representatives, senators, even the president. No one is off limits.

Their ideas for what should happen next might not be fully formed, but what they lack in knowledge they more than make up for in sheer will and determination. They're too young to be jaded and don't accept that inaction is inevitable.

Each student CBC talked to while in Parkland was convinced she or he had the power to make this the last mass shooting of its kind.

Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks to the media after calling for more gun control at a rally Saturday. She called 'B.S.' on pro-gun arguments. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

They seem convinced their fervour can reach beyond their own liberal district in Florida to other districts and states that may be less amenable to gun control.

They've announced a March for Our Lives on Washington, scheduled for March 24.

In interviews, they reiterated that they can't let their friends die in vain, that their deaths have to mean something.

The students say they welcome thoughts and prayers but what they really want is change, and they're daring the country's leaders to tell them they're wrong.

To those telling them now is not the time to politicize this tragedy, the students would most likely say: "That's B.S."


Steven D'Souza

Co-host, The Fifth Estate

Steven D'Souza is a co-host with The Fifth Estate. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.