Scott Brinton

These Stoneman Douglas survivors really got to me

Posted

Journalists are a hard-bitten lot. Internalize the emotions of your stories and you could end up jaded and angry, or worse, a drug addict. That would be good for no one.

As a reporter, you record the events of the day, in print, audio or video. You must compartmentalize your gut reactions to murders, DWI crashes and heroin overdoses, banishing them to the recesses of your mind, where they are eventually forgotten. That’s how journalists stay sane.

Two interviews that I recently conducted, however, gave me reason to pause. Throughout both, I felt a virtually overwhelming urge to cry.

On July 20, I sat down separately with Taylor Yon, 16, and Zoe Gordon, 15, to discuss their terrifying experiences when, earlier this year, a 19-year-old alleged gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and started firing an AR-15 assault rifle at students and teachers. 

It was Valentine’s Day, 2:21 p.m. Taylor was in Algebra 2, in the high school’s Building 12, where the shooting took place, while Zoe was in another nearby building, also in Algebra 2.

Fourteen students and three teachers died in the six-minute attack.

I have covered mass shootings before. The first was the Long Island Rail Road massacre in Garden City in 1993, in which six people were killed. In the past, I felt in control of my emotions. My interviews with Taylor and Zoe were different. I didn’t cry as they spoke, but I needed to. I wanted to.

Why now? I wondered. I have always reported on mass shootings from afar, I later concluded. I had never actually sat down one on one with a survivor — even after the LIRR shooting. I hadn’t imagined that such an interview would cut me so deeply.

I’ve written a great deal about the Parkland massacre in recent months. Suddenly, though, I could feel Taylor’s and Zoe’s fear, their terror. Like so many of their Stoneman Douglas classmates, they were articulate and willing to tell their stories in detail.

Moreover, I’m the father of two teenagers. My daughter is a year older than Taylor, and my son is the same age and in the same grade as Zoe. I saw Taylor and Zoe as kids thrust into an unthinkable crisis — a crisis they didn’t cause, but one that they felt a need to speak about in the hope of solving it.

The toughest point in the interviews came toward the end of my conversation with Zoe. She was describing the moment that police arrived at her classroom. Students were huddled at the back of the room. They could hear SWAT officers outside. One girl instinctively leapt up and unlocked the door. She wasn’t supposed to do that. Police were supposed to break down the door, according to protocol.

Why would we expect a teenager fearing for her life to behave any differently? I thought. Her anxiety or impatience or gratitude to be alive got the best of her, and she simply did what came naturally, to my mind.

Zoe recalled officers leaving her at the school’s front gate, before what she described as “swarms of kids.” She stepped off school grounds into chaos. She was suddenly alone in a mass of people, and the sights and sounds confused her. She rushed up and down the street, crying as she searched for her father, whom she couldn’t find.

I felt angry as she spoke. How could this young girl be left on the street like that? She was distraught and scared and vulnerable, and she was just dropped at the school’s property line to find her way to her dad — after another teenager had shot up an entire wing of her school with a high-powered rifle.

All of this — all of it — was just insanity, I wanted to scream. How, as a country, could we let this happen? How?

Change for the better must begin with our elected leaders — particularly the men and women of Congress. Only they can enact national policies to curb gun violence and restore sanity to our battered and bruised nation.

I implore our congressional representatives to visit Parkland and walk the halls of Stoneman Douglas High School. Stand in the classrooms where children and their teachers were gunned down. Look closely at walls, floors and doors. Then imagine them bloodstained and full of bullet holes.

Talk with the survivors. Listen to their stories. Let your guards down, if only for a minute, and listen. Hear the children, one human to another. Then return to Washington to study and debate how best to end mass shootings.

We might find a new path to peace.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.