By Michelle Mairena, Youthcast Media Group
MIAMI — It was Logan Rubenstein’s first week of freshman year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. During math class, there was a fire alarm.
None of his classmates moved from their seats. Then a student started to cry.
It was only six months before when, in the same school at 2:21 p.m, a 19-year-old gunman walked in and opened fire, killing 17 students and faculty members. It took less than 10 minutes that February afternoon for the suburban city to be marked forever, changed by the sound of bullets perforating classroom walls and the cries of students escorted from buildings by SWAT teams, and of their parents as they were reunited outside the school.
Rubenstein, a current junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, was not a high school student at the time of the shooting. He was an eighth grader at Coral Springs Middle School, sitting in a classroom just down the street from the high school.
It’s been almost three years now, but for students of the community that lived through that day — even when, like Rubenstein, they were not at the high school when the tragedy took place — the painful and traumatic memories remain. For many, including Rubenstein, who is the policy director for “March For Our Lives” in Florida and his school’s chapter president, recovery came in part through political action.
“The shooting was something that had an impact on me, like [it did to many] others,” Rubenstein said. “I think all of us [in the community] started doing different things with these memories. Some just wanted to move on … In my case, I started getting interested in politics.”
Impossible to forget
In the community of Parkland, the memories of the 2018 mass shooting are ever-present. Some stores still have “Parkland Strong” signs hanging in their windows, others have the protest-symbolic orange ribbons tied on their porch pillars, and most residents remember vividly where they were and what they were doing on February 14, 2018.
“I remember not knowing exactly what had happened, just knowing something had happened and it was real,” said Rubenstein of that day, when he sat in a corner of his classroom for hours. His school, like many other schools near Marjory Stoneman Douglas, had been placed in lockdown.
“My dad picked me up and there were police cars everywhere,” he said. “They found the shooter two neighborhoods down from mine and there were FBI agents with dogs around my house, too.”
“I was 13 and it was not like anything I had seen before,” he said.
His parents knew other parents who were searching for their children via social media posts. Later, Rubenstein also found out that one of the shooting victims had attended his middle school.
“She rode the same bus as I did,” he said.
Logan had been at Marjory Stoneman Douglas just the night before, on February 13, attending an orientation for new students at the school’s auditorium alongside hundreds of other soon-to-be freshmen. Six months later, when he began high school there, the trauma of the shooting remained palpable.
“My freshman year was weird,” Rubenstein said. “It’s not like I was thinking about it every second, but I was going to a school where the majority were shooting survivors … I was living in an area where it happened, and there were moments [at school] and certain things that reminded me of the event.”
Moments like the fire alarm during math class: “Things like that reminded me of what had happened and where I was.”
Grief turns to activism
After the shooting, students of the Parkland community came together to demand change. A new wave of student activism rose, with Marjory Stoneman Douglas students at its forefront. Walk-outs took place nationwide, along with marches, speeches, celebrity involvement, political mobilization, and advocacy.
The movement started with social media posts by Marjory Stoneman Douglas students using the hashtag “Never Again,” a phrase that symbolized a simple demand: American students should never have to fear for their lives on a school campus. The phrase became the anguished battle cry of a national movement that comprised millions of supporters, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas students funded the non-profit “March For Our Lives” to solidify their gun reform advocacy.
In less than a year after the shooting, more than 10 states raised the age limit for owning guns, banned bump stocks, and passed stricter gun restrictions at both state and local levels of government.
Today, this nationwide attention has faded, but the individual politically-active students of Parkland like Rubenstein have not stopped.
“I didn’t do anything before the shooting. I followed along with news but that was it,” said Rubenstein. “I was a 13-year-old with a general idea of things, but with March For Our Lives my interest started.”
For Rubenstein, activism began with gun reform, but soon expanded.
“[S]eeing how politics can directly affect people ignited my passion for local activism,” he said. “From there, my [political] interests branched out… I got more and more involved in local politics, and even though some local races do not necessarily deal with gun reform, there are local issues that overlap with fighting gun violence,” such as access to mental health care.
All across Parkland more citizens began to get politically involved after the spring of 2018. Parkland, considered over the past decades a swing city, has moved left of Florida in the last two elections. Candidates who include gun reform in their platforms particularly gain large support.
“The city was changed. There are many who just want to forget, but what happened affected everyone living here. None of us could escape the news,” said Rubenstein.
This past election cycle, he was particularly involved in local races. He interned for a Commissioner’s campaign, volunteered for the contended seat of his district’s Criminal Defense Attorney, and participated in youth-led roundtables on gun reform for Congressional candidates.
“Advocating for gun reform is hard, exhausting,” he said. “But of course, knowing that you are helping to change things in your community makes it worth it.”
Editor’s note: Michelle Mairena is a 12th grade student at Miami Lakes Educational Center in Miami. She was a participant in the Urban Health Media Project’s fall 2020 workshop “Surviving and Thriving Despite Trauma” held in fall 2020, which was funded by The National Council for Behavioral Health (www.thenationalcouncil.org).