Ach­ing re­minders and an un­sure path ahead

Park­land fam­i­lies strug­gle dur­ing the hol­i­days

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Michael Mayo

Like ev­ery­thing about their lives since Feb. 14, the hol­i­day sea­son is a com­plex time for the fam­i­lies of the 17 killed at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High in Park­land. They feel over­whelm­ing sad­ness, but al­low them­selves mo­ments of hap­pi­ness. Stab­bing aches of ab­sence are soothed with warm mem­o­ries. Some won’t cel­e­brate hol­i­days, oth­ers will for the sake of other chil­dren. There is anger over missed sig­nals and mis­takes, the lack of change and ac­count­abil­ity. Some are su­ing, oth­ers are not. Some have be­come ac­tivists, oth­ers have never made their voices heard.

All are try­ing to nav­i­gate a way for­ward.

Fred Gut­ten­berg did not light meno­rah can­dles for Hanukkah this year: “I just couldn’t do it. I just didn’t feel like it.” Gena Hoyer has not hung Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions. Linda Beigel Schul­man pre­pared a Thanks­giv­ing feast, but not her mur­dered son’s fa­vorite ap­ple pie.

Tony Mon­talto and his fam­ily will have Christ­mas. “For our son we’re try­ing to keep it as nor­mal as pos­si­ble,” Mon­talto says. “He doesn’t de­serve to have his life end just be­cause his older sis­ter lost hers.”

This is some­thing vic­tims’ rel­a­tives from hor­rific shoot­ings past, at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary in Con­necti­cut and Columbine High in Colorado, have coun­seled. There is no neat, lin­ear path out of grief. Ev­ery­one’s jour­ney will be dif­fer­ent. And each will be at a dif­fer­ent pace.

A week ago, Debbi Hixon said she would not dec­o­rate the small ar­ti­fi­cial tree she put up mainly for her son Corey, 23, who has Down syn­drome. But at her Hol­ly­wood home this week, the tree had or­na­ments and wrapped presents be­low. Friends had given her the first dec­o­ra­tions. She and Corey then hung or­na­ments they bought dur­ing a 19-day cross-coun­try road trip this sum­mer, a trip that her hus­band, Chris, the Stone­man Dou­glas ath­letic di­rec­tor, first pro­posed last Christ­mas.

“Corey in­sisted that we go,” Debbi says. “I cried a lot on that trip.”

A por­trait of her late hus­band gazed down upon a Route 66 or­na­ment on the tree.

The trip ended in Los An­ge­les, where Chris and two other slain coaches from Stone­man Dou­glas, Scott Beigel and Aaron Feis, were hon­ored posthu­mously at ESPN’s an­nual ESPY awards. This week, on the eve of an­other trip to Cal­i­for­nia, a Christ­mas visit to the Hixons’ old­est son, Tommy, Corey went around the house, show­ing off awards and hon­ors that the fam­ily had ac­cepted on Chris’ be­half.

One was from the Travis Man­ion Foun­da­tion. Man­ion was a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq af­ter he vol­un­teered for a sec­ond tour of duty by say­ing, “If not me, then who will go?” Chris Hixon, a Navy vet­eran, was killed when he ran into the 1200 build­ing at Stone­man Dou­glas, try­ing to stop the shooter. He was 49.

Debbi told how she spent her birth­day on Dec. 11 with a trip to her hus­band’s grave at the South Florida Na­tional Ceme­tery in Boyn­ton Beach.

Writ­ten on Hixon’s head­stone: “If not me, then who?”

Debbi says she feels a lot of anger this hol­i­day sea­son, and there are days she de­taches from the world. “I watch HGTV,” she says. She re­turned to work in March at South Broward High, where she over­sees the school’s mag­net pro­gram. Some days she shuts the door to her of­fice. Stu­dents and staffers un­der­stand. “Code Red drills are hard,” she says. “We had a real

Code Red in Septem­ber [when po­lice locked down the school while chas­ing rob­bery sus­pects]. I lost it.”

Ev­ery day, it seems, brings chill­ing new de­tails and head­lines, with doc­u­ments re­leased by pros­e­cu­tors in the crim­i­nal case against shooter Niko­las Cruz, rec­om­men­da­tions and re­ports is­sued by in­ves­tiga­tive com­mis­sions whose work is com­ing to an end, and court pro­ceed­ings for ongoing law­suits. The ac­tivism em­braced by many fam­i­lies as a way to honor vic­tims and bring change has led to a fre­netic life of meet­ings, travel and men­tal ex­haus­tion.

“It’s a daily night­mare you can’t es­cape,” says Fred Gut­ten­berg, whose 14-year-old daugh­ter Jaime died at the Park­land school. There are also un­ex­pected re­minders. Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex was killed, says pho­tos of hol­i­days and fam­ily trips with his son some­times pop up un­prompted on his smart­phone. “All this tech­nol­ogy to­day,” Schachter says. He has not tried to dis­able the fea­ture. “It’s nice to see him smil­ing.”

“It’s an over­whelm­ing time of year,” says Tony Mon­talto, whose

14-year-old daugh­ter Gina was killed. “Los­ing a daugh­ter is tough enough. But we have to deal with the vi­o­lence of it, the sud­den­ness of it, the re­liv­ing of it, and the in­com­pe­tence at ev­ery level lead­ing up to it.”

Says Mitch Dworet: “Our hol­i­days are marked by ab­sence. … Our son Ni­cholas is dead. Our son Alex was in­jured — he saw things he should have never seen. We are left to deal with it all, and the pain. The grief is so in­tense.”

Four­teen stu­dents and three ed­u­ca­tors were killed in Park­land. Most fam­i­lies did not know each other be­fore Valen­tine’s Day. Now they share a ter­ri­ble bond. That bond, in a way, is also beau­ti­ful.

Last Sun­day, fam­i­lies gath­ered at the home of Tom and Gena Hoyer, whose 15-year-old son Luke was killed. It was not a hol­i­day party, but rather the lat­est in an oc­ca­sional se­ries of meet-ups of what Max Schachter calls the “MSD 17 club.” Schachter tweeted pho­tos, writ­ing, “None of us ever wanted to be in MSD 17 club but it is so nice when we are to­gether.” Fred Gut­ten­berg wrote: “I hate that I know any­one in this group, but I love all of you and

spend­ing time with you is al­ways a good thing.”

The group pho­tos show smil­ing men, some with arms draped over shoul­ders, and smil­ing women. The im­ages of­fered hope and hu­man­ity, a mes­sage that peo­ple thrust to­gether af­ter tragedy can find af­fec­tion de­spite dif­fer­ences.

Ten fam­i­lies gath­ered, in­clud­ing those with op­pos­ing views on politics and poli­cies, in­clud­ing gun con­trol, school-safety mea­sures and the death penalty for the shooter. An­drew Pol­lack, whose 18-year-old daugh­ter Meadow was killed and who sup­ports Pres­i­dent Trump and the NRA, was there. So was Manuel Oliver, a cru­sader for gun re­stric­tions who has ex­co­ri­ated the NRA through ac­tivist art in the wake of his 17-year-old-son Joaquin’s mur­der.

“We’re the only ones who know what each other is go­ing through,” says Mon­talto, who heads the vic­tims’ fam­ily group Stand With Park­land. “We’re like a fam­ily. We can squab­ble and have dif­fer­ences, but we can still come to­gether.”

The night be­fore the get­to­gether, a Twit­ter spat erupted between Pol­lack, Schachter and Gut­ten­berg

af­ter Pol­lack chided Schachter for be­ing the lone mem­ber of a state in­ves­tiga­tive com­mis­sion to vote against a rec­om­men­da­tion to arm teach­ers. “The one com­mis­sioner that didn’t watch [sur­veil­lance videos of the killings] voted against it,” Pol­lack wrote.

Schachter coun­tered: “I did not need to see the video of the mur­der to de­cide that arm­ing teach­ers is not the so­lu­tion.”

Lori Al­had­eff, elected to the Broward County School Board af­ter the death of her 14-year-old daugh­ter Alyssa, says, “This isn’t a show. This is our lives. It’s not al­ways go­ing to be ‘Kum­baya.’ We didn’t know each other be­fore this but we’ll al­ways have that connection. Ev­ery­one has to de­cide what’s best for them and their fam­i­lies.”

Al­had­eff de­cided to chan­nel her grief by run­ning for of­fice. She was sworn onto the school board last month. “I’m try­ing to be op­ti­mistic be­cause I want to make change,” she says. “I bring a sense of ur­gency more than what was there. The peo­ple who have been slow to change are go­ing to have to look me in the eye for the next four years.”

Linda Beigel Schul­man, who lives in New York and comes to South Florida of­ten, says she chooses to cel­e­brate her son Scott Beigel’s life. She has be­come close with her son’s for­mer ge­og­ra­phy stu­dents and cross-coun­try run­ners. She wel­comed Stone­man Dou­glas grad­u­ate and ac­tivist Cameron Kasky to her Long Is­land home for Thanks­giv­ing. She hon­ors her son’s legacy by cam­paign­ing for sen­si­ble gun re­form and sup­port­ing the sum­mer camp where he was a coun­selor. Scott Beigel was 35.

“I know noth­ing is go­ing to bring him back, so I just have to keep mov­ing for­ward,” she says. Yet, like many rel­a­tives, she has a hard time un­der­stand­ing why leaders such as Broward Sher­iff Scott Is­rael and Broward Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Robert Run­cie still have jobs. “They say a fish rots from the head down, and all the heads are still there.”

Two fam­i­lies say they have had enough of Broward and are mov­ing away. An­drew Pol­lack has bought an RV and says he’s “look­ing to go more ru­ral” while pur­su­ing mul­ti­ple law­suits that he hopes will bring an­swers and ac­count­abil­ity.

“I don’t want to live around un­eth­i­cal Democrats any­more,” Pol­lack says. “The sher­iff, the Broward School Board, the su­per­in­ten­dent, the su­per­vi­sor of elec­tions – they’re all in­com­pe­tent. I mean 70 per­cent of the peo­ple here voted for An­drew Gil­lum. I just can’t be around it. To me, it’s neg­a­tive en­ergy. … If it were Repub­li­cans, I’d call them out, too.”

April and Phil Schen­trup, whose 16-year-old daugh­ter Car­men was killed, have put their Park­land home on the mar­ket and this month moved to the Seat­tle area, where Phil’s em­ployer is based. April, a for­mer ele­men­tary prin­ci­pal, briefly took a job as a school safety ad­min­is­tra­tor at school district head­quar­ters. She is on leave and her younger daugh­ter en­rolled in on­line school af­ter leav­ing Stone­man Dou­glas. “We need time to heal,” Schen­trup says.

Debbi Hixon is also try­ing to heal. She says lit­tle things bother her, in­clud­ing po­lite words and wellmeant ques­tions from friends and strangers. Ques­tions such as “How are you do­ing?”

“It’s bet­ter to just say, ‘Been think­ing of you, good to see you,’ ” Hixon says. She half-jok­ingly says she should write an eti­quette book on speak­ing with peo­ple han­dling vi­o­lent tragedy.

“Peo­ple come up all the time and say, ‘Sorry for your loss,’ ” she says. “I know they have good in­ten­tions but hear­ing that makes me an­gry. I just nod and say, ‘Thanks.’ But in my head I’m think­ing, ‘My hus­band wasn’t sick, he didn’t get into an ac­ci­dent. He was mur­dered.’ We didn’t lose him, he was taken by some­one who should have been stopped.”

MIKE STOCKER/SUN SEN­TINEL

Debbi Hixon sits in the liv­ing room of her Hol­ly­wood home next to a Christ­mas tree with her youngest son, Corey.

MIKE STOCKER/SUN SEN­TINEL

One of the dec­o­ra­tions on Debbi Hixon’s tree is a memo­rial card for her hus­band, Chris Hixon.

COUR­TESY

Debbi Hixon and moth­ers of slain Park­land stu­dents gather at the Hoyer house on Dec. 16. From left: Kelly Petty, Lori Al­had­eff, Pa­tri­cia Oliver, Jen­nifer Gut­ten­berg, Gena Hoyer, Caryn DeSa­cial Schachter, Jen­nifer Mon­talto, Debbi Hixon and An­nika Dworet.

Fa­thers and sib­lings of slain Park­land stu­dents gather at the Hoyer house on Dec. 16. From left: Mitch Dworet, Jake Hoyer (brother of Luke Hoyer), An­drew Pol­lack, Max Schachter, Ryan Petty, Tony Mon­talto, Tom Hoyer, Hunter Pol­lack (brother of Meadow Pol­lack), Fred Gut­ten­berg and Manuel Oliver.

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