They were not at school on the day that changed everything. Students who were absent Feb. 14, the day Nikolas Cruz killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, face a different set of challenges from their peers who were at school that day.
They may not have to relive the terror of watching bullets pierce classroom windows or hearing SWAT teams banging on locked classroom doors. But they can struggle with feelings of survivor’s guilt and alienation from friends who went through it.
And they wonder: What if they had been there? Would they be alive now? Could they have saved someone? And the ultimate question: What to do now?
About 94 percent of Broward County high school students attend classes on a typical day, according to a memo from the school district’s chief academic officer. That means about 200 of the school’s 3,300 students may have been absent Feb. 14.
Stoneman Douglas students who missed school that day “may feel disconnected from their peers, even though they are still part of the school,” said Amanda Weiss, clinical supervisor at the Faulk Center for Counseling in Boca Raton.
“They may not feel they are able to get the same support as those who were there. They could experience an internal struggle because they are like outsiders who have to live in both worlds.”
Taryn Hibshman, 18, a senior, would have been in her Holocaust studies class when the shootings began. Two students, Helena Ramsey and Nick Dworet, died in that class, forcing Hibshman to question whether she would be alive today if she had stayed at school.
She left school early after her third-period teacher ended class before the bell and gave her permission to go. She figured going home early would allow her to see her best friend, a University of Central Florida freshman, who had come home that week.
In retrospect, Hibshman believes she may have had a premonition.
“You can ask anyone, leaving school, especially without signing out, was a first for me. But something inside me was so persistent on the leaving, so I did,” she wrote on Twitter.
At home, her mother called her about the shooting. Hibshman said her feet gave out from under her and she collapsed on the floor.
She began texting with her younger brother, Zach, a junior who was hiding in a classroom. They argued over whether their mother should come to campus to get him.
“Tell mom not to come to school. OK. I NEED YOU TO ANSWER ME RIGHT NOW,” Zach wrote. Taryn wrote back: “Bro chill. You freaked her out. She’s coming to the school.”
Later, Hibshman and her dad biked over to the Stoneman Douglas campus and found Zach.
Then came the rush of emotions about not having been at school during the crisis.
“I feel the inevitable survivor’s guilt,” Hibshman said. “I sat near both of the people that
were killed. “I felt helpless. I just wanted to be there to protect everyone. I keep replaying it in my head.”
From guilt to action
Hibshman said she tries to redirect these thoughts to constructive action. She organized a protest against guns in Boca Raton eight days after the shootings. She also went to the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C.
Josh Levine, 17, has been focusing on taking care of himself. He had been hospitalized for three days and was about to be released when the massacre began.
“I was supposed to be in that building,” Levine said. His math class was on the first floor.
“I keep going over it in my head,” said Levine, a senior. A friend he had known since preschool, Joaquin Oliver, died that day. Devastated by the shootings, Levine has attended school for only six days since the campus reopened.
Levine’s mother, Cindy, said she hopes her son starts attending classes regularly after spring break. She said she, too, has been crushed by the losses and finds herself unable to work or focus on anything not related to Stoneman Douglas. She has been among the volunteers who have been helping to dismantle and then preserve the school’s memorials.
She is grateful her son missed that fateful day of school.
“It’s the first time in my life I thanked God my son was sick and in the hospital,” she said.