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Five years later: MSD teachers focus on what they can change - not what they can't

Melissa Falkowski and Diana Haneski say many of the colleagues at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have left in the five years since the shooting on Feb. 14, 2018. But many teachers -- like them -- have stayed.
Kate Payne / WLRN
Melissa Falkowski and Diana Haneski say many of their colleagues at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have left in the five years since the shooting on Feb. 14, 2018. But many teachers -- like them -- have stayed.

You have to focus on what you can change — not all the things you can’t. That’s what Diana Haneski has done for the past five years. That’s how she’s made it through what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018.

“I know that if I teach a student how to recognize the signs of feeling stressed and anxiety and all the other terrible things our students are feeling … that I’m helping,” she said.

Haneski runs the library at the school in Parkland.

She and her colleague Melissa Falkowski say a lot has changed since that tragic day when 17 people were killed and 17 others injured by a gunman.

Falkowski is an English teacher and the sponsor of the school newspaper, The Eagle Eye.

On how the school has changed

They say the breadth and depth of the school’s trauma has shifted as the people within its walls come and go.

All of the students who were there in 2018 have moved on. Many of Diana and Melissa’s coworkers have left, too. But many — like the two of them — have stayed.

“It’s very different,” Falkowski said. “I’ll give you an example. The fire alarm for whatever reason has been going off a lot lately. And when that used to happen when the kids who experienced the shooting were at our school … like when I tell you that I would see kids collapse. The thing would go off and they would just collapse to the floor.”

“We don’t deal with that now because that’s just not people’s reactions,” Falkowski said. “I think the staff gets more … tenses up.”

"I know that if I teach a student how to recognize the signs of feeling stressed and anxiety and all the other terrible things our students are feeling … that I’m helping."
Diana Haneski, media specialist at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

The specter of another shooting hangs in the hallways — at the same time unthinkable and ever-present.

“A few weeks ago we had a situation at school where they had to call a lockdown,” Falkowski said. “They called it … I went to turn my lights off, and when I turned around the entire class was gone. They were in the closet, they were already there. You didn’t have to tell them what to do. They know!”

“In a way it’s good and in a way it’s also sad because … that’s so entrenched in our students that they are fearful and afraid and they know what to do,” Falkowski said. “But given the state of things and the fact that it doesn’t look like the problem is going away, it’s an important thing.”

When the lockdown happened, Haneski said she was grateful she wasn’t immobilized by her own trauma.

“I’m proud of us that we knew what to do. We didn’t say, ‘oh no, again?’ We just did what we had to do,” Haneski said. “And for me it was good that we were able to see what happened and also to see that … some kids get upset.”

“I needed those skills to help those kids,” Haneski said. “And now I have a zen room in the library so they went to the zen room and relaxed. So these good things came from the horror.”

A memorial garden for the 17 people killed in the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Scott McIntyre for NPR
A memorial garden for the 17 people killed in the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The shootings haven't stopped

Five years later, they still struggle with the fact that these shootings keep happening.

Sante Fe. Oxford. Uvalde. And all the other schools and churches and towns that have already faded from the national memory because there are simply so many massacres — and all the shootings that never even register because they aren’t “deadly enough”.

In the years since the Parkland shooting, firearms have become the leading cause of death for American children, surpassing car crashes.

“For me personally, that's the hardest part,” Falkowski said. “Because I was hoping that there was going to be some type of real systemic change. And then the kids marched on Washington! So you thought, ‘oh, this is it.’ And then … nothing really has changed. So that is the part I think I struggle with the most.”

Supporters fill the stage at the end of the "March for Our Lives" rally in support of gun control, on March 24, 2018, in Washington.
Alex Brandon
/
AP
Supporters fill the stage at the end of the "March for Our Lives" rally in support of gun control, on March 24, 2018, in Washington.

“Because I feel like I’m not doing anything,” Falkowski said. “I’m very close with Robert Schentrup, whose sister Carmen was killed in the shooting. He’s like, ‘you’re teaching. You’re teaching kids newspaper and you’re teaching them journalism and you’re teaching them to have a voice. And that’s what you taught me.’ So in some ways I guess I am doing … but in other ways it feels like you’re not doing enough.”

"I was hoping that there was going to be some type of real systemic change. And then the kids marched on Washington! So you thought, ‘oh, this is it.’ And then … nothing really has changed. So that is the part I think I struggle with the most.”
-Melissa Falkowski, English teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

It’s a brutal reality that threatens to break them — if they couldn’t stop it, what will ever make it stop?

“I could sit here and paralyze myself from doing anything if I think about all the young children that have died since ours. In five years! I can just turn into a mess!” Haneski said. “That’s why I’m doing what I think I can. Because I can’t take the guns away from people. They tell us how we gotta wrench it out of their dead hand or whatever, right?”

“It’s entrenched,” Falokowski agreed. “It’s very entrenched.”

Provided by Diana Haneski
After the 2018 shooting, MSD media specialist Diana Haneski got a trained therapy dog named River. The mini bernedoodle now comes to school every day and has become a key part of the recovery process for Haneski and her students.

“So I focus on what I can do,” Haneski said. “The mindfulness practices have helped me. And initially I got involved because I thought it’d be able to help the kids … so there’s mindful eating. Mindful walk. Movement.”

Haneski’s trained therapy dog River has been a big part of the recovery process as well — for Haneski and her students.

“She comes to school with us everyday. So this is her fifth year teaching at Douglas! Teaching!” Haneski said with a laugh. “Or should I say as a faculty member ... and I wonder, how did we work without her?”

On why they stayed

Haneski and Falkowski have watched other colleagues leave the school, looking for a new start. But they plan to stay.

“I spent my whole career at this school. I did my student teaching [here] … I live in this community. I see myself retiring from this school,” Falkowski said. “I will not let this person that did this horrible thing make it so that I can’t be in the place that is where I enjoy to teach, love to be and is my second home.”

“I feel like I belong at MSD. I feel like I’m needed,” said Haneski. “And why would I go anywhere? It’s like the best school. It really is. I mean … I love that school.”

Part of what keeps them is the feeling that nobody else would quite understand what they’ve been through.

“Like when that lockdown happened, they check on us,” Falkowski said. “They go to teachers who were affected. They knock on doors. They ask people if they're okay. And if someone is really in a bad state, they'll find you coverage for your classroom so you could go home.”

“You would not get that in other places,” she said. “You would not get that understanding.”

“I feel like there’s so much more to do there,” Haneski added. “I want to stay.”

Kate Payne / WLRN

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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