Inspired by Fla. students, Stoneman Douglas alumni meet in Somerville
SOMERVILLE — First came the stunning texts and anxious calls, then the wrenching videos and photographs, and finally the outpourings on Facebook — disbelief, anger, hurt, resolve — at seeing a source of so much joy and pride shattered by a deadly burst of violence.
As the attack dominated national news in the days that followed, amid their grief they marveled at the spirit of community uniting them, a shared resolve that this should never happen again.
For alumni of Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School now living in the Boston area — dozens of whom came together Sunday in Somerville amid a growing effort to support current students calling for tougher gun laws —
the Feb. 14 mass shooting felt much as the Boston Marathon bombing had for so many New Englanders in 2013.
It was at once painful and surreal for them to learn that 17 people had been killed in a massacre at the school, apparently by former student Nikolas Cruz, who was armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle — and to see it play out in footage captured by students in hiding during the crisis.
They couldn’t square the familiar visuals of their formative years — the classrooms adorned with whiteboards and projectors, the open-air corridors lined with maroon lockers, the two-toned auditorium with its wide rows of seats — with the sounds of percussive gunfire and jarring screams.
But they were also inspired to see current students emerge on the national stage, poised and determined, even in their anguish.
“These students are outstanding. Their organizing is incredible, and the fact that they’re brave enough to continually go on interviews and talk directly to representatives of the NRA and Congress and call them out on their ‘BS’ is incredible, especially at a time when they’re actually still grieving,” said Lauren Siegel, a Jamaica Plain resident who graduated in 2002 and works in nonprofit financial administration. “More of us are jumping on the bandwagon of taking action because we keep hearing them in the news, and we want to amplify their voices.”
Nationally, 11,000 alumni came together quickly after the shooting in a sprawling Facebook group that followed the teens’ lead in shifting from a forum for consolation to one of organizing and action, as well.
That Facebook community spawned nearly two dozen regional offshoots, from Miami to New England to the West Coast, all aimed at marshaling the energy, resources, and connections of alumni to assist the students at the heart of this sudden movement.
By Sunday afternoon, when the New England alumni chapter came together for a gathering in a glass-walled, graffiti-adorned meeting room at Brooklyn Boulders in Somerville, the local group counted 95 members — 40 of whom attended in person, with another 10 joining by video chat.
They had squeezed into old letter jackets or donned sweaters in school colors, ridden the Red Line to the meeting, or driven in from Maine and the Berkshires. Some had attended the Florida school in the first years after its 1990 opening and have now lived in Boston half their lives, while others were undergraduates at local colleges and arrived in cars with Florida plates.
Michael Falcone, a 2004 Douglas graduate who now lives in the South End and works in government affairs for an advocacy group, proudly wore the T-shirt from his stint as an editor on the school’s Yearbook, the Aerie.
In Boston terms, Falcone said, Douglas High is “like the demographics of Wellesley, but with the pride of Southie.” In other words, a largely affluent and high-achieving public school, a rarer phenomenon in South Florida than in Boston suburbs, making it a cloistered experience as well as the flagship institution of its neighboring feeder communities.
Falcone flew home to attend the televised town hall forum last week, see friends and family, and visit the memorials outside a shuttered Stoneman Douglas. “No human being should ever have to walk up to their school, any school, and see a row of 17 crosses laid out across the front,” he said.
Yet the spirit at the CNN-televised forum “was almost like being a Douglas pep rally.”
The alumni who gathered in Somerville Sunday — many of whom said they had known only one or two other local Douglas Stoneman alums until the Facebook group emerged — included professions with connections and skills that could be brought to bear on a campaign, among them political organizers and fund-raisers like Falcone, as well as a psychologist, a management consultant, and a social-media expert.
“We’re all taking a little bit of a crash course in gun-violence politics, and figuring out what events we want to plan to best help support the victims and the students,” said Alicia Curran, a 2001 graduate who lives in Somerville and works as communications director for the state auditor.
Curran helped plan Sunday’s gathering, which was part reunion, part group-therapy session, and part strategy meeting. They split into subcommittees to discuss national and local legislative advocacy, fund-raising to assist survivors and victim families, and community organizing to attract crowds for the Boston version of the March 24 “March for Our Lives,” a nationwide protest initiated by the Florida students.
At the end, they came together in a circle and shared favorite memories. Many lingered after the meeting, among them Andrea Wivchar of Brighton, who was a freshman when Stoneman Douglas opened in 1990 and is now lead music educator for the Chelsea schools.
Since the shooting she has remembered the pride she felt at being part of a founding student body that voted to pick the name of an environmentalist and women’s suffrage leader, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, then 100, as the school’s name.
Wivchar made a trip back last week. Her voice swelled with emotion as she described not just the current Douglas students speaking up, but also the students, parents, faculty, and police officers she saw distributing water and encouraging students from other schools who staged walkouts and marches to Stoneman Douglas in the heat.
“Anything to support those kids,” she said. “That school made us the people we are today.”