In the month and a half since 17 of their classmates and teachers were killed by a former student carrying an AR-15, the Parkland survivors have channeled their grief by taking it public. Some, like Emma Gonzalez, have become household names.
But behind the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students are their less-known teachers, comforting them, guiding them through school days, chaperoning them, and marching with them.
“I tell myself not to be stressed … like don't get upset about little things,” Stoneman Douglas teacher Melissa Falkowski told VICE News during the first full week back to classes since the Feb. 14 massacre.
Falkowski has been a journalism and English teacher at the South Florida school for 14 years. The day of the shooting, she packed 19 kids shoulder-to-shoulder in her classroom’s supply closet for almost two hours, cracking the door sporadically for air. On Saturday, she shepherded her 12 journalism students from the D.C. Marriott to the D.C. metro and on to the March for Our Lives. One student en route to the march called her “Mom.”
VICE News followed Falkowski in the weeks after the shooting and in the lead-up to the March for Our Lives.
Florida teachers, like teachers across the country, are taking action against their working conditions. The Broward Teachers Union, to which the three staff members killed at Douglas belonged, organized over 100 educators to travel to D.C. Meanwhile in the month after the shooting, the Florida Legislature passed a bill arming school staff, and an education bill that includes an anti-bullying scholarship that critics say is just a guise to shift public funds to charter schools, as well as a provision decertifying teachers’ unions that don’t meet a 50 percent threshold of dues-paying members.
“We’re supposed to teach and be guidance counselors and grief counselors now, and then on top of that we’re supposed to be armed,” Falkowski told VICE News.
Falkowski says the March is just the beginning.
“People are sort of questioning like what happens when [the students] graduate. Who's going to pick up the mantle? So I think teachers are kind of like the one constant,” Falkowski says. “There's sort of a core group of 20 kids that are the March for Our Lives kids, but there's 3,000 kids at Douglas and there's thousands of other high school kids and middle school kids in the county and across the nation that want to get involved.”
She’s working with other Douglas educators to put together an organization through the American Federation of Teachers, where students and teachers from around the country can participate and sustain the #neveragain movement.
“I think the march is really important. What I hope is that after the march, we can turn that momentum into a sort of long-term movement.”