Jack Macleods’ parents are doing their best to encourage his newfound passion for activism after the 16-year-old survived last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
His mother, Allison, attended Saturday’s March for Our Lives rally in Washington with Jack and his sister Kayla, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School graduate. His dad, Michael, is helping Jack and his friends launch a nonprofit dedicated to engaging students in discussions about gun violence, school safety and mental health.
But they’re also concerned with making sure school remains Jack’s top priority, despite everything that’s happened. “That’s a discussion we’re having: this is your junior year, don’t expect anyone to give you any leeway when applying to colleges because you went through trauma,” Michael Macleod said.
The Macleods and other parents of Stoneman Douglas students never expected their kids to be thrust into the national spotlight under such tragic circumstances. Now, without a playbook to guide them, they’re helping their children heal through activism.
Jack and other student-activists say focusing on school is easier said than done when there are constant reminders of the February 14 massacre. On top of the trauma, they are tired from staying up late, researching legislation and nonprofit structures, and waking up early for school. Amid the stress, a series of disturbing incidents at the school this week led nearly 20% of students to skip classes on Wednesday. As school officials try to go easy on the students, some roll in late or leave early, if they go at all.
Meanwhile, the media interviews continue – so many that some students became sick and lost their voices this week and could only speak via email and text. In interviews, they’re treated like adults with authority and agency when it comes to their views on gun control and school safety. But they are still teenagers and high school students, and their families must navigate the space between who they are now and the adults they are becoming.
Like many Stoneman Douglas juniors, Jack did not take the SAT this month. Meanwhile, he’s juggling studying for the ACT and four AP exams while building the nonprofit, Students for Changes. “I feel like my academic motivation is collapsing,” he admitted.
“Returning to a sense of normalcy entails getting back to all our school work, and it is extremely difficult to focus. The mood is somewhat somber, but I think everyone is mainly exhausted,” Jack said. “It does feel like we are back to normal in a sense, but that is what unnerves me. I dislike the feeling of going to school and doing work, acting like nothing happened.”
In other words, Saturday’s march, followed by spring break, could not have come at a better time.
With a background in start-ups and charitable organizations, Jack’s father says he tries to impart lessons from the business world to keep his son on task: plan your days, prioritize activities, use a calendar to meet deadlines. Go to bed earlier, and maintain a healthy diet. The other day, he caught his son sneaking a Mountain Dew, he noted disapprovingly.
“We’re the ones who screwed this up”
“It is a big transition for them, but what I love about it is they’re stepping into a role with a bigger purpose,” he said. “My target is to keep him focused, keep chipping away, until summer comes and he can focus on the organization full-time.”
Some parents feel it’s their responsibility to support the students, not only as their parents, but as members of a generation that stood by as mass shootings became more frequent.
“We’re the ones who screwed this up and, fortunately, they have the wherewithal and the voice and the power to work on this,” said Jeff Kasky. His son, senior Cameron Kasky, has become a prominent voice of the movement known as #NeverAgain, which is organizing this weekend’s March for Our Lives.
He and other parents are not surprised by the poise the students have shown in the shooting’s wake. It’s why many of them moved to the Parkland area – so that their children could attend top-rated schools in a nurturing community and become the best possible versions of themselves.
“I don’t think anyone raised this group of people to be seen and not heard,” said Kasky, a lawyer who performs risk assessments for festivals and large events. “Even if I had wanted to suppress his voice that would not have been possible, but I don’t believe in that.”
Roberta Weber and her husband followed family members to Parkland from New York in search of warm weather and good schools. She never gave any thought to Florida’s gun laws; now, she wishes she had paid more attention.
“You feel like you’ve failed your kids,” said Weber, whose daughter, Melanie, hid in a closet with fellow drama club members during the shooting. “We really shouldn’t have allowed it.”
Agreeing to disagree
Before the shooting, Connor Dietrich’s life was dominated by school, dive team and a part-time job at Publix. Then, he lost his team captain in the shooting, along with other friends, and he decided he had to do something.
On the bus ride home from a lobbying day at the state capitol, he and Isabella Pfeiffer started talking about what they could do next. Back in Parkland, they recruited Jack for help launching a platform for polling students and collecting data to present in policy debates.
“For those of us who took our time grieving that first week and didn’t get a chance to get involved in everything, this our platform to now speak out and say what we want,” said Connor, 17.
His mother, Karen Dietrich, is trying to prepare Connor as best as she can as he navigates local and national media, by making sure he puts his best face forward.
She and her husband – both police – urge him to listen to different news outlets, liberal and conservative, “figure out what the hot button topics are, gather facts, and make sure your opinion is well thought out,” she said.
“We discuss this a lot, and reiterate to him that he will be used as a political pawn at times. He needs to make sure he has a valid opinion based on facts before he speaks on a topic,” said Dietrich, a police major at the City of Fort Lauderdale Police Department.
She and her husband, a Fort Lauderdale police captain, don’t see eye to eye with Connor on all of his positions. Connor opposes arming teachers or administrative staff. His parents believe school staff with proper training and psychological screening could help minimize casualties in an active shooting situation.
“We don’t agree with everything he believes, but that’s ok,” she said.
“He is told he is not to be out protesting, yelling and screaming, and carrying signs that make no sense,” she said. “He is told to be respectful, talk to the right people in legislation, and stay focused on his message.”
And she tries to help him have reasonable expectations. “He needs to be thankful for the small wins, and realize he is never going to get everything he wants,” she said. “But they have already made leaps and bounds, so he needs to give thanks for that.”
‘It’s hard to trust someone’
Like the Macleods, Connor’s parents ensure their son’s priorities are what his mother describes as “in line.”
“It is a fine line between allowing him to be involved in something he is passionate about, which is also therapeutic for him, and letting it consume him,” she said.
Connor’s father was the second person to enter the classroom where he hid during the shooting. After the school went into lockdown, a teacher following active shooter protocol would not let Connor and Jack into the classroom. They were stranded in a hallway for several minutes until another teacher let them into hers.
Later, Connor lashed out on Twitter toward the teacher who locked him and Jack out. He said it still angers him, but now he tries to talk about it in the context of what can be done to prevent other students from encountering the same situation.
In interviews with CNN and publications around the world, he has expressed support for more counseling resources in schools, stronger background checks and fewer guns. If more school resource officers are going to be stationed in schools, he hopes they’ll do a better job than the one who was at his the day of shooting and never entered the building.
“It’s a difficult situation because we have to rely on people who say they are going to do one thing and then maybe they don’t,” he said. “It’s just hard to trust someone when they say you should trust them and then they let you down.”
For some seniors, including Cameron Kasky, school has taken a backseat to activism, and that’s OK with his father.
“They’re learning more than they ever would in school – or, more than they ever wanted to, just by going through what they’re going through,” Kasky said in a phone interview Monday. He was driving a van full of other Stoneman Douglas activists from New York to Boston for a forum on student activism.
“We are basically glorified chaperones. These students have done all this themselves,” he said. “I’m really along for the ride just to make sure there’s a so-called adult with the so-called children.”
Some of the parents fear that being in the spotlight will put their kids at risk of being targeted by Second Amendment activists. While it might weigh on their minds, they say that’s not going to stop them from supporting the kids’ efforts.
Cameron Kasky said he quit Facebook after receiving numerous death threats. While the students have detractors, his father believes many more are on their side.
“The vast majority of the population of America agrees with what they’re saying,” Jeff Kasky said. “A very small handful of people believe that mentally ill teens should be able to get their hands on weapons of war. That should not be controversial.”
Like Cameron, Roberta Weber’s daughter, Melanie, is in the school drama club. She, too, has never shied away from sharing her opinions.
“I’ve always been very passionate about the issue of gun control in general, but I never felt a need to speak out about it because I never felt like there was anything I could do about it,” said Melanie Weber, a junior at MSD. “But now I feel it’s my responsibility to make sure things get done so this never happens again.”
Reports of threats against Cameron and other members of #NeverAgain make Roberta Weber fear for her daughter’s safety. But the benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks, she said.
“I feel like this is helping her get through this,” Weber said. “I’m more taking it one day at a time and making adjustments and decisions, not trying to worry about what is going to happen in a month but what is (going) to happen tomorrow.”
The Stoneman Douglas parents say they want to let their kids speak their truth after what they’ve experienced. But they want to protect them while they’re doing it, too.
Since the shooting, Isabela Barry said she has trouble sleeping. She falls asleep with her friends on video chat and turns on Christmas lights that her father installed recently.
To alleviate her anxiety, her mother tries to keep her busy with friends and drama club activities, which now include an activism component. Some members of the drama club are working on a nonprofit to provide art and music therapy programs for shooting survivors. They just released a song on iTunes to fund their nonprofit and they plan to perform the song at the march.
“They’re doing it together and that makes it more powerful. It’s helping them to say things through their songs that they may not have otherwise been able to say without breaking down, because they’re still having moments breaking down,” Meredith Barry said.
“This march is going to be huge. They’re ready to go out and scream with their feelings,” Barry said. “I’m terrified but I know it’s the right thing to do.”
CNN’s Dianne Gallagher contributed reporting