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‘I would rather not be alone.’ Behind their anger, Florida students are still teens struggling with trauma.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., traveled to their state capital on Feb. 20 to ask lawmakers for gun reform. (Video: Alice Li, Whitney Shefte, Michael Landsberg/The Washington Post, Photo: Charlotte Kesl/The Washington Post)

PARKLAND, Fla. — She was tired of catching herself staring blankly at the wall, so Hannah Karcinell sent a group text to her friends: “Hi, I’m thinking of having a thing at my house.” Those friends invited their friends, and now she was waiting for everyone on her back patio, wearing a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School cheerleading tank top. She heard a thud. Her whole body tensed.

“Should I put the food out now?” her mom called from the house. Hannah turned. The sound, she realized, had just been Jodi Karcinell pushing open the back door, which sticks.

An 18-year-old afraid of loud noises — is that who she is now? Four days had passed since a gunman entered her school with an AR-15 assault-style rifle, since Hannah walked outside for what she thought was a fire drill, since she heard the shots, since she followed an order to run.

She ran all the way to the Walmart down the road, where she hovered between the bags of ice and buckets of cheese balls, and, for a moment, felt safe. Then she learned that the shooting suspect, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, had been in the Walmart then, too.

“Not yet,” she answered her mom about the food. It was the first time since the Valentine’s Day shooting that her classmates were getting together somewhere that wasn’t a vigil, rally or planning meeting for a trip to Tallahassee to take on their legislators. In public, they had presented a united front: angry, motivated, brashly political. Here, she hoped they could be what they really are: kids, who had been through an unbelievable trauma, trying to figure out how they feel.

The first to arrive was her friend Kate Keane, still in the black dress she wore to 15-year-old Luke Hoyer’s visitation. She apologized for coming early. “I would rather not be alone,” she said.

In walked Jose Iglesias, who just last week gave a presentation on school shootings in his peer-mentoring class. One of the slides said, “Both children and adults involved in the incident were in high demand for counseling as well as new reports of drug and alcohol abuse, family problems, and depression.” The first night after the attack, the shooter lurked in his dreams. Afraid that might happen again, he had slept a total of 10 hours in the four days since.

Here came Demitri Hoth, who had slept okay, but only because he had asked his mother, for the first time since he was a toddler, if he could sleep in her bed.

Then Carly Novell arrived. On the morning after the shooting, she tweeted to Fox News host Tomi Lahren, “I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours...You don’t know how it felt.” But what she mostly felt now was numb, because as her tweet amassed more than 890,000 likes, she did interviews with CNN, “Inside Edition” and more media outlets than she could keep track of. When the cameras turned off, she got into her mom’s SUV, shut the door and cried.

“Want cheddar biscuits?” Hannah asked them.

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It was a Sunday, but they weren’t going to school the next day, or any day for at least a week. Crime scene tape still clung to the palm trees outside Douglas, a public school that used to count 3,208 students. Now there are 3,194. The school’s fence was lined with 17 crosses built by a carpenter from Illinois who drove through a snowstorm to bring them here. In the past six months, he brought crosses to Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Tex. Before that, to Orlando, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and Virginia Tech.

There were more memorials up the road at the city’s Pine Trails Park, where the upcoming farmers market and screening of “Despicable Me 3” had been canceled indefinitely. Visitors brought gifts to lay beneath the photos of the teachers and teenagers killed: carnations and plush animals from the ones who didn’t know them; Cheez-It crackers and cans of Copenhagen tobacco dip from the ones who did.

At Hannah’s house, where the group had grown to 14 students, they talked about what it meant to be what the news called a “survivor.” They could now count themselves among the more than 150,000 students who have experienced a school shooting since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

Eleven schools since Columbine High School in 1999 have had mass shootings. Accounts by witnesses and survivors are eerily similar. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

But Hannah and most of her friends had been able to hide or flee, and for that they felt both relieved and guilty, determined to seize the attention placed on them and unsure of how they are supposed to grieve.

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They were used to retreating to their phones. But it was on Snapchat that they had seen videos of their classmates’ bleeding bodies. And on Instagram and Twitter, their expressions of outrage were mocked and critiqued. People accused them of being professional “crisis actors” posing as students.

“It’s really not that surprising,” said Robert Bonczek, sitting on Hannah’s living room rug. “With every tragedy, people make conspiracies.” He had spent two hours in a closet with 15 other students, unable to answer the frantic calls from their parents because they were afraid that making noise might alert the shooter to their hiding spot.

“Have you guys been getting DMs from random people on Twitter?” asked Destiny Perez. They all nodded. She explained how a stranger had messaged her expressing his condolences. She thanked him for his support. Then he said: “Did you see any dead bodies?”

It was really getting to her. “Are you kidding me,” she said. “I’m literally on my way to a funeral . . . and it’s like, no, who are you?”

In the kitchen, the conversation turned to a topic they might have obsessed over before all this, when their lives were ruled by club commitments, impending AP tests and college acceptance letters. “Do you guys know when prom tickets are being sold?” No one did.

In two days, on Tuesday, some of them would be on one of three charter buses bound for Tallahassee, buses filled with 100 students, chaperons and sleeping bags. The plan was to spend the night at Florida State University on Red Cross cots, wake up at 6:30 a.m., head to the Capitol and meet with more than 40 state lawmakers.

“Just a week ago we were all just chilling at home,” the student organizing the trip would remind them, before instructing them to wear Douglas T-shirts instead of dressing up. They wanted to remind the politicians that they are kids.

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Hannah wasn’t going. She wanted to, but if she went, she wouldn’t make it back in time for the funeral of senior Nick Dworet.

“You’ll never forgive yourself,” her mom had said, but maybe she already wouldn’t.

Hannah and Nick had been close during freshman year, when she had just moved to Parkland from Lancaster, Pa. There, she had been tormented by other students for being biracial and Jewish; here, she blended in. Nick, an attractive blond boy in her Earth-space science class, would come over to her house after school to work on their homework.

But they had grown apart, and she doesn’t remember why. That’s high school. This year, they were in government class together and didn’t talk much. But a few weeks ago, when he came back to class after the ceremony where athletes commit to colleges, Hannah had joined in the clapping for him. He was going to be a swimmer at the University of Indianapolis.

Now, when she walked into her room, she could see him sitting on the edge of her bed, playing music from her MacBook. He liked David Bowie, she remembered. “Heroes,” “Ziggy Stardust” and “Changes,” the song about children being “quite aware what they’re going through.”

Hannah’s phone rang. Another classmate was at her neighborhood’s locked front gate, needing to be buzzed in. Startled by the noise, they grew quiet.

“Did you guys even hear the ‘Code Red?’ ” Robert asked.

Then they were all talking over each other.


“No, I heard the fire alarm.”

“I heard the fire alarm and then the gunshots.”

“And screaming.”

“And then I lost Destiny.”

“I looked and you guys were gone.”

Louder and louder their voices rose in Hannah’s living room until, for the first time, she made hers the loudest. “And that’s why I want to go to the prison, and ask him: ‘Why?’ ”

“I’ll go with you,” her friend said. Then she noticed the yearbooks on the coffee table. Hannah had set them out. They flipped to the page where they knew Nikolas Cruz’s photo would be. He was in the bottom row, staring out at them, dressed in a white Douglas sweater. He was smiling.

After a few minutes, Hannah slammed the book shut. She stood up, turned on the TV and opened Netflix. The next day, as her friends packed for Tallahassee, she would decide to go to one of the rallies. She would make a sign that said, “I Want Change.” She would end up collapsing against her mom on the sidewalk, unable to stop crying.

“Can we watch, like, Disney?” her friend Rachel Pilicer asked. “Or ‘Nemo’ or something?”

Hannah clicked until she saw what she was looking for, “High School Musical 2.” The cameras zoomed in on a school with gleaming hallways, championship banners and students so happy they were dancing. The movie, released when they were in the second grade, had been a preview of what high school might be. Hannah turned up the volume, dropped down on the couch and mouthed the words.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Demitri Hoth’s name. The article has been updated.