Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School teacher Diane Wolk-Rogers now begins every class by asking her students to relax into their chairs, close their eyes and breathe deeply for a few moments. It’s a technique she learned from the Center for Mind-Body Medicine last summer after being overwhelmed by anxiety and depression upon returning to her own classroom and filling in for a colleague who was killed in the shooting at the school on Feb. 14, 2018.
“The cavalry never came for us — the teachers or the students,” Wolk-Rogers says. “I sat with that trauma, and I was thinking, what am I going to do? How am I going to come back and teach my kids when I can’t find a calmness in myself? I was constantly being triggered.”
“I said, you know what, we’re going to be the cavalry,” she says. She now teaches those mindfulness strategies to students in a new mind-body club and puts them to use in her class. There are also two new fixtures in the room — a designated “hard corner,” where students are supposed to move for safety from gunshots fired through a door or window, and a “silly corner,” where Wolk-Rogers placed small toys and coloring books for students who need a break.
In the year since 17 of their peers and colleagues were shot and killed, teachers and students at Stoneman Douglas have formed their own support networks, leaning on each other through group texts, service projects and mindfulness exercises as they have tried to adjust to a new normal.
Psychology teacher Ronit Reoven still meets monthly with a group of students who were in her classroom on the day of the shooting, where 16-year-old Carmen Schentrup was killed and three others were wounded. They’ve met for frozen yogurt, donuts and Dairy Queen, gathered at the local library and gone shopping at Target. On the one-year anniversary of the shooting, they will gather again for a picnic at a farm near the school.
Stoneman Douglas will be open for a half day on Thursday, when students have been encouraged to participate in a service projects. Many are choosing not to go to school at all.
“We have that shared experience. If someone is crying, we get it. If someone is yelling or angry, we understand. We’re there to hug. We’re there to listen,” says Reoven. She says she considered not returning to Stoneman Douglas this school year because of her anxiety, but decided it was important to support her students and colleagues.
“What, am I going to go to another school? I’m going to go to have a panic attack? They’re going to think I’m crazy,” she says. “People understand because we went through this together.”
Broward County Schools boosted counseling services in the district after the shooting, creating a wellness center at Stoneman Douglas staffed by 13 people, including one nurse and 12 mental health professionals who have been completing training in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy this year. In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the shooting, the center saw about 200 visitors per week — up from about 125 per week in December — in part because counselors are reaching out directly to all the students who were in the building where the shooting occurred. Susan Vialpando, supervisor of the district’s family counseling program, says she is closely monitoring the demand for mental health services and will have multiple professionals available during a vigil on Thursday night.
But many students and teachers — some describing an inadequate response from the district, others saying they’d rather spend time with peers than with a therapist — have instead leaned on the people who survived the tragedy with them. They say that’s become even more important amid constant reminders of that day, as they spot Valentine’s Day cards in grocery stores and as teachers return to the same lessons plans they were teaching when shots rang out.
“Those connections, those supports, are one of the best coping skills that we know of after any kind of traumatic event,” says Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist at Duke University Medical Center and a member of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. “The reality is, after these events, everybody doesn’t need a psychologist.”
She says for trauma survivors who are struggling to function on a daily basis, formal mental health counseling can be important. But most people find help in support systems based in family, friends or faith communities.
“Those connections are critical, and then they may also benefit from mental health services,” Gurwitch says. “But it’s not, ‘Gosh, there are 1,000 kids in the school, and so we need 1,000 therapists.'”
Sophomore Caroline Curtis, who was friends with 14-year-old shooting victim Gina Montalto, says Wolk-Rogers’ mind-body training has helped her stay focused in school, especially during milestones like birthdays, when the reality of the loss sets in. She has also visited the wellness center, sometimes going with a friend.
“Since some of the counselors there didn’t go through what we went through, it’s also really hard to talk sometimes because you feel like they’re not going to understand,” Curtis says. Still, she found it helpful. “They don’t understand, but they do help to make you just more calm.”
Sophomore Ashley Ferrer, who was in the building where the shooting took place last year, joined the mind-body club and uses the breathing exercises to stay calm during mandatory fire drills and active shooter drills, or whenever she is startled by loud noises, like those caused by garbage trucks outside. She’s taught the strategies to her friends when they’re having a bad day.
“This really will never go away. Yes, we will move on. Yes, we will continue our lives, especially in honor of them. But there’s always — no matter how much healing we do, this is still going to be part of us,” says Ellen Fox-Snider, a parent volunteer and licensed mental health counselor, who helps lead mindfulness workshops for Stoneman Douglas students and parents in the community.
Some teachers and students have criticized what they say is inadequate support from the district. “There are no programs in place that are effectively allowing students to mitigate their stressors,” says senior Kai Koerber, who has called for group therapy options and mindfulness programs outside the wellness center, where he says some students aren’t comfortable seeking help.
But others say the shooting left no easy solutions in its wake. “I don’t think they’ve done enough,” Reoven says, adding that the shooting forced everyone in the district into unfamiliar territory. “This is something that’s never happened before. It’s not like there’s a manual.”
Meanwhile, teachers say their roles have changed entirely, becoming part-teacher, therapist and friend.
“We’ve become definitely — not just counselors, but our classrooms have become safe havens for those kids who are are feeling anxiety or nervous or depressed,” says Ivy Schamis, who was teaching a class on the Holocaust last year when gunshots erupted in her classroom, killing Helena Ramsay and Nicholas Dworet, both 17.
A year ago, she would never have given out her phone number to students. But students now call, text and visit her classroom all the time. She guides them back to class or to the wellness center, or she takes a moment to sit with them. “That’s all it takes sometimes,” she says.
She and the students who were in her Holocaust class that day have maintained a group text that started for the purpose of coordinating rides to funeral services last year and has turned into a place for support. “People still write in the middle of the night, if they’re feeling down,” Schamis says. “We’re all there for each other.”
On Sunday, that meant going to paint ceramic tiles for Project Grow Love, a memorial garden created by Reoven and senior Tori Gonzalez. On Tuesday, it meant visiting a community art project that will be lit on fire later this week in memory of the shooting victims.
“When I think of any one of those students, I know exactly what they went through. I don’t have to surmise. I know because I was there with him,” Schamis says. “I wish I could take it all back, truthfully, and not even have that bond. But that’s not an option, so it’s more important to be there for them.”
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