"Alyssa was bright, beautiful, athletic, and full of sunshine," says Lori Alhadeff of her daughter. "She was the friend who was always there for others, often staying up much later than she should have just to listen to a friend in need."
Alyssa Alhadeff was just 14-years-old when she was shot and killed in her classroom at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL on February 14, 2018. Sixteen other students and faculty were also killed that day.
"She took and appreciated every opportunity she had and made the most of it," Alhadeff said of Alyssa.
Much of the conversation after the shooting has focused on gun control and keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous people. For Alhadeff, that's just one part of the equation that needs to be addressed to prevent another tragedy like this from happening again. And while she cannot change the events of Valentine's Day, she has vowed to make schools safer for children going forward.
It's hard not to recognise Alhadeff from her appearance on CNN the day after the shooting. Tearfully, Alhadeff looked into the camera and directly called on President Donald Trump to keep students safe in schools.
"I just spent the last two hours putting the funeral arrangements [together] for my daughter’s funeral, who’s 14!" she screamed. "President Trump, please do something. Do something! Action! We need it now! These kids need safety now!"
Though the federal government has been slow to move, Alhadeff has taken action and has since founded Make Schools Safe Inc., a nonprofit organisation aimed at providing schools with safety measures tailored to their specific needs. Along with a group of students she calls her "dream team," Alhadeff's organisation will consult with security experts about how to best protect schools and make sure students and faculty are prepared should there be an active shooting.
"Every school is different, every campus is different," Alhadeff tells Refinery29. "These experts will go to the schools and formulate a game plan." Make Schools Safe Inc. will also be fundraising and putting the money raised right back into schools.
Alhadeff believes that if her daughter's school had more safety measures in place, like marked "safe zones" in classrooms and a clear plan for active shooter situations, things may have turned out differently. "The shooter broke the glass of her classroom and they had seconds … they were the first classroom to be shot. And Alyssa just kind of ducked behind her desk and he shot her but she then moved, she was still alive," Alhadeff says. "He then came back to her classroom for some reason and shot again. But if they had those safe zones in the classroom, I know with 100% certainty Alyssa would have run to that safe zone. Alyssa was an athlete, she would’ve known where to go."
Alhadeff says it's not enough for schools to just have a plan in place; it needs to be practiced. "Part of this is not just the cognitive aspect of what a code red drill is, it’s the physical aspect of knowing it. Because when you’re put into emergency situations, you need to react and physically your body needs to respond," she says.
When news broke Tuesday that the brother of the Parkland shooter was able to trespass on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School grounds, Alhadeff underscored the need for better security at schools. "How can we, as parents, feel safe when things like this happen? And how can our children relax and learn?" Alhadeff asked. "Schools must start being more vigilant."
Though Alhadeff's organisation is just getting started, her daughter's memory is already leading to change. The state of New Jersey (where the Alhadeffs lived a few years ago) passed a bill named the Alyssa Law, which will institute panic alarms in the state's schools. (The bill was created after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but was vetoed twice by former NJ Governor Chris Christie.)
Beyond instituting safety measures, Alhadeff believes that engaging parents is key. Troubled students like the parkland shooter can't be ignored, she says and it's important that parents remain vigilant about what they're children are doing — particularly on social media. Though the past cannot be changed, other children can be protected and saved going forward.
"Instead of pushing these kids away, we need to engage them more and try to help them," Alhadeff says.