The senior class of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is planning an “over the top” evening of glamour and romance as a way to soften the horrible memory of the worst day in their young lives.
Students are promising the “best prom ever,” the prom to beat all proms, hoping to temper dreadful memories of the day 17 people were shot to death at their school on Feb. 14.
“I pray that when the seniors look back on their last year in high school that prom, not the shooting, is the first thing that comes to their mind,” said Felicia Burgin, a Stoneman Douglas teacher and prom advisor.
Before the shootings, the party was set to be “just a prom, a known event. Now we want it to be over the top,” senior Madison Hersch said.
In the uncertainty that followed the shootings, students throughout the school were unsure how the rest of the year would proceed. They questioned whether traditional events, from sports competitions to graduation ceremonies, would continue as planned.
“People were asking if the prom would be canceled,” senior class vice president Lauren Hetzroni said.
“I thought about not even going,” said Carley Ogozaly, whose best friend Meadow Pollack was one of the four seniors who died that day.
The 15 seniors on the prom committee began brainstorming. They still wanted a party. After all, didn’t they deserve to celebrate the end of their high school years?
But they also wanted to recognize the tragedy that will forever damage their memories of high school. They decided to create a memorial near the entrance to the prom ballroom, at the Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort. It would salute those who lost their lives, including two members of their class who died earlier in their high school years.
Students will see the tribute before they enter the ballroom. The memorial, which will include pictures of the deceased, will be surrounded by couches and designed as a space to sit and think, a quiet place apart from the ballroom’s musical clamor.
The prom will honor the four seniors who died in the massacre — Pollack, Nicholas Dworet, Joaquin Oliver and Carmen Schentrup — and two others who died earlier in the Class of 2018’s high school years, both in 2016, one from cystic fibrosis and one from suicide.
All these losses have weighed heavily, not only on students, but on their teachers and parents.
Bev Barna, whose daughter, Suzanna, is a senior, said she attended an emotional senior cord ceremony recently, where seniors were given colorful cords connected to their achievements, to wear during graduation ceremonies.
“I had the worst lump in my throat and tears in my eyes,” Barna said. “You know what happened is going to permeate everything, prom, graduation, for the rest of their lives. They’re not going to have that experience of complete euphoria at graduation that they deserve.”
Almost every school activity has had to reassess its path after the shootings. School clubs that document students’ lives had to halt what they had been planning and revise their already prepared editions. The school newspaper, The Eagle Eye, released a special publication with pictures and profiles of those killed; the yearbook, the Aerie, added pages to honor the dead.
The Westin worked closely with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas prom committee to figure out how to honor the kids who died on Feb. 14.
South Florida residents and people across the country have rallied to help Stoneman Douglas’s students, including bringing therapy dogs to the school and creating scholarships to help survivors attend college.
Senior class President Julia Cordover asked Westin general manager Danny Estevez at a recent prom meeting if the families of the seniors who died could spend a weekend of their choice at the hotel for free. Estevez did not hesitate.
“Count on it, no problem, without a doubt,” Estevez said.
This would include Andrew Pollack, father of Meadow, who would have gone to the prom with Brandon Schoengrund, her boyfriend of many years.
“They were practically going to get married,” Pollack said.
Pollack said he has been deeply moved by the pre-prom plans of Meadow’s friends, who will arrive together in a pink Cadillac Escalade, her favorite color, which they will decorate with her name in big letters.
Kellie Ogozaly, mother of Meadow’s best friend, Carley, said she wanted Carley to attend the prom, despite her initial resistance after Meadow’s death. After checking out a few dresses, they found one they believe matched Meadow’s style: pink, with rhinestones, and an open back.
“Meadow would have loved this dress,” Kellie Ogozaly said.
Estevez, at the Westin, said he is alert to the emotional fragility of the Douglas community and has been thinking of ways to assist. He said he plans to solicit community leaders to pay for the prom for future Stoneman Douglas senior classes, especially the current freshman class, whose building was targeted by shooter Nikolas Cruz. Seven of the 14 students killed were freshmen.
Stoneman Douglas alumni are also working to make the prom exceptional. They are paying for the party favors, which will consist of a mason jar with surprises inside, said Malorie Calhoun, Class of 2004.
To many seniors, these little touches are welcome, but a small consolation, considering how much they have lost. Some are sending pictures of the deceased for a photo montage promgoers will watch during the party. Others are gearing up for the 17 seconds of silence that will stop the prom amid the partying, a reminder of the balance between merriment and grief they had to learn at a tender age.
“When prom tickets came out, I said to myself, ‘I need to go for Meadow,’” said Carley Ogozaly, who had known Pollack since seventh grade. “I’m going to have a good time, but it will be hard.”
Solomon writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.