Rachel Hunkler is the senior program manager for the Preventing Targeted Violence program at the McCain Institute. She manages the McCain Institute’s international prevention and national security portfolios, including Invent2Prevent France, Invent2Protect UK, and the National Security and Counterterrorism fellowship program. Hunkler also focuses on domestic prevention programming at the high school level.
February 14. Valentine’s Day. For some of us, it is a classic milestone representing love and commitment. For kids and teens, it is a time to exchange candy, notes of admiration, and maybe even a love letter.
Yet for the residents of Parkland, Fla., Valentine’s Day will live in infamy as the worst day of their lives. February 14th will forever resonate with those who knew the 14 students and three faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSDHS) who lost their lives five years ago today. Sadly, the school shooting in Parkland was only one of many that have occurred over the past five years. Only two months into 2023, six school shootings have resulted in injuries or deaths.
Today, we mourn the loss of those 17 lives five years ago in Parkland, as well as the casualties in senseless acts of targeted violence on school campuses across the United States.
While these numbers can be disheartening, American families and youth are working towards change. Out of that Parkland tragedy has come inspiring resilience and advocacy for change that started in Florida and was quickly adopted by other communities in need. In the wake of the shooting, MSDHS students founded Never Again MSD, a student advocacy group that lobbies for gun control. Within a month, the students organized the Enough! National School Walkout, which involved nearly 1 million students in over 3,000 schools. In collaboration with Everytown for Gun Safety, Never Again MSD planned and executed the March for Our Lives (MFOL) demonstration in Washington, D.C., one of the largest protests in American history. Today, over 300 MFOL chapters across the United States continue this gun violence prevention work at the local, state, and national levels.
Parents also have bravely turned their pain into action. Lori Alhadeff, who lost her 14-year-old daughter Alyssa in the shooting, created Alyssa’s Law, legislation that seeks to improve the response time of law enforcement during emergencies in public schools via mandated silent panic alarms. Alyssa’s Law was passed in New York, New Jersey, and Florida and introduced in six more states and at the federal level. Alhadeff also founded Make Our Schools Safe (MOSS), a national non-profit that “empower[s] students and staff to help create and maintain a culture of safety and vigilance in a secure school environment.” MOSS now has student-run MOSS clubs in 19 high schools around the country.
The events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School reverberated through the Parkland community, leaving a lasting impression on people of all ages. Members of the MOSS Club at Pompano Beach High School – just 15 miles from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – were only 12-13 years old at the time. As middle schoolers, February 14, 2018, changed the course of their young lives. Witnessing the shooting’s effect on their entire community inspired them to make sure nothing like that terrible day happens again. Students eagerly signed up when their MOSS Club was offered the opportunity to participate in the Invent2Prevent program last semester.
Invent2Prevent (I2P) is a natural fit for MOSS Clubs around the nation. Run by the McCain Institute, EdVenture Partners, and Credence Management Solutions, LLC, Invent2Prevent is an experiential learning program that challenges students at the high school and collegiate levels to create and implement peer-developed initiatives, products, or tools to address targeted violence and acts of hate or terrorism in their specific communities. MOSS founder Lori Alhadeff says, “MOSS is honored to participate in this wonderful collaboration with Invent2Prevent. Our driving goal is the same… to create a safe environment in which our children can grow and learn. I look forward to the future with hope as we can continue to Make Our Schools Safe.”
Through I2P, the Pompano Beach High School MOSS Club created the “Bonding Buddies” initiative. Bonding Buddies is a student mentoring program that builds connections between high school and elementary students. Bonding Buddies partnered with Pompano Beach Elementary School and has hosted several mentorship events and a holiday toy and clothing drive. Bonding Buddies helps students of all ages feel connected by creating meaningful relationships between teens and at-risk children. This is particularly important for students who may feel bullied, excluded, or socially isolated. Ultimately, building a strong, connected community will help keep schools in the Parkland area safe.
I2P programs are doing such innovative work that they are capturing the attention of politicians and the federal government. Bonding Buddies was one of the top three teams selected by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 18 high schools participating in I2P across the country. The PBHS Moss Club team traveled to Washington, D.C., in January 2023 to present their Bonding Buddies project to a panel of distinguished judges and DHS leadership. While in our nation’s capital, the team also took their ideas and advocacy onto the Hill, meeting with Florida Congressional Representative Moskowitz.
Of the experience, Ally Vagelos, PBHS Moss Club president, said, “Being able to present our initiative to the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., made us all realize the importance of using our voice as our power. To make effective change, we must speak up for ourselves and protect what’s right.”
The Pompano Beach High School MOSS Club team proudly took home second place and $3,000 in prize money to continue their important work. At the final I2P competition, two senior team leaders also received scholarships for collegiate-level studies on the prevention of targeted violence.
MOSS Clubs and Invent2Prevent are just two examples of innovative educational programs that aim to keep students and their broader communities safe from the threat of targeted violence. Across the United States, support is growing for community-led safety initiatives that lie at the heart of the McCain Institute’s preventing targeted violence work. On this day of love and commitment, we renew our dedication to protecting the basic human right to live in a peaceful society without fear of violence.
Follow the progress of the I2P teams each semester on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram @invent2prevent.
Learn more about Make Our Schools Safe at www.makeourschoolssafe.org.
Visit the Bonding Buddies project at MOSS Club PBHS (@makeourschoolssafepbhs).