By Nicole Girten
He shot into her classroom first.
Ninth grade English teacher Dara Hass sat at her desk in the corner of her classroom, positioned diagonal to the door of room 1216. While her honor students sequestered themselves in small groups to work on a writing assignment as Hass looked over that year’s submissions for the Broward County literary fair in South Florida.
It was Valentine’s Day, the first time in years Hass made dinner reservations to celebrate the holiday with her husband. Two kids complicated things. The couple planned to go to a local restaurant, The Cook and the Cork, known for its wine selection. Hass wouldn’t make it to that reservation
At first, she thought it was a drill. The school had warned to expect a shooter simulation, complete with the sound of gunfire, so when the first shots sounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Hass jumped up, turned around and turned down the blinds for the wall of windows in her classroom, as per protocol. “The kids were screaming,” Hass said. “So when I turned around to say, ‘Guys it’s just a drill,’ that’s when I saw the injured students. And I realized it wasn’t.”
One student didn’t make it out of his desk chair, pushed back by the force of the bullets, his back on the desk behind him as he bled.
Hass called 9-1-1 and texted her husband to do the same. The room didn’t have closets or anywhere for the kids to hide. She crouched in her long blue skirt, watching as students put pressure on fellow classmates wounds.
Hass isn’t sure how many times the shooter returned to 1216 to shoot through the glass in her door window, decorated with gel snowflakes from her winter theme that year. The shooter kept his bag outside her door, so he came back often. “We never felt like it was over,” Hass said. “When he wasn’t at my door or aiming at our room, he was next door so we could still hear it. He was shooting in the hallway so we always heard it. We didn’t know if it was us or if it was somewhere else.”
The 9-1-1 dispatcher said he was coming back and to make sure they were quiet. Hass told the dispatcher she heard shouting in the hall. Then glass shattered as someone punched at the door window. Hass was terrified, thinking the shooter was trying to force himself into her room. As an arm reached through the window, Hass saw a police badge on the sleeve. The SWAT team moved in, an officer made eye contact and went directly to Hass, as other officers helped the kids.
Eventually Hass had to leave. “I struggled leaving the students that were injured in the classroom behind,” Hass said. “I didn’t know at the time, but it turned out they had already… they were dead.”
Hass lost three students that afternoon. Two others were severely injured but recovered. Several others had shrapnel in their legs and were grazed by bullets.
Hass would never see that classroom again. The closest she would get would be the parking lot adjacent to the 1200 building to park for events held on campus. She’d recall when she used to park in the same spot every morning, arriving at the same time as geography teacher Scott Beigel, one of the 17 lost in the most deadly school shooting in American history.
A tarp wraps around the building now, preserving it as it was on that afternoon in 2018, for the eventual trial of Nikolas Cruz scheduled for June 22. He pled not guilty and faces the death penalty.
A little over two years later, Hass, 41, has her Zoom schedule for classes she teaches in quarantine all mapped out. Her two daughters, six-year-old Riley and three-year-old Olivia, also have several Zoom calls for first grade class and pre-school respectively. Olivia’s favorite activity is cutting with scissors during craft time, but otherwise will just show off her favorite toys to the other kids in class, raising her Barbies to the camera as her classmates run around in their respective homes.
As the country locked down in quarantine, March 2020 was the first March since 2002 not to feature gun related violence in schools in the U.S. This April saw a 21% decrease in mass shootings in the U.S. compared to April 2019, per data from the Gun Violence Archive.
“School shootings are now a regular thing and they shouldn’t be at all,” Hass said. “So I’m glad that March we didn’t have one, but it’s still something to look at.”
As much as Hass misses being with her students in the classroom, she admits she feels safer at home, away from the anxiety that comes with being on campus. “I definitely feel physically better,” Hass said.
She has been in therapy since the Monday after the shooting and participated in a four-day intensive trauma therapy retreat where she learned strategies for integrating back into the classroom and managing stress.
Hass hasn’t worn the long blue skirt since that day. She’s cleaned out her closet a few times, but it only hangs there. She said she won’t eat at The Cook and the Cork. “I think my husband wants to still, but I won’t.”
She will still pack Valentines for her two daughters to pass out in school, she won’t take that away from them, but she won’t be celebrating the holiday with her husband.
“We can always go out for a nice dinner,” Hass said. “But not on Valentine’s Day.”