Student survivors of the worst high school shooting in U.S. history took their message abroad for the first time on Saturday, calling for greater gun safety measures and sharing with educational professionals from around the world their frightening experience.
The Feb. 14 attack in Florida killed 17 people, 14 of them students, becoming one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. The attack was carried out by a former student wielding an assault-style rifle who strode into one of the school buildings and opened fire.
"It's so important to be educated, and to be educated in a productive sense is to feel safe at school," Suzanna Barna, 17, said. "No child should ever have to go through what we did."
Barna and her classmates Kevin Trejos and Lewis Mizen, all seniors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., each wore a red ribbon representing the color of their school in honor of the victims as they talked about their experience and their push for stricter gun safety measures. They spoke in Dubai at the Global Education and Skills Forum that coincides with the $1 million Global Teacher Prize, awarded to one outstanding teacher from around the world each year.
Trejos, 18, described the ordeal as "scary" and said students were crying and trying to comfort one another as they hid inside a closet in a classroom for nearly two hours.
"We didn't know where the shooter was. We didn't know if he was coming to our classroom next," Trejos said.
"We need to improve school safety," he added, saying that the students are not trying to ban guns "because we understand it's practically impossible to do," but are working to limit the accessibility of guns to criminals or potential criminals.
Like other school shootings before it, the attack has renewed the national debate on gun control. On Wednesday, tens of thousands of students across the U.S. walked out of their classrooms to demand action from lawmakers on gun violence and school safety.
President Donald Trump and some gun supporters say the solution is to put more guns in the hands of trained school staff — including teachers. The student survivors speaking in Dubai strongly disagree, saying more guns is not the answer.
Mizen, 17, said protocols shouldn't be preparing schools for when shootings happen, but should be stopping them before they happen.
"Teachers are there to educate their students. They shouldn't have to serve as the first line of defense between them and a rampant gunman on campus," Mizen said, eliciting applause from the audience packed with educators.
Mizen said that addressing the global forum in Dubai was as a chance to talk to world education leaders and stress the importance of safety in schools.
"If we can get the international body on our side then that will make it so much easier to make change back at home," he told The Associated Press.
Barna said that despite the sharp political divide over gun control in the United States, all can agree that schools and children should be safe. She is calling for laws that would limit access to high-capacity magazine firearms, like the AR-15 assault-style rifle used by the shooter in Florida.
Students are next planning a "March for Our Lives" rally in Washington Mar. 24. Since the shooting, they have taken trips to the U.S. capital and the Florida capital of Tallahassee to confront lawmakers. In response, some major U.S. retailers have put curbs on the sale of assault-style rifles and will no longer sell firearms to people younger than 21.
The Florida shooting was the latest in an era of school massacres that began with a shooting in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado that killed 13 people. The country's deadliest school shooting killed 20 children in first grade and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012.
"We've had to grow up a lot," Barna told the AP. "Emotionally it's been tough to deal with the loss we have to see every day, but we're also in the process of getting back to normal. It will happen eventually, but it's going to take time."