‘Laying on top of classmates ... shielding ourselves with backpacks.’ Students describe classroom horror of Stoneman Douglas shooting

·8 min read

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was a scene of confusion — was it a drill? Was it not a drill?

It was a scene of fear on Feb. 14, 2018, of students trying to predict and stay out of the line of fire. It was a scene of tragedy and loss.

Survivors of the Parkland shooting continued their at times dispassionate, at times emotional recounts of the day they were shot, or watched their classmates get killed, in testimony on the third day of the penalty trial for the confessed gunman.

Witness Julette Matlock taught a study hall class of about 30 students during fourth period on Feb. 14, 2018. She described the class as a family.

“That group was very friendly with each other,” Matlock said. “It became like they had their own little family amongst themselves, if you want to say: sharing snacks, talking, grading papers with me. They would do their work and laugh. It was just a good group of kids.”

Matlock said she had about 12 students around her desk when she heard three loud bangs. She assumed they were part of a drill. She told her students to get down and huddle on the side of the room near her desk.

“I stood there by that door, thinking that it was the drill that they had told us we would be having since we had a training in the auditorium in January,” Matlock said. “They said there would be a drill forthcoming of an active shooter or a code red. I thought it was that drill, I said this is it; they’re trying to catch us off-guard.”

Matlock’s students were nervous. She tried to reassure them.

“I was telling them to be calm, that it’s OK, it’s just a drill, that it’s going to be all be fine,” she told the courtroom.

Meanwhile, the sounds of gunfire persisted. Matlock moved toward her classroom door when glass from the door’s window fell onto her feet.

“I said, oh boy, now this is really bad,” Matlock said. “Whoever’s conducting this drill, somebody could have gotten hurt through the glass.”

Three of her students had received permission to leave the classroom: Luke Hoyer, 15, and Martin Duque, 14, received a pass to go to the media center, and Gina Montalto, 14, sat outside Matlock’s classroom to complete a school assignment.

All three died that day.

Matlock cried as she confirmed for the court the names of the students who left her classroom, knowing, in hindsight, what their fate was on that Valentine’s Day. She clutched a tissue she used to wipe tears from her eyes as she wrapped up her testimony.

But it was the Holocaust studies teacher who first moved families and observers to tears in the courtroom on Wednesday as she very precisely detailed how her classroom was gutted, and how very mature and brave her students were.

“It started out great, because it was Valentine’s Day. It was a happy day; kids were bringing in candy and flowers,” said Ivy Schamis, who taught at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for about 20 years.

She described Nicholas Dworet’s excitement at knowing about the shoemaker for Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics, the subject of the day. Dworet, 17, was an athlete, she said, and shined in the discussion.

“The class was super-excited because he knew the answer,” Schamis testified. “It was at that very moment, that he had the 'aha' moment that he knew the answer, that we heard very loud shots going off in the hallway right outside the classroom door.

“It was like a second that we stayed frozen, but the students flew out of their seats trying to find cover in a room that had a wall full of windows,” Schamis said.

“It was really seconds later that the barrel of that AR-15 came right through the glass panel of the door,” she testified.

Annika Dworet, Nicholas’ mother, cried in her seat in the courtroom as she listened to the teacher describe what occurred in classroom 1214. Nicholas’ father, Mitch Dworet, wiped away tears and visibly struggled to keep his composure.

“I kept thinking about these kids, that they should not be experiencing this at all,” Schamis testified. “The door was locked. But it really didn’t matter, because the shooter — or the shooters at the time — could have put their hand through the panel of the door.”

The teacher described how the students remained quiet, nobody moving, as they all lay close to the ground, and hushed each other, fearful that the shooting would happen again.

“The students were quite mature,” Schamis said. “I was very proud. They were incredibly brave.”

Moments later, lead prosecutor Mike Satz walked up to the teacher, asking her to identify people in some photographs.

“That’s my girl, Helena. Helena Ramsay,” Schamis said, sobbing. “And that’s Nicholas Dworet. Handsome boy.”

Ramsay’s family was not present in the courtroom on Wednesday.

Earlier Wednesday, student Genesis Valentin described the afternoon in her English class with Dara Hass in room 1216 when she heard gunshots. At first, she said, she thought the sounds were just balloons.

“Everyone had balloons since it was Valentine’s Day,” Valentin testified.

It took several shots for her to realize the sounds of what she thought were popping balloons were actually sounds of gunfire.

“We knew this was getting bad,” she said.

Some of her classmates called police officers while they all stayed put, awaiting help.

“I got some shrapnel all over my left leg and a little over my right,” she said. Valentin was next to her teacher’s desk when she was injured. She watched as Alaina Petty and Alyssa Alhadeff, both 14-year-old freshmen, were shot.

“Alyssa got shot in her stomach and Alaina was shot in her knee,” Valentin testified. “They were both instantly gone.”

When the courtroom reconvened after a lunch break, prosecution and defense lawyers argued over the number of sidebars requested by the defense.

Tamara Curtis, an assistant public defender for confessed gunman Nikolas Cruz, introduced a motion requesting that the state refrain from questioning its wounded witnesses on the present-day impacts of their injuries.

“Given that Mr. Cruz has pled guilty and admitted to doing all of that, the prejudice outweighs the probative value,” Curtis told Judge Elizabeth Scherer. “It’s not necessary to put the client in the context.”

“Respectfully, I disagree,” Scherer replied. “I’m going to deny your motion.”

More students testified shortly afterward.

When Veronica Steel was called up to the stand, she described her confusion and panic at the time of the shooting. Like others, she wondered whether it was a drill.

“You can imagine our emotions and everything,” Steel said. “It was just all over the place, we didn’t know what was happening or anything.”

Steel heard seven gunshots echoing from a distant stairwell. She and her classmates in Scott Beigel’s class shielded themselves with what little protection they could find.

“The way I was laying on the floor, I was laying on top of my three other classmates that were there with me,” Steel said. “And we were shielding ourselves with our backpacks.”

A cellphone video Steel took while sheltering in Beigel’s class was shown to the courtroom. In it, the whispers of hidden students and cries for help from the wounded can be heard. Beigel died that day.

Cruz plugged his ears with his fingers while the video played, refusing to listen.

Anthony Borges, a freshman at the time of the shooting, showed the courtroom his left leg as part of his testimony on Wednesday. He lifted his jacket and displayed his scars.

Borges was shot five times in his leg and has since received 14 operations.

Nicolette Miciotta, the final witness to testify on Wednesday, approached the stand already fighting back tears. From the first moment she spoke, her voice trembled.

Miciotta, then a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, told the courtroom that she considered going home before fourth period on Feb. 14, 2018, because she didn’t feel well. She decided to stay shortly before the period began. And almost immediately after her decision is when the fire alarm went off.

Following school protocol, Miciotta and her classmates filed outside at the sound of the alarm.

”There were so many students standing there you could barely tell who was who,” Miciotta said, “we just started walking.”

At one point, she turned around. Cruz stood directly behind her.

”I had known him since middle school,” she said. “I realized he was standing with another friend of mine.”

When Miciotta spotted her friend standing beside Cruz, she joined them in line.

”When we became one line. I said ‘hi,’ he said hi back,” Miciotta said. She struggled to speak. “I said ‘you have any college plans’ and he said ‘somewhere in Florida.’”

She had not known that the moment she stood with Cruz in line would come to haunt her. In the courtroom on Wednesday, sitting mere feet away from Cruz for the first time in four years, her emotions flooded back, her voice trembling in her testimony.

But when questioned, she stood and pointed a finger directly at the confessed gunman.

The penalty trial for Cruz, now 23, the confessed gunman who took the lives of 14 students, a teacher, a coach and an athletic director at the high school on Feb. 14, 2018, started at the Broward County Courthouse on Monday and is expected to last through October.