Parkland Shooting Survivors Give School Therapy Dogs Their Very Own Page In The Yearbook

by Kim Wong-Shing
Kim Wong-Shing is a staff writer at LittleThings. Her work spans beauty, wellness, pop culture, identity, food, and other topics. She is a contributing writer at NaturallyCurly, and her work has also appeared in HelloGiggles, Lifehacker, Wear Your Voice Magazine, and other outlets. She grew up in Philadelphia, attended Brown University, and is now based in New Orleans.

Thirty-five students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, had a tough task ahead of them this year: creating a yearbook that honored their pain without focusing too much on it.

The 35 students on the yearbook committee achieved this in one clever and memorable way. They included their crew of 14 therapy dogs in the yearbook.

“This year, we wanted to give proper representation of our school and who we are now without giving so much focus to what happened to us in the past,” editor-in-chief Caitlynn Tibbetts told BuzzFeed News. “The therapy dogs are the one thing from last year that is permanent and positive.”

The 14 therapy dogs attend school with the students every day, wandering into classrooms and throughout the hallways.

They provide comfort, distraction, and pure positivity.

In the yearbook, the pups pose in picture-perfect outfits, tongues wagging happily.

“It’s hard to be here some days because of the trauma and reliving and revisiting things,” yearbook adviser Sarah Lerner said. “I couldn’t be prouder of my students and the yearbook they put together. Honestly, it’s my favorite.”

It’s our favorite, too.

It’s impossible to forget that horrific moment on Valentine’s Day 2018, when a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and shot 34 students and staff members, killing 17. For the students of the school, just attending school every day is now an emotional, scary, and triggering experience.

It’s been over a year since the shooting, but the horror is far from over. Two teen survivors died from apparent suicides in the span of a week earlier this year, the New York Times reported.

In the aftermath of such a terrible chain of events, comfort may seem nearly impossible. But the school has enlisted 14 furry helpers for the cause: a crew of therapy dogs, who have become truly integral to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas community.

“There’s nothing a dog can’t fix,” English and journalism teacher Sarah Lerner told BuzzFeed News. “I’ll be teaching and in comes a dog and these big 18-year-old adults all the sudden become mushy 5-year-old kids and it’s been such a comfort for us.”

One dog, Chief, has such a special bond with the students that he often sits in their laps, which he never does with his own handler.

“It’s magical to see the positive impacts he makes,” Chief’s human Yvonne McAlpin said. “The students will come up and you can see they are having anxiety and within 10 minutes they are totally relaxed, rubbing his belly and giving him kisses. He greets all the students when he goes into classrooms.”

The dogs are now a major part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas community, so it only seemed right to include them in this year’s yearbook. Sarah, the yearbook adviser, had the idea to include the dogs.

“I told one of their handlers about it and next thing I know I had 15 dogs in the room,” she said. “We sat them up on chairs, they were smiling for the camera. It was the greatest day of my life.”

This year’s yearbook was an extra challenging one, for obvious reasons. The theme was “It All Depends,” which highlights perspective, growth, and transformation in the wake of tragedy.

“It’s a balancing act,” yearbook editor-in-chief Caitlynn Tibbetts told BuzzFeed News. “After the shooting we wanted that yearbook to be perfect and had to cover as much as possible. This year, we wanted to give proper representation of our school and who we are now without giving so much focus to what happened to us in the past. The therapy dogs are the one thing from last year that is permanent and positive.”

Caitlynn says the dogs were a real boost to everyone’s spirit: “It was such a mood lifter. Including them was a really good representation of our school and what we have gone through.”

The yearbook isn’t the only way that Parkland students have honored the therapy dogs as part of their community. Several of the dogs even attended prom!

“Seeing them is something we look forward to every day. These dogs are going to be there until the last of us are gone,” Caitlynn said.

Sarah says she couldn’t be prouder of her students for the way that the yearbook turned out.

“We have a different perspective on things now, and it’s not just a yearbook — it’s a record of history,” she explained.

With impressive wisdom, Caitlynn put it best: “Eventually, things will be better, so it’s a matter of finding the small joys and happiness in the everyday.”