Denise Harrison hasn’t ever seen anyone get shot or die from a bullet wound. But her 15-year-old daughter has.
“That shouldn’t happen to anybody,” Harrison said.
As a freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Brooke Harrison watched three students in her honors English class die after being shot by a gunman Feb. 14.
“My daughter has seen that,” Harrison said, crying for the loss of innocence, pain and agony of all who were affected by the actions of 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz. The former student killed 17 people at Brooke's school on Valentine’s Day.
Brooke will be in Colorado Springs to make her first public speaking engagement about her experiences, delivering simple but powerful messages to adults and teens.
She and her mom will speak at the El Paso County Democratic Party’s annual dinner, “Everybody Welcome,” at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Antlers hotel, 4 S. Cascade Ave. Tickets can be ordered online at epcodemparty.org.
Brooke also will speak Friday to a small group of students at Palmer Ridge High School in Monument.
She said she lives with the haunting memories every day, but she's discovered that talking about it helps. Now she hopes to help others by doing more public speaking.
“In the beginning, I went into a weak stage, not wanting to talk to anyone, being depressed and shocked at what had happened,” she said in a phone interview from Parkland. “It was kind of unbelievable that one of my close friends passed away, and 17 people in my school died as a whole. Telling my story has been the best therapy for me.”
Brooke’s story is difficult to hear. Feb. 14 had been a normal day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High until last period, she said. She had brought valentines for her friends and planned to hand them out after school.
Students in her freshman honors English class were working in silence on an essay-writing assignment.
With 20 minutes left until school got out, gunshots erupted in the hallway, and bullets started penetrating the wall and the glass in the classroom door.
Students flung themselves on the floor and looked for protection, Brooke said.
“I was in a place that wasn’t well covered, so I tried to get behind the teacher’s desk, but a lot of people were trying to get there, and I was pushed back,” she said.
“I got down on the floor with another classmate, who got shot in the arm and started coughing up blood. I was in direct view to the door. If the shooter really wanted to, he could have shot me.”
She said she looked across the classroom and saw another student “bleed out” in his seat and die.
Eight of the 25 students in Brooke’s class were shot that day. Three died.
One, Alaina Petty, was a close friend, whose death left Brooke with her biggest regret. “I never really got to tell Alaina how much she meant to me. I thought we had all the time in the world.”
Brooke said she started advising some of the gunshot victims to apply pressure, breathe slowly and stay awake.
“I knew basic medical stuff because my dad and I watch action movies, and my grandma is a nurse,” she said.
The shooting spree lasted seven minutes, and it took 20 minutes for help to arrive, which Brooke said felt like hours.
“A lot of kids were crying or praying. You could hear some screaming, ‘No, no.’”
As it was the first classroom Cruz attacked, students didn't have time to prepare, Brooke said. Eleven people were killed on that first floor and six on the third floor. Second-story classrooms had time to follow emergency procedures, turning off the lights, locking doors and taking cover.
Brooke couldn't call her mother until SWAT teams rushed students outside.
“She didn’t even know a shooting was going on at my school,” Brooke said.
She gave a sworn statement about what she saw to the FBI.
“That introduced me to wanting to talk more, to more people,” she said.
She’s coming to Colorado Springs at the request of a college friend of her mom’s, Amy Roth Sandrolini, a local communications strategist.
Brooke said she's not here to promote a political agenda. Rather, her messages lean toward motivational.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is: Don’t let a traumatic event in your life define what type of person you are,” Brooke said, “and don’t let it define your future. Take your pain and turn it into purpose.”
Brooke said she didn’t know the shooter, but those who did weren’t surprised to learn he did the unthinkable.
Her mom said she's still outraged by the “failures” — that law enforcement went to Cruz’s house more than 40 times but never arrested him, that threats Cruz made on social media were not followed up, that no one took seriously Cruz’s mental imbalance.
“It was one thing after another,” Harrison said. “If just one time he’d been arrested or committed or Baker Acted (a mental health law in Florida for involuntary institutionalization), he never would have been able to buy that gun.
“There’s all these places to place the blame, but we all need to take responsibility. People reported him, they thought it was taken care of, and it wasn’t. He fell through the cracks, and look at the consequences.”
Brooke is calling on people to be kind to one another.
“Maybe if a few people would have been nicer to Nikolas Cruz, maybe that would have changed something,” she said. “I think people underrate how much being nice to someone can make all the difference.”
Brooke said she thinks people don’t understand the “emotional scars” carried by survivors of school shootings.
“What kids saw and heard that day are going to stay with us forever. School shootings have such long-term, detrimental effects.”
Mike Donahue, founder of Value Up, a Monument-based nonprofit and a nationwide author and speaker on respect, bullying, youth suicide and school climate, will listen to Brooke’s presentation at Palmer Ridge High and offer her pointers to help launch her speaking platform.
School shootings are a result of kids not valuing human life, Donahue said.
“Obviously, this kid in Parkland stopped valuing himself — he died on the inside — and was looking for a place to basically say, ‘If I’m dead, you’re dead,’” Donahue said.
His organization, which includes Columbine High survivor Craig Scott as a presenter, helps students nationwide learn to value themselves and others.
“We could do better,” Harrison said. “Our lives were shattered, and we have to keep the momentum going so this doesn’t happen in another community.”