On Feb. 14, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School lost 17 victims to a tragic mass shooting.
In the days and weeks afterward, as students and families grieved and returned to class, many of the teens who attend the Parkland, Florida, high school have been speaking out about their experiences and demanding there be changes in gun safety legislation so that something like this can never happen again.
As part of a social media initiative called #whatif, photojournalist Jeff Vespa captured students’ heart-wrenching tales of survival — and their determination to create a future free of gun violence.
Their powerful words and portraits are featured in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Ava Schneider, a 14-year-old freshman, says she sprinted toward the school office after a fire alarm sounded and a friend claimed to hear a gunshot. But classmates who were crowded together with her in a group of about 50 students and staff debated whether what was happening was real, she recalls in the video above.
Watch more Voices of Parkland Survivors on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite mobile or connected TV device.
“We were texting our parents, not knowing what was going on, if it was the last time we were ever going to see them,” Schneider says.
“A lot of us were crying, not knowing anything and kind of just talking about how, if this is the end, how we are all together.”
In the shooting’s aftermath, Schneider learned “one of the people that was with me, he lost his best friend. So I’ve kind of been making sure he’s okay, that he’s getting through this and he knows there are people here for him.”
“By us taking action right now, by saying, ‘We’re educated, we know what’s happening, we know that this is what needs to stop and this is what needs to happen,’ we can really impact it.”
The teens have planned the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., on March 24 to demand changes in gun legislation and already the event has expanded to include more than 400 related demonstrations in cities across the globe.