PLANT CITY, Fla. - Valentine’s Day began on a somber, but hopeful note at Durant High School in Plant City. Students and teachers gathered in front of the school to pay tribute to the 17 students and educators who lost their lives in their school in Parkland one year ago.
Durant’s flag was lowered to half-staff, students said prayers for the victims, then released 17 white balloons in their honor.
It was a tearful start to the school day for many, but especially emotional for language arts teacher Lia Grebus. One year ago, as news of the unthinkable began streaming from Parkland, Grebus learned one of her dearest friends and former colleagues was among the dead.
"I used to work in Broward County," she explained. "He lost his life a year ago today. We just know that this can happen anywhere and at anytime it could've been us. It could've been any school in Hillsborough County."
Grebus began her teaching career at South Broward High School in Broward County, where she got to know Chris Hixon. Hixon, an Iraq War veteran turned school security guard, coach and athletic director later transferred to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He was on patrol there the day a former student opened fire on campus.
On February 14, 2018, as bullets flew through the crowded halls and terrified students ran for their lives, Hixon grabbed a golf cart and went speeding toward the sound of gunfire. His first reaction was to protect students and stop the carnage.
"They know they are the proponent of chance," Grebus explained, "and I've never seen kids so motivated to change policy and really make a difference."
Accounts from survivors say he attempted to disarm the 19-year-old shooter, who was firing into defenseless crowds of students and teachers. His devotion to the students he loved cost Hixon, a father of two, his life.
Grebus was devastated, but determined. Student government association members at Durant say she was back in the classroom the very next day, opening up about her pain and having a frank discussion with students about gun violence.
She and her students say it’s important to continue the tradition of honoring Parkland’s victims by talking about what happened that day.