Annabel Claprood waved and giggled at her computer screen as her name was called, donning a navy blue cap and gown for her virtual graduation from the small private school she transferred to halfway through junior year.
When she had pictured this moment, she saw herself in burgundy.
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Annabel was a sophomore when she survived the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. For a year after, she struggled with triggers of post-traumatic stress as she returned each school day to the site of her trauma, walking by the building where 17 people were murdered on her way to classes. Ultimately, she decided she couldn’t stay at Stoneman Douglas, and she hasn’t regretted the move.
“At the time, it was the best decision for me, and it still is,” said Annabel, now 19, who has shared her journey with WLRN for more than two years.
Still, “it is hitting me that I would have liked to have graduated from MSD,” she said, adding that she wished she could wear a silky stole with the words “MSD Strong.”
Annabel’s teachers at Xceed Preparatory Academy chose her to give a speech at her May 29 virtual graduation, and in it, she called Feb. 14, 2018, her “turning point.”
“Abruptly, my vision and ideas were altered by a harsh reality, actually an unimaginable reality,” Annabel said in the recorded speech, played as a background track for a slideshow of pictures of her time in high school.
Like many people who survive traumatic events, Annabel experienced a change in perspective after the shooting. “If I would have died, then I would have died leaving no mark on society and no legacy to leave behind,” she said in the speech.
She wanted to build a legacy, and she started days after the shooting, posing a question to U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch during a live, nationally televised CNN town hall. Then she traveled to the Florida Capitol to advocate for school safety legislation. Later, she interned for U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. She also returned to Tallahassee last fall to ask lawmakers to uphold Gov. Ron DeSantis’ suspension of former Broward County sheriff Scott Israel, who was criticized for his agency’s mistakes in responding to the shooting.
“As teenagers, we think we have time,” she said in the speech. “Don't be fooled by that feeling. Do not waste your life. Find your passion. Find your love.”
The day after the live-streamed ceremony, Annabel invited a few friends over for what she thought would be a low-key, socially-distanced graduation party in the courtyard outside her Coral Springs home. Her family had something else planned for Annabel.
Annabel’s older sister, Macy Claprood, corralled a long line of cars at a hotel near their house. Friends and family decorated their cars with neon signs and balloons and lined up for a surprise caravan.
"I'm ready to go with 'We Are The Champions.' Queen!" said Jane Allen, a family friend and neighbor. “Once we get going, I'm going to roll down my windows. I'm going to pump it up."
“Annie knows everything, so I'd be very surprised if it really is a surprise,” said Diana Haneski, laughing, as she allowed her dog, River, to wander a bit in a grassy area outside the hotel while they waited for the parade to start. Haneski is the librarian at Stoneman Douglas, and River is the school’s own therapy dog who formed a special bond with Annabel before she left the school.
Shock registered on Annabel’s face as the caravan turned the corner and inched toward her house. “Oh my god!” she screamed as tears fell from her eyes and she buried her face in her hands.
It wasn’t just a big surprise; the parade was a lot of little surprises, as each car pulled up and Annabel saw who was inside: two of her former teachers from Stoneman Douglas (and, of course, River), her boss at her part-time job, aunts and uncles, friends.
Annabel’s mom, Elyse Claprood, bought cupcakes, placed them in individual plastic containers and topped them with homemade navy blue graduation caps with yellow tassels. She handed them through the vehicle windows as each car stopped briefly to congratulate Annabel.
“Graduation is a huge letdown, but I'm feeling happy, because it's closure for us. We don't have to look back anymore,” Elyse said, starting to cry.
“The past is done, and I'm just looking forward to her bright future,” she said. “I'm glad that chapter is closed, and we can move forward with new beginnings and a lot of love and happiness in our lives."
Annabel plans to study cybersecurity and business at Lynn University in Boca Raton in the fall. She brings the trauma of surviving the shooting with her into college.
What impressed her about Lynn — her top priority during her college visits — was the campus security.
“There's a difference in saying it and seeing it, and I see it at Lynn,” Annabel said. “I went on the tour, and I saw that there was no getting past that gate unless my name was on a list. I saw that every door had a lock on it. Every door had a scanner on it. If you're not walking around with an I.D., you're going to be stopped.
“I'm not taking the risk of going to a school that doesn't take it seriously,” she said.
Another top consideration was class sizes. For Annabel, the idea of sitting in a big lecture hall with 200 people is a nightmare.
"My anxiety makes it hard for me to sit in a room and not be close to the exits or be able to see the exit points,” she said.
South Florida's large public universities and colleges won’t work for her. But tuition, room and board at Lynn costs more $50,000 a year. Annabel’s worried about being able to afford it.
“It was important to me that I got to stay on campus because I didn't get the normal high school experience. And I want to get the normal college experience,” she said. “And I don't think I'm gonna get to because it is very expensive.”
Getting the normal college experience might not be possible anyway, at least for her freshman year. Colleges are still trying to figure out if and how to reopen campuses as the coronavirus continues to spread. But the thought of starting college online from home isn’t getting her down too much.
“It definitely sucks. But I have four years to do everything I can possibly do,” she said.
“It's not the worst thing that ever happened to me, sadly."