U.S. News

Student survivor in Florida puts her dreams on hold to demand change

PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) - Kali Clougherty, an 18-year-old senior with big dreams of an acting career, was in the middle of a rehearsal for her high-school’s theater production of the dark cult comedy “Heathers” last Wednesday when she heard the first gunshots.

Kali Clougherty, an 18-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks to a reporter in Parkland, Florida February 19, 2018 in still image from video. REUTERS/Zachary Fagenson

The chilling blasts at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, not only heralded one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, but convinced Clougherty to put her personal dreams on pause for a greater cause.

Clougherty is setting everything aside - including preparing for her crucial college auditions - to join a student movement advocating for measures to stop the epidemic of mass shootings in U.S. schools in recent years.

On Wednesday, Clougherty will join about 80 people, mostly students, on a seven-hour bus ride to the state capital Tallahassee to demand lawmakers enact a ban on assault rifles, such as the AR-15 rifle used in last week’s rampage.

Nikolas Cruz, 19, who had been expelled from Stoneman Douglas, is charged with killing 17 students and educators at the school.

“It’s too soon to go back to school,” Clougherty. “This is about the victims. Don’t forget that; we never will.”

As a drama student focused on getting into college, Clougherty never could have anticipated taking a public stance on such a politically charged issue as gun control.

“All I’ve ever wanted to do was graduate, get out of this small town, and fulfill my dream,” Clougherty said of her desire to be an performing artist. She balances a full schedule of five advanced placement classes as well as four performing arts classes.

Last Wednesday, she planned to spend the day rehearsing ahead of her college audition later that week. A panel of recruiters at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio was just one of four she aimed to impress this month as she competed for admission.

Clougherty will portray the main protagonist in her school’s rendition of “Heathers,” an adaptation of a 1989 movie about a clique of three wealthy and beautiful girls, all of them named Heather. The show, a dark comedy about popularity, violent revenge and the struggles of adolescence, is scheduled to open in March but Clougherty said it could be postponed.

When the three-minute shooting spree started, a terrified Clougherty ushered some of her 65 classmates into a closet and gestured for others to block the main door with a piano. Her instructor stood in front of the instrument like a human shield.

Almost an hour and a half later, according to Clougherty’s guess, the worse of the tragedy had passed. Two days later, she traveled to Ohio for her audition as planned.

“I thought it would be a healing environment,” she said, admitting that the college visit was more difficult than she had anticipated.

But there was a pleasant surprise. Two of Clougherty’s friends from Florida also were at the auditions and they dedicated their performances to the surviving students at the school.

“They didn’t know I was there,” she said. “It helped me to heal.”

Clougherty canceled another college audition as reforming gun laws has taken priority.

Back in Parkland, she is grateful to be alive but also concerned about the resumption of class and how the trauma will affect her graduation.

Still, she says she is ready to embrace whatever lies ahead.

“I won’t let that psychopath take away anything from my life. I am a student and a daughter and a girlfriend and a theater geek,” she said.

Additional Reporting by Zachary Fagenson; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Bill Trott