When the yearbook ends at Marjory Stoneman Douglas for students and staff, 14 toothy, goofy, friends for life stick out. They sit in two rows. Perfect pups. Their names, listed just like students at a school that has endured so much.
Adviser Sarah Lerner, rising editor-in-chief Caitlynn Tibbetts, and the rest of the yearbook staff at the high school in Parkland, Florida, including the therapy dogs in this year’s edition perfectly encapsulated the difficult but rewarding challenge of creating the book in the wake of a campus shooting that shook the tight-knit community.
“It’s a balancing act,” Tibbetts, a 17-year-old junior, told BuzzFeed News. “After the shooting we wanted that yearbook to be perfect and had to cover as much as possible. This year, we wanted to give proper representation of our school and who we are now without giving so much focus to what happened to us in the past. The therapy dogs are the one thing from last year that is permanent and positive.”
“Including them was a really good representation of what we have gone through,” said one student. “These dogs are going to be there until the last of us are gone.”
The group of dog’s has been an unwavering, consoling, integral part of the school since a gunman walked onto campus on Valentine’s Day 2018 and killed 17 students and staff. They go to class, give handshakes in the hallways, and wag tails in the courtyard outside the cafeteria as teens flood in and out for lunch.
The dogs have been there as students and teachers dealt with the suicides of two Parkland teens this spring, traumatizing false fire alarms, the first anniversary of the massacre, unexpected news that their principal was leaving and other school shootings nationwide. A few of the dogs even joined students at prom.
The pups have become such a fixture that, last October during makeup picture day, Lerner suddenly had the idea to include them in the school’s award-winning yearbook.
“I told one of their handlers about it and next thing I know I had 15 dogs in the room,” she laughed. “We sat them up on chairs, they were smiling for the camera. It was the greatest day of my life.”
Including the therapy/service dogs in the yearbook is the best decision we’ve made so far like this one dog had a bowtie and my heart 😭💗💕 pic.twitter.com/ecP9X01wqD
— natasha (@sighnatasha) October 4, 2018
The yearbook photo shoot of the good pups quickly went viral as students captured their furry friends decked out in bow ties posing for the photographers.
“It was such a mood lifter,” Tibbetts said. “Including them was a really good representation of our school and what we have gone through. Seeing them is something we look forward to every day. These dogs are going to be there until the last of us are gone.”
And, as these behind-the-scenes shots show, Grace, Emma, and Chief took the moment so seriously.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my students and the yearbook they put together. Honestly, it’s my favorite.”
According to Chief’s human, Yvonne McAlpin, the four-year-old Labrador Retriever has a special bond with the kids, so much so that he often sits in their laps, something she says “he never does with me or anyone else.”
“It’s magical to see the positive impacts he makes,” McAlpin said. “The students will come up and you can see they are having anxiety and within 10 minutes they are totally relaxed, rubbing his belly and giving him kisses. He greets all the students when he goes into classrooms.”
Like constantly hearing about their school in the media, seeing Chief, Molly, and the other therapy dogs wandering across campus every day has become part of a new, strange, and emotional reality that the yearbook class worked hard to highlight.
“We are a school where news trucks are always posted outside and there is so much to deal with and show. We want to keep the conversation going in a non-triggering way,” Tibbetts said, “and it’s a hard thing to do to not make it sad and depressing, but still honor who we lost and what happened to us.”
When plotting the yearbook, the 35 students were adamant about making it more of a “celebration,” Lerner noted. The colors and fonts are clean and bright. There are no pictures of the victims this year, but photos of memorials and snippets of stories and tributes about them are woven throughout the pages.
“It’s hard to be here some days because of the trauma and reliving and revisiting things,” Lerner said. “I couldn’t be prouder of my students and the yearbook they put together. Honestly, it’s my favorite. We have a different perspective on things now, and it’s not just a yearbook — it’s a record of history.”
“We wanted to focus on how everyone is feeling and going through things differently,” Tibbetts said. “All these moments and experiences define us, and it’s a matter of getting through it. Eventually, things will be better, so it’s a matter of finding the small joys and happiness in the everyday.”
One great example, she said, is watching her classmates pick up their yearbooks and gush over the photos of their grinning therapy dogs before the summer starts.