A former teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has opened up about her ongoing struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and her return to teaching three years after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.
In a candid YouTube video, Brittany Sinitch, 25, reflected on her experience as a survivor of the February 14, 2018 massacre that left 14 students and three faculty members dead, saying she had to take a year off from teaching to heal.
‘I think back on how I felt three years ago, and I see it. I have the videos. I hear the pain in my voice. I see the look on my face. I couldn’t even say the word “shooting,”‘ she recalled. ‘Today I’m here to tell you that I’m so much stronger than I’ve ever have been.’
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Candid: Brittany Sinitch, 25, opened up in a YouTube video about being a survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018
Sharing her story: Sinitch said she still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, but she is better equipped to manage it three years after the tragedy
Sinitch explained that she grew up in the Parkland area and was a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. When she graduated, she had plans to return as a teacher after college, and she did.
The English teacher was in her first-floor classroom when former student Nikolas Cruz, then 19, walked into the building with an AR-15-style rifle and fired between 100 and 150 rounds in a rampage that killed 17 people and wounded 17 others.
‘It changed my life forever,’ she said, sharing footage from a video that she posted after the massacre to let people know she was safe. ‘You can just see the pain on my face. I couldn’t even get the words out.’
Sinitch said the Parkland community received an incredible outpouring of support that helped her and other survivors know they weren’t alone, but it felt like she was ‘living a nightmare.’
‘You see these things happen all the time on the news and you would never think, “Oh, this could be you.” Not my school. Not my safe space, but it did,’ she told the camera. ‘It absolutely happened, and it changed all of our lives forever.’
Dream: Sinitch, pictured in her old classroom, explained she grew up in the Parkland area and was a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School before she started teaching there
Sinitch went to therapy for the first time six days after the shooting, and during the session, she recounted what had happened that day from the morning she woke up to the moment she returned home.
The therapist was struck by how she described huddling with her students in the corner of the room with the sun shining on her back from the window behind her.
‘I just had this feeling, that right then and there we were unbreakable,’ she explained. ‘And I know that’s such like a weird thing to say, but it was the first word that came out of my mouth in therapy.
‘As someone who was so broken and so confused, for that to come out of my mouth, it just became a mantra in my life.’
Sinitch shared that she is still ‘very broken’ after the tragedy and continues to suffer from PTSD flashbacks, even when she is doing something unrelated, like going for a run, but she knows she won’t be this way forever.
Tragedy: The English teacher was in her first-floor classroom when former student Nikolas Cruz opened fire in the building and killed 17 people. Students are pictured being evacuated
Terror: ‘It changed my life forever,’ Sinitch said, sharing footage from a video that she posted after the massacre to let people know she was safe
‘I think the word unbreakable doesn’t mean we always have to be strong, but I think it’s just knowing that even if we are broken we can put our pieces back together and feel unbreakable,’ she said.
Sinitch eventually returned to the classroom and her students, saying it made her feel less alone. However, it was a difficult transition that included ‘changes in the administration’ and ‘fire alarms going off all the time.’
‘It’s like someone stole your home,’ she said of walking past her old building, which is still closed off as a crime scene three years later as Cruz’s trial remains in limbo.
She managed to finish out the school year, but that’s when the pain started to take a toll on her mental and physical health. She recalled being triggered by a powerful presentation by non-profit Change the Ref, which aims to empower future leaders and ‘expose the disastrous effects of the mass shooting pandemic.’
The non-profit was founded by Manuel and Patricia Oliver, whose son Joaquin was of the 17 victims in the shooting.
Hard to handle: Sinitch said she returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the massacre and continued to teach, but then it became too much for her
Decision: ‘Leaving was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life. Period,’ she said. ‘It was harder than going back after the shooting’
‘It was so beautiful and they were creating so much awareness, but I don’t think I was ready for it,’ she explained. ‘I went to the hospital that night. I couldn’t feel my chest. This was one of the first moments I felt like anxiety was winning for me.
‘That was just one of many visits. I started going to more doctors than I can count on one hand. I was getting tested for so many different things.’
Sinitch knew she couldn’t keep teaching anymore, saying it wasn’t fair to her students because she couldn’t give them the education they deserved.
‘Leaving was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life. Period,’ she said. ‘It was harder than going back after the shooting. Leaving was the hardest thing I ever had to do. But it was getting to the point that it was starting to take control of my health. I didn’t recognize myself anymore.’
Sinitch choked up with emotion as she recounted how it felt to have to take a break from being a teacher, which was her dream.
Moving forward: The teacher took a year off to focus on her health and manage her PTSD flashbacks
Finding happiness: Sinitch is now an English teacher at another school and said she is ‘so grateful’ for her ‘new beginning’
‘It’s this feeling that someone robbed something from us, like that this person not only took 17 amazing people from us, but he also took away a part of all of us too that are still here. He took away my dream,’ she said.
‘Sure, the things in my classroom you can replace, but you can never replace the students that I had that we lost. You can never replace the staff members — some of them that I grew up — with that we lost. You can never replace a little girl’s dream of wanting to be a teacher one day at her high school.’
Sinitch said she spent a year concentrating on healing herself and managing her PTSD. It was during her time off that she founded the Unbreakable Organization, which aims to give strength to those who are struggling.
When she felt better, she returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas part-time to be an adviser for the high school’s Dance Marathon, an event that she started in 2018 to support Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.
Sinitch is now an English teacher at another school and said she is ‘so grateful’ for her ‘new beginning.’
Healing: ‘I don’t check the clock every day around 2:20 p.m. I just go in and I teach and that’s all I can ever want,’ she said
Heartbreak: Sinitch said she still visits her old high school and was there a few days before the third anniversary of the shooting, but walking past her old building never gets easier
‘I am so grateful to be back and doing what I love, and I’ve learned so much from it,’ she continued. ‘I know that I’m in a place now where I can wake up and I can get ready and got to school and I don’t look at my door every two seconds to see if someone’s there.
‘I don’t check the clock every day around 2:20 p.m. I just go in and I teach and that’s all I can ever want.’
Sinitch said she still visits her old high school and was there a few days before the third anniversary of the shooting to hand out key chains, but walking past her old building never gets easier.
‘If I could go back, the one thing I would say to myself is: “Just hold on a little bit longer,”‘ she said. ‘Because there were some really dark days where I didn’t even think I could do it anymore.
‘I didn’t think I could get out of bed. I didn’t think I could take one more fire drill, but I kept going, and I’m so happy I found that little voice, that little push to keep going. Because without it, I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t have this new beginning.’