GR US

One Year Later

The National Herald

FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2019 file photo Dimitrios Pagourtzis, the Santa Fe High School student accused of killing 10 people in a May 18 shooting at the high school, is escorted by Galveston County Sheriff's Office deputies into the jury assembly room for a change of venue hearing at the Galveston County Courthouse in Galveston, Texas. (Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News via AP, Pool, File)

It has been a year since a Greek teenager killed 10 people – eight classmates, a substitute teacher, and a teacher’s aide – at Santa Fe High School, 37 miles from my home in Sugar Land, Texas. In the year since then, there have been over 100 mass shootings, three of them at schools.

When students returned to Santa Fe High School on August 20, they encountered security upgrades such as new metal detectors, more armed officers walking the halls, and panic buttons in every classroom.  School district officials spent the summer hiring more resource officers, outfitting the school's front vestibule with bulletproof glass, and installing nine metal detectors at entrances. At a school board informational meeting a few days before classes resumed, authorities detailed other steps they had taken, including installing more security cameras, strengthening anti-bullying measures, and monitoring social media for signs of planned attacks.

According to The Texas Tribune, there has been no gun control legislation passed by the Texas legislature.  The focus, instead, has been broader school safety, including mental health screenings and hardening schools with an increased police presence and armed personnel. Nevertheless, residents of Santa Fe are more concerned with their community than far-away Austin.  Rather than focus on gun laws, survivors and their families have concentrated on improving mental health services, both inside and outside school, in order to avert or at least diminish the effects of the next mass shooting. I hate writing that, already knowing that there will be a next mass shooting at a school.

Days after the tragedy, survivor Annabelle O’Day helped start a nonprofit called Hearts United for Kindness, which aims to eliminate the stigma around mental health and encourage individuals to seek help. Mandy Jordan, a 2001 Santa Fe High graduate, lobbied city officials to turn a 1.5-acre park into a therapeutic garden for people with post-traumatic stress disorder. “The community has struggled over the past year, but I believe we continue to support one another and all want to help our community and students heal and recover,” Jordan said.

Long-term support includes a crisis support hotline created by the Santa Fe school district. The city helped start the Santa Fe Resiliency Center to help address the mental health and wellness needs of the community. Julie Kaplow, director of the Trauma and Grief Center at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, which works with the Santa Fe center, said the idea behind its creation was a tiered model of mental health care since “not everyone was impacted by the shooting in the same way.” Immediately after such a tragedy, she said, it’s common for those involved to experience flashbacks, lack of appetite and trouble sleeping. But over time, those reactions shift toward intense grief – and sometimes even regret or distress over the traumatic way friends, family members and peers died. Kaitlyn Richards, a student at Santa Fe, describes her emotions. “I had a classmate whose brother ended up dying, and he was the same age as my brother…That is what I struggled with the most: My brother survived and hers didn’t.”

The Santa Fe community knows that recovery from such an awful event is a life-long process, one that probably never ends. But even though their school has become synonymous with tragedy, the students, teachers, alumni, and residents of Santa Fe refuse to be reduced to a single awful day last year.  Annabelle O’Day said of the anniversary, “You can't choose what other people do to you; you can only choose how you respond.”

On Friday, May 17, the town held a volunteer day of service at the Resiliency Center. Students at the high school were also able to stay home for the day so that they could be surrounded by their friends and family. During the afternoon, the school hosted a tree dedication to honor the lives lost. And Saturday, on the anniversary of the shooting, the community gathered for an all-day kickball tournament hosted by two teachers from the high school. The Resiliency Center also held a candlelight vigil in the evening.

Every mass shooting is a tragedy, but there is something especially poignant when the victims are children. It is a loss and grief that no one can fathom. But Alissa Parker and Michele Gay, two mothers who lost their daughters at Sandy Hook Elementary School seven years ago, have turned their pain into purpose by creating Safe and Sound Schools, “a non-profit that focuses on school safety, supporting crisis prevention, response and recovery…really, this summit is our way of honoring our kids and pushing the mission that we started because of their loss," explained Alissa.

They brought their message to Houston on March 28 for the first National Summit on School Safety, in partnership with Crime Stoppers Region 4. Leaders from mental health, law enforcement, fire, safety and security, parents, students, and teachers – focused on a single goal of “safe kids and safe schools.”  But the summit also focused on the Santa Fe High School community on the eve of the first anniversary of their tragedy. "It's a long road out and we will be there, quite a few survivors from here that will share that message, and share what they have learned along the way," said Michele

One of the speakers at the summit was Lisa Hamp, who survived the Virginia Tech massacre that claimed 32 lives in 2007. “They're coming together, learning from each other's tragedies, hoping to make schools safer and helping Santa Fe survivors heal. The community starts to make a turn in the recovery around the one year mark, right after the one year anniversary, and as for a survivor who is directly impacted, you look around you and you see the rest of the community starting to return to what their new normal routines are going to be and you're still struggling" (https://abc13.com/sandy-hook-moms-bring-safety-summit-to-help-santa-fe-victims/5223758/).

As I was writing this, I paused to view President Obama’s speech to the nation after Sandy Hook. I watched the most powerful man in the world wipe away tears as he extended the nation’s condolences to the bereaved families and their community. So much of what he said resonated with me as a parent and an educator.  But what stayed with me as he spoke was how tired he was of making these speeches. And how tired I am of hearing them. So the resilience of my neighbors down the road in Santa Fe, their fears and sadness, resolve and dedication to healing as a community, the concrete steps they have taken to restore and protect themselves, gives me hope. This will inevitably happen again. But it need not inevitably define us.