A Deadly School Year: 35 People Killed in School Shootings
Santa Fe, Texas
Is this inevitable?
It had been just 93 days since the last mass shooting at an American school when 10 people—eight students and two teachers—were gunned down at Santa Fe High School.
The mass shooting on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people had unleashed a torrent of rage and a remarkable youth-led movement to change gun laws. Lawmakers in nearly every state have been debating a range of policies to stop school shootings.
But on May 18, it happened again.
Santa Fe High, about 35 miles south of Houston, has two armed police officers patrolling a campus of 1,400 students. The staff is trained in emergency response, students practice lockdown and active-shooter drills, and the school district has been praised by Texas officials for its safety program.
Despite those security protocols, a 17-year-old junior walked into his own high school, carrying a shotgun and .38 pistol under a trench coat he was known to wear, and blasted away at classmates and teachers. Authorities say the school's police officers—one of them seriously wounded—confronted the shooter, who surrendered after exchanging gunfire with police.
But 10 would be killed; 13 injured.
The massacre brings the death toll by gunfire at U.S. schools in the 2017-18 academic year to 35, according to Education Week's school shooting tracker. It's the highest death toll in a single academic year from school shootings in recent decades—outnumbering the years of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings and the Columbine High School shootings, according to a Washington Post database. (In the latest shooting, on May 25, a teacher and 13-year-old girl were injured after a male student opened fire at a suburban Indianapolis middle school.)
Four days after the Santa Fe shooting, the memorials of white crosses had been erected on the school's lawn and students and community members had already held several vigils for the victims. Some Santa Fe High students said they doubt the shooting at their school will be the last.
Students Want a Voice
And they have strong opinions about what school leaders can do to protect them even as they try to make sense of why this all happened.
Metal detectors, said 18-year-old Bailey Schultz, would help. But stationing a police officer at every entrance could make school seem too much like a prison, she said. Her friend, Brooke Nelson, 18, said there's not a single solution and that the entire community should be able to contribute ideas on how to keep children safe at school.
"There are mental-health issues, and it's also not specifically a gun issue," Nelson said. "I just want everyone to have a voice to say, 'This is what we want. This is what will make us feel safe.' "
Dominique Rodriguez, 18, who was pulling into the school's driveway as the assault was underway, said parents must do more to spot signs of trouble in their children. The Santa Fe shooter had posted images on Facebook that should have been a red flag, she said.
"My mom knows everything I am doing. She knows everything I post online," Rodriguez said. "His parents should have been monitoring him online. If they were involved, it would have prevented this."
But she made clear that in a community where many people own firearms, people in other parts of the country shouldn't expect to see demands for tighter gun laws.
"The majority of us around here are for guns," Rodriguez said. "We still want to keep our guns, and protect ourselves."
That's a starkly different reaction from that of many students, educators, and families in Parkland, Fla., where the demands for gun control came in the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting there.
Students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were gunned down by a former student armed with an AR-15. Within a few hours, student survivors and the superintendent of the Broward County school district were on national television calling for tougher gun restrictions such as expanded background checks and bans on assault weapons, coupled with more money for mental-health services and other programs for troubled students.
Within days, hundreds of Florida students swarmed the state capitol clamoring for lawmakers to consider banning the sale of semi-automatic guns and large-capacity magazines. Within a month, several Parkland survivors had launched a gun-control movement that spurred national school walkouts and a wave of protest marches in Washington and other cities. And almost immediately, parents and students were asking tough questions about the police response to the shooting and whether the school district had ignored multiple warning signs from the accused shooter.
In Santa Fe, most survivors have turned inward, seeking solace from each other and from a deep Christian faith. Superintendent Leigh Wall focused largely on consoling and communicating with the Santa Fe community, bringing teachers and staff members to the district's main offices for counseling and emotional support. So far, questions of blame pointing at police or school officials have not arisen. However, the parents of one of the victims have sued the suspected shooter's parents, accusing them of negligently allowing him access to weapons and failing to secure their firearms.
But a small group of Sante Fe students spoke out late last week in a news conference to say they want to see safer gun storage laws and improved background checks, including mental health evaluations before people can purchase firearms. They stressed that they did not want to take away guns.
And family members of Jared Black, one of the students killed in the shooting, said in a statement on Facebook that they will not speak out against guns or schools administrators, and they will not cast blame.
Patrick Kelly, a Santa Fe school board member whose son is a senior at the high school, said local residents don't want a divisive political debate to unfold in their town while children are grieving.
"Our kids understand that this wasn't a gun that did this," he said. "This was a disturbed individual."
Since the shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who is a strong supporter of gun rights, has held three days of meetings to discuss school safety and mass shootings with educators, legislators, parents, and survivors, including from Santa Fe. He has expressed a willingness to look at the state's gun laws, including rules for safe storage and keeping firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. Authorities said the Santa Fe shooter used his father's legally owned shotgun and pistol in the massacre.
Always a Risk
Santa Fe High School was already using several security practices that are often proposed in the wake of school shootings. The district had volunteered to participate in a state school marshal program that arms and trains some staff members, but hadn't yet started the process.
So what else could the district have done to protect teachers and students?
"That's a tough question to answer," said Arthur Robinson, a regional director for the Texas State Teachers Association, which represents a small number of Santa Fe's teachers. "We do have armed campus security and [school shootings are] still on the rise. That's something that's going to take collaboration between schools, law enforcement, and even students."
But, he said, "when we have problems like this, sometimes the best source is to go to the students themselves. You might be surprised at the ideas that some of the students might come up with. A lot of the bullying is done by students, a lot of shootings are done by students, maybe you should include them in the process of trying to find solutions for those problems."
Noel Candelaria, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said most teachers don't want to be armed, but they do want armed police officers on campus. More importantly, Candelaria said, teachers want districts to improve building security, hire more counselors and psychologists, and have a staff that is well-trained in spotting and addressing bullying. Families need more support from schools to help students who are struggling with social and mental health issues.
But, Candelaria insists that safety in schools can't be fully addressed without frank discussions about guns and who has access to them.
"At the end of the day, it was guns that killed 10 people in Santa Fe," he said.
Having two mass school shootings in rapid succession adds fuel to an already intense and divisive political debate about safety, but could also complicate efforts to reach a broad consensus for how to stanch the bloodshed on school grounds.
Right now, many school administrators are trying to reassure parents by pointing to visible security measures, said Kenneth Trump, a school security expert who is not related to the president.
"We're seeing people who are looking for something new, something that feels emotionally more secure, but they aren't doing the fundamentals," Trump said, adding it's impossible to eliminate all risk.
In recent years, discussions about school safety have become discussions about gun laws, Trump said.
Too often, efforts to prevent shootings are overshadowed by putting physical security measures into place, said Kristen Harper, the director of policy development at Child Trends, a Bethesda, Md., research organization.
After the 1999 shootings at Columbine, schools and policymakers focused on school climate efforts like addressing bullying and helping students resolve conflicts, in addition to improving security practices. Students are less likely to harm themselves or others if they aren't socially isolated and if they have supportive connections with adults at school, Harper said.
But over the last decade or more, grants and programs created at the federal level to help schools do that kind of work have lapsed or been replaced. And since Parkland, discussions have focused heavily on "hardening schools" with physical security and armed teachers.
Discussions of deterring would-be shooters by arming more adults ignore the dynamics of school shootings, which are largely committed by current and former students targeting their own schools, Harper said.
While Santa Fe families prepared for funerals last week, a stream of mourners, including from surrounding communities, paid their respects to victims at the row of 10 white crosses at the high school.
Each cross bore a photo of a student or teacher killed. Miniature American flags fluttered at the base. Someone had left a white frisbee inscribed with the message: "Thank you for being a hero," next to a mound of flowers and teddy bears dedicated to Christian "Riley" Garcia, who was 15. Garcia reportedly was shot while holding shut the door to the art room.
Many people wore dark green t-shirts with the words "Texas Tough" on a map of the state. Small circles of mourners prayed, sometimes with chaplains who'd come to provide support.
"It just breaks my heart," said Sarah Castañeda, a 2nd grade teacher at a private Christian school in nearby Alief.
"We just need to look into the lives of these young people," she said. "I think too many times parents are ignoring the signs, the depression, and the isolation, and chalk it up to, 'They are teens. It's normal. They'll outgrow it.' "
To Castañeda, whose school has only one entrance that requires every visitor to report to the principal's office, the suggestion from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that schools need to reduce the number of entrances and exits is a smart one, but it's not enough.
"But by no means do I think we are immune. ... I would never ever say that a private Christian school is immune," she said. "It can happen anywhere, to anybody."
Autumn Helm, a cafeteria worker who was working at Santa Fe's junior high school when the shooting happened, saw the panic of parents who came to retrieve their children and the fear in the faces and voices of students who hadn't yet learned the fate of siblings and friends.
Standing near the memorial last week, Helm said she was worried about her children's safety and was now thinking about home-schooling them next year.
"It's not safe," she said. "I should not have to worry about sending my kids to school. While I go to work to support them, I should not be worried about whether my kid is going to be OK."
Santa Fe students are scheduled to return to school May 29, with only a few days left before the school year ends. Some say it's too soon to go back; the school year should just end early. But Rodriguez, who is graduating, said ending the year early would prolong the healing process. Even as her friends say that their school and community will never be the same, Rodriguez said she doesn't want the tragedy to be their last high school memory.
Even before the shooting, the school year had been a difficult one. Hurricane Harvey flooded Santa Fe in September and a false alarm in late February sent the school into a lengthy lockdown in fear of an active shooter.
"We prepared the whole year for tragedies like this happening," she said. "We did our best to prevent them."
Vol. 37, Issue 33, Pages 10-12, 14Published in Print: May 30, 2018, as Another School in Anguish