Flo Rice used to run about 30 miles a week to relax and burn off stress.
But now, during the most stressful, emotional time in her life, she can’t turn to her old outlet.
Rice, 56, was substitute teaching a year ago at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, evacuating students from a gym at the sound of a fire alarm, when an attacker shot her in both legs.
“I heard what I thought was a bomb blast,” Rice said, recalling the moment before she fell to the ground in the school’s hallway. “What it was, was the sound of the shooter shooting a shotgun. I’ve heard gunshots, but I just did not know what that sound was inside a building. And it was deafening.”
The 17-year-old student killed 10 people, police later said, and along with Rice, wounded 12 others.
Two of the dead were fellow substitute teachers, exposing what Rice sees as a big blind spot in schools’ safety efforts: As classroom teachers complete intense drills and trainings to prepare for the unlikely event of an active shooter, the substitute employees who relieve them have little preparation at all.
Now, Rice has a rod running up her left thigh where doctors reassembled her shattered femur in an emergency surgery that day. She’s fought through physical therapy, gripping parallel handrails to relearn how to take simple steps and strengthening her muscles by raising her legs in small, repetitive movements against the tension of elastic bands.
At first, doctors couldn’t even assure her she’d walk again. She’s since worked her way from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane. Running still seems impossible.
Meanwhile, Rice deals with the weight of her emotions, the post-traumatic stress syndrome that has caused her hair to thin and sometimes turns her short-term memory into a fog, the thoughts that keep her awake many nights, the questions about what could have happened differently that day.
What happened in Santa Fe was the kind of school shooting that would normally dominate national newscasts and stir debates about guns and safety. But those conversations had already started three months prior and a 1,000 miles away when a former student killed 17 people and wounded 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
As the specifics of the Florida shooting gobbled up news coverage and some Parkland students became recognizable activists, some in Santa Fe felt overlooked. And, as they prepare to recognize the one-year anniversary of the shootings Saturday, some still do.
But Rice doesn’t want attention. She wants a commitment that things will be different.
‘A Huge Vulnerability’
Her husband, Scot Rice, doesn’t remember his wife expressing fears about her safety at the 1,500-student high school, where she started subbing four years ago to get to know the community better. He does remember the complaints about classroom phones that didn’t always work, spotty cell phone reception inside the building, and how substitute teachers didn’t have keys to lock and unlock their own classroom doors.
In a lockdown situation, Flo Rice said, substitute teachers had been told to run into the nearest full-time teacher’s classroom. But that advice would do little good when entire hallways of classrooms were occupied by substitutes filling in for departments on leave for professional development. Where would they go then?
Those details have taken on fresh relevance since the shooting, when Flo Rice began sharing fears she’d been carrying with her husband, fears that had been stoked the day of the Florida shooting and during a false alarm at Santa Fe High School a few months before the real thing happened.
“It’s a huge vulnerability,” Scot Rice said of the lack of protocols for substitute teachers. “Retrospectively, now she’s gone back and told me that she was in fear all the time … She would sit in her class and look at the exits, and look at the boys and think about who she would pick to [help her move furniture to] block the doors. But she had never told me that.”
On the day of the shooting, though, Flo Rice wasn’t working in a typical classroom. She was working with another substitute teacher, Glenda Ann Perkins, to watch two classes of students playing basketball in adjoining gyms. It was morning, and the school day had just started.
A spokesperson for the Santa Fe district didn’t return several messages from Education Week, and many of the details of what happened that day remain unclear, even to the people who lived it.
Flo Rice said another substitute teacher in another classroom spotted a student walking down the hallway with a shotgun and a revolver. When no one answered a front office phone number left in his folder of classroom materials, he unsuccessfully tried to call 911, she said. Finally, trying to get two on-campus school police officers to respond to the hallway, he pulled the fire alarm, Rice recalled.
Rice and Perkins, not yet aware of the danger and not expecting a fire drill, shuffled their students down a corridor that connected to a main hallway, and they walked behind them toward an exterior door next to the art classroom, which would later be identified as the site of most of the violence.
As they hustled, Rice heard the booming noise she first thought was a bomb. The gunman, drawn to the hallway by the alarm, shot and killed Perkins right in front of her. Then there was a second boom.
“I felt myself hit the ground, and I still thought it was a bomb ... And then I looked up and I saw Ann laying a few feet in front of me. She was facing away from me so I couldn’t see her face. And then I looked down, I saw multiple holes in my legs and that’s when I realized I had been shot,” Rice said. “It was not a bomb, and that was almost more horrifying than a bomb because someone could set off a bomb and leave. But then I realize there’s someone with a gun, and they’re still here, and they just shot me.”
Rice had fallen near one of the building’s exits. She dragged herself to the side of the building and quietly called her husband at home from her cell phone.
Scot Rice, who regularly drives a diesel pickup, hopped into his 2005 Ford Mustang, the fastest car the family had. He rushed to the school—about five minutes away at normal speed—and zoomed through parking lots that hadn’t yet been cordoned off by law enforcement.
“I hear your car,” Flo Rice said quietly into her phone after she recognized the sound of the engine growing louder.
Scot Rice yelled to a police officer who had walked by his wife, assuming she was dead.
“That’s my wife!” he called from his car, which he’d parked behind a dumpster in a nearby parking lot. “She’s alive!”
The officer scooped her up and ran with her to the Mustang. Scot Rice, who had beat paramedics to the scene, barreled out of the parking lot to take her to the hospital.
Speeding out of town on a four-lane highway at 100 miles per hour, he saw police from every surrounding town rushing in at equal speed from the opposite direction.
As the Rice family raced for help, two school officers and responding agencies scrambled to stop the shooting. The suspect spent most of the 30-minute attack in an art room.
A school police officer was wounded after responding to the scene. Officers found explosives around the school grounds, but they had failed to detonate.
Rice’s youngest daughter, a senior at the high school, was taking college-level classes and had a modified schedule so she had been at home during the shooting. A few weeks later, Rice left a rehabilitation facility in a wheelchair to watch her child graduate.
The alleged gunman faces state chargesof capital murder and aggravated assault of a public servant. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison. But, because he was a minor at the time of the attack, he would be eligible for parole after 40 years.
A federal prosecutor initially said he wouldn’t press federal charges but, under pressure from Santa Fe familieswho wanted assurances the teen would never be freed, he later reversed course. Those charges are under seal.
Including Subs in Safety Training
After gathering input from Santa Fe survivors, the Texas Senate passed a bill in April to create new requirements for schools meant to boost both preparedness and public accountabilityabout their safety procedures. The House is expected to take up the bill by the end of the legislative session.
The bill would provide student loan assistance for school counselors and mental health professionals, and it would require regional mental health authorities to help train and assist school personnel. It would set up a grant for “school hardening,” and require schools to create a plan for a list of possible emergencies, including active shooters.
Most important to Flo Rice: the bill would require schools to train all teachers, including substitutes, in emergency response plans. And it would require that all teachers have the ability to communicate with first responders in a crisis.
The 4,800-student Santa Fe district has already made some changes, according to weekly safety reports to the public. All teachers, including substitutes, were trained in emergency responseover the summer of 2018, those reports said. Workers installed a new intercom system and panic buttons in classrooms at the high school that allow teachers to more easily alert others, and new classroom doors lock from the inside.
There is little information collected on how schools around the country approach safety protocols for substitute teachers, though some states include them in the requirements that apply to all instructional personnel, said Jennifer Thomsen, policy director for The Education Commission of the States, which tracks safety laws.
After the Santa Fe shooting, lawmakers in New Jersey have also considered a bill that would mandate safety training for substitute teachers and supervisors of youth programs that meet in schools.
There are logistical challenges to training substitutes: They often work at multiple sites with various floor plans and procedures; they may sign on midyear after scheduled trainings are complete; and, while in-service trainings are built into full-time teacher schedules, substitutes would need an extra day of pay to participate.
Nationally, some administrators may be hesitant to adopt new requirements because schools have seen a shortage of substitute teachersthat runs parallel to a need for more teachers in general, said Raegan Miller, an adviser for Future Ed at Georgetown University who has studied data from school staffing software to document trends.
It doesn’t surprise Miller that safety training is inconsistent for substitute teachers.
“States themselves have radically different requirements for subs, even in terms of their high school education,” he said. “This is one of those topics that no one pays terribly much attention to.”
Miller, a former math teacher, worked recently as a substitute teacher in Washington State districts, where he encountered a variety of safety preparation—everything from short videos to self-directed slide presentations to a sheet of contact numbers and instructions left in a folder.
“As a substitute, what is more on my mind [than shootings] is individual student issues to do with health, allergies, or things like seizures,” Miller said. “Often subs are kept in the dark about the status of individual students, and those kinds of things are more likely to happen.”
The proposed Texas bill would require the Texas School Safety Center, originally founded as a research organization at Texas State University, to review districts’ safety plans, including those for training substitute teachers. School systems that don’t comply with state standards would be required to hold a public hearing and plan changes, said Kathy Martinez-Prather, the center’s director.
Texas has more than 1,000 school districts that educate 5.1 million students on 9,000 campuses, she said, so the center would likely randomly select plans to review every year. To set regulations, it would first have to survey how districts—both rural and urban—handle issues like teacher training and emergency preparedness.
“Texas is huge and spread out. East Texas is very different from west Texas,” she said. “Everyone has a different way of doing it. What’s great about this piece of legislation is it’s going to provide more structure across the board.”
The state has also adopted standard safety protocols to ensure that schools are using uniform terminology that makes sense to first responders, Martinez-Prather said.
Scot Rice wants to see substitute teachers receive specific training for every location they teach in. As a contractor, he has access cards that allow him into industrial sites, programmed to only allow him to enter locations where he has been trained in safety procedures, he said.
Every school building is different, with quirks about access and exits and with very different needs for elementary, middle, and high school students, Rice said.
“It’s actually the worst scenario that could be, this vulnerability they have left open,” he said.
It’s very unlikely that most students and teachers will ever experience a school shooting, but districts around the country spend an increasing amount of time and resources preparing for one.
Federal data show that, on the whole, schools have gotten safer in recent years, with reported rates of crimes like theft, burglary, and assault continuing a multi-year trend of decline. Researchers say that it’s wrong to label school shootings “an epidemic”and that students are still largely safer inside schools than outside of them.
But that provides little comfort to families and educators around the country, who were left shaken after 2018, a year that saw two of the five deadliest K-12 shootings in U.S. history.
About a third of parents responding to a 2018 poll commissioned by PDK International saidthey fear for their child’s safety at school. By comparison, 12 percent of parents responding to the same poll said they feared for their children’s safety at school in 2013, following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 young students and educators dead.
In the 2018 poll, taken during a period that overlapped with the Santa Fe shooting, just 27 percent of parents said they were “very confident” or “extremely confident” about their school’s ability to deter a gunman.
A look at a year’s worth of weekly safety updates posted on the Santa Fe district’s website show how that fear has played out in a town that was directly affected. Among the questions answered: “Some parents have purchased backpacks with bulletproof metal plates. How will these backpacks work with the [newly installed] metal detectors?” The district advised students to remove the backpacks before entering the school, and it recommended a non-metal alternative.
The district’s mental health support staff has also worked to reach out to students who didn’t return this school year and to track troubling patterns of absences that may reveal unaddressed trauma, according to the updates.
For the families most affected—those whose loved ones died or were injured in the attack—grief and anger have been compounded by a lack of answers. Access to medical autopsy reports, security footage, and other documents is restricted under exceptions in Texas open-records laws related to felonies, the Houston Chronicle detailed in March.
The Rices have returned to walk the Santa Fe High School hallways twice: Once with a counselor who is helping Flo Rice process her PTSD, and once with Perkins’ husband, who still doesn’t know important details, like how many times his wife was shot that day.
Those mysteries have created a lack of closure for all families involved, said Shaheera Jalil Alabasit, whose cousin, Sabika Sheikh, was killed in the shooting. Sabika, a bright 17-year-old exchange student from Pakistan, was in the art room. Alabasit, a graduate student in Washington, D.C., plans to take Sabika’s parents to Texas in June to visit the bedroom where their daughter stayed, to see the school she attended, to try to understand.
“There’s about 99 percent that we don’t know,” Sheikh said. “But we’ve heard many unofficial accounts.”
Sheikh looked at school floor plans to see where her cousin died. She exchanged messages with other students who speculated about the shooter’s motives. But so many of the family’s questions haven’t been answered. A district spokesperson did not return a message seeking comment.
That’s in contrast to Florida, where a state commission with subpoena power explored all the specifics of the Parkland shooting, reviewing computer simulations, interviewing first responders, and making recommendations to state lawmakers. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has also called for a state grand jury to review how districts have addressed safety.
Santa Fe families, feeling an absence of accountability and attention, have boiled over at times.
Two police officers threatened to escort Scot Rice out of a school board meeting as he emotionally read the names of people injured that day. The board president allowed him to finish.
“Nobody has fallen on their sword, and nobody has been held responsible for the failures that happened that day and the months leading up to it,” Scot Rice said in an interview. “And we just don’t understand how you can be in charge and act like nobody did anything wrong. Somebody needs to go down with the ship or something, you know?”
Among the questions the Rices have: Why didn’t the gunman, a quiet student known for wearing a dark trench coat, receive more attention from school officials before that day, even for violating the school dress code? Why didn’t the district tighten up its procedures after a false alarm in the months prior? Why weren’t some classroom phones working?
Some victims, including Flo Rice, have joined a lawsuit against the gunman’s parents, arguing they bear some responsibility for the attack because they didn’t properly secure their guns. The suspect used a shotgun and a revolver that were legally purchased by his father, authorities said.
Santa Fe families seek solace in private Facebook groups with mass shooting survivors, and they talk regularly with parents in Parkland about legal strategies, healing, and grief.
When Santa Fe is mentioned in national school safety discussions, it always follows Parkland, if it is mentioned at all. That feels like a “slap in the face,” Scot Rice said. But he’s mindful that victims of other, smaller shootings have seen even less of a spotlight on their circumstances.
He can quickly name other school shootings that got little coverage because they had fewer fatalities.
The anniversary may draw more attention to the shooting, but it’s just another day for those who survived it, he said.
“Every day is May 18th to us,” Scot Rice said. “We relive it every day. Every day, we wake up to the same nightmare.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2019 edition of Education Week as Hurt in Shooting, Teacher Seeks Safety Training for Subs