Never Again: A Reading List About School Shooting Survivors

Students hold their hands in the air as they are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018, after a shooter opened fire on the campus. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

I don’t remember anything of the day leading up to the moment when, in Spanish class, the schoolwide PA system crackled to life. There was a brief moment of static. Then, an administrator — maybe our vice principal — said something like lockdown, lockdown, this is a lockdown, this is not a drill. There was a terse quality to his voice. My teacher turned out the lights, crawled toward the windows I suddenly realized spanned from floor to ceiling, and closed the blinds. I, along with the rest of my classmates, crouched in the corner of the room. We kept close to one another, closer than we ever would be again, the rise and fall of our shallow breaths like a subdued chorus of fear.

The PA system remained silent. We looked at one another with eyes wide open, ears pinned back. My phone off and in my backpack, I sent mental messages to my parents and brother: I love you. I hope you can hear me somehow. Just days before, on the news, an expert on how to protect yourself during a school shooting had said that throwing textbooks or scissors at a shooter when they first stormed the classroom might help disrupt their shooting patterns. I whispered the idea within the huddle, and our teacher crawled to retrieve a box of Fiskar scissors, ones that were “safe” enough to be approved for classroom use, meaning the blades were dull, the plastic light. We pulled textbooks from the baskets beneath desks and held them. My palms sweated.

I do not know how much time passed. I do not remember if I heard the shot or if I only heard about the sound in the hallway in the days that followed. I do not remember if I cried. The thuck-thuck-thuck sound of a helicopter broke the silence, and we peeked through the blinds to watch it land somewhere near the school. My classmates texted messages to their families. We whispered about what might be happening, whether we were safe. No sound emerged from the PA to relieve us. Instead, as time passed, we watched as cop cars and news vans arrived. Parents texted classmates to say we were on CNN. From messages, we learned that someone had been shot on school property. In my mind, I sent another slew of silent messages to my family: I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.

Long after the whir of the helicopter receded, someone, over the PA, told us we would have an early release from school. They didn’t say anything about what had happened, only that we were now safe. I retrieved my phone, called my mom, and wept when I heard her voice on the other side of the line.

The next day at school was supposed to be the statewide standardized test. I thought the administration might find a way to cancel the test, or even school. But they didn’t. Instead, in the halls before the first bell rang, rumors swirled: the student with the gun had ammunition in his backpack; there had been a chase; he had committed suicide because a girl he liked turned him down. I stress that these are only rumors — they have always remained rumors to me, because no administrator ever spoke openly about what happened. Even now, when I look at newspaper clippings of the event, nothing much is said other than that a student shot himself on campus and later died after being Life Flighted to a hospital. I can imagine that part of the reason why information was suppressed was because I went to a school that was only two years old in an affluent part of town.

That morning, instead of handling the subject with sensitivity, instead of reassuring the student population of our safety, instead of pausing standardized testing to talk about gun control, instead of taking time to mourn a member of our school, the administration sent us to our alphabetized classrooms, where a package of off-brand goldfish rested upon each clean desk. And over the PA, the same system that had carried the sound of a breathless warning the day before, James Brown’s I feel good (whoa! I feel good, I knew that I would, now) began to play. I bit my lip to stop myself from crying.

Then, and still now, that song blaring over the speakers strikes me as abhorrently insensitive, as does the way the administration failed and refused to openly discuss the incident with students. We had all crouched in dim corners. We had listened to each other’s shallow breath. We had murmured prayers and sent messages to who we loved. But we were expected to move on as if nothing had happened. To pass our standardized tests. To forget the fear of those moments when we didn’t know who might barge through our classroom door.

In the years since then, I have felt in some ways as though part of me is still there, frozen, like an animal of prey. When I teach, I survey each room for exit points or furniture I might use to block the entrance. I want to tell each student in my class that I will protect them, but I want more safety for all of us than just the promise of my own words. I do not want to see any more school shooting headlines. I do not want students to have to show their bravery after unspeakable horrors. I do not want them to carry that trauma.

Rather than ignore what has happened — and is still happening — to students in too many high schools as the administration at mine did, I believe in the importance of stories of students, teachers, staff, their families, and communities who have borne witness to tragedy, who will carry the weight of their experiences with them for the rest of their lives, and who are advocating for stricter gun laws as a means of sparing others from the same. We must listen.

1. Columbine, five years later (Peter Wilkinson, April 20, 2004, Salon)

At a news conference held just shy of the five-year anniversary of the Columbine High School tragedy, all evidence, “every bomb and bullet,” was placed on display. Peter Wilkinson maps the trajectory of the investigation in this piece, but emphasizes the experiences of survivors such as Brooks Brown, a student who experienced PTSD after the shooting, and Richie Castaldo, a student who was paralyzed because of a bullet that struck his T4 vertebra and “shattered his spinal cord.” Wilkinson chronicles how their lives — and others at the school — were impacted by that traumatic day.

“Ireland was paralyzed on his right side for months after the attack. He walked again in June 1999, though he’ll always carry a bullet in his brain from Klebold’s shotgun.”

2. After Newtown shooting, mourning parents enter into the lonely quiet (Eli Saslow, June 8, 2013, The Washington Post)

Six adult staff members and 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, 2012, their families left to grapple with unspeakable loss. Eli Saslow tells the heart-wrenching story of Mark and Jackie Barden, whose Daniel was killed that day.

“Nobody had touched the foosball table, because Daniel had been the last to play. His books and toy trains sat in their familiar piles, gathering dust. The basement had always been Daniel’s space, and some days Mark believed he could still smell him here, just in from playing outside, all grassy and muddy.”

3. Chardon, Ohio (Libby Copeland, November 18, 2018, Esquire)

Six years after a school shooting at a high school in Chardon, Ohio, Libby Copeland shares the stories of Danny Day, a high school student at the time whose best friends were killed, Brandon Lichtinger, a teacher, Jen Sprinzl, the principal’s secretary who confronted the shooter in the hallway, and others within the community in order to convey the myriad ways that trauma can warp and change a life.

“That was when I started to understand just how deeply something like a school shooting could affect people—people who weren’t even in the school or who didn’t lose someone close to them. That it could be a kind of earthquake that still reverberates, six years later. That a whole town could be marked by this day and could send its young into the world marked, too—some of them drinking, depressed, cutting, suicidal.”

4. The Class of 1946-2018 (As told to Jared Soule and Amelia Schonbek, October 28, 2018, New York Magazine)

Through a portfolio of photographs and a collection of testimonies from survivors of school shootings, Jared Soule and Amelia Schonbek “wanted to conduct an exercise in remembrance…What, we wondered, could their memories teach us about our inattention? The people whose bodies — in many cases — won’t let them forget.”

“There was a girl who was praying in Spanish, and I thought maybe I should pray too. This is a time when you pray. So I did, and then I looked over and saw one of my classmates with her head down. Then I sort of realized that she wasn’t alive anymore.” –Isabel Chequer

“Somebody was running past me and I asked them real quick, “Whose blood is this?” And they said, “It’s yours. It’s yours. You have a bullet hole in your neck.”” –Rome Schubert

“Fragments of bullets are still getting pulled out of my body.” –Colin Goddard

5. The School Shooting Generation Has Had Enough (Charlotte Alter, March 22, 2018, Time)

Charlotte Alter writes about how, after the tragic school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a group of students organized in the hopes of decreasing gun violence.

“How a movement catches fire is always a mystery, but the Parkland kids seem matched for this moment. They’re young enough to be victimized by a school shooting, but old enough to shape the aftermath.”

Alter notes that the “U.S. only has 4.4% of the world’s population, yet it accounts for roughly 42% of the world’s guns.” Up against startling statistics such as that, through social media engagement, meetings held at a pizzeria or the windowless rooms of the #NeverAgain headquarters, and with a fervent desire for change, Emma González, Jaclyn Corin, David Hogg, Alex Wind, and others hope to change the current state of gun violence in the U.S. through reform.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and illness.