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Texas shooting survivors seek purpose in shadow of Parkland

May 24, 2018
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Houston Texans players join in a prayer circle at a memorial for the Santa Fe High School shooting victims outside the school Wednesday, May 23, 2018, in Santa Fe, Texas. ( Godofredo A. Vasquez /Houston Chronicle via AP)

SANTA FE, Texas (AP) — She had seen the memorials on television, the familiar white crosses erected after each massacre, and now there were 10 of them lined up on her high school’s lawn.

Kyleigh Elgin was part of a new set of young victims, like many before her, who left flowers and letters and searched for ways that their tragedy might be different, that it might end the grim routine of school shootings.

“Our community is really small, but we’re like one big family, and I genuinely feel like we can make a difference,” said Elgin, a sophomore who ran for her life last week when a gunman blasted his way into a classroom and killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School near Houston.

But for these survivors, deciding what to do next has not come into focus as clearly as it did for the students who lived through the most recent mass school shooting, only three months ago, in Parkland, Florida. Those teens galvanized the nation with an impassioned and aggressive plea to tighten the nation’s gun laws.

In Santa Fe, a rural Texas town with just 13,000 residents who pride themselves on responsible gun ownership, a different mantra was repeated: “It’s not a gun issue. It’s a heart issue,” and heart issues are harder to fix than guns.

“We can’t be compared to the Parkland kids,” said Callie Wylie, a 16-year-old soccer player who lost eight classmates and two teachers in last week’s attack. “It’s too new. As we move on, maybe we’ll build a stronger stance. Maybe we won’t. But I hope we do.”

Sandy Phillips has watched this agonizing search for purpose again and again, at the sites of nine mass shootings since her own daughter’s name appeared on one of the white crosses.

Jessi Ghawi was gunned down with 11 others when a man opened fire in a Colorado movie theater six years ago. That’s when Phillips began a morbid mission to visit the sites of American massacres to comfort the families of the dead and the ones who made it out alive. She believes her work can’t end until the country gets serious about addressing the ease with which killers can get access to guns.

“America isn’t handling this well,” said Phillips, herself a gun owner who grew up around firearms. “I hear politicians say all the time, ‘We’re not going to let this define our community. We’re not going to let this define who we are. Aurora Strong. Las Vegas Strong. Parkland Strong.’”

Each shooting has been followed by pleas for change and yet here Phillips stood again, among teenagers wearing shirts reading “Santa Fe Strong.” The phrase has appeared on bumper stickers and storefronts and tattoos. The tight-knit community has gathered for vigil after vigil, day after day.

Greg Zanis, a Chicago carpenter who makes and delivers the crosses, said Santa Fe was particularly tough on him. Because everybody knew everybody else, the 10 deaths touched the entire town. Everyone is dressed in green and gold, the high school’s colors.

Local chef Mary Bass hosted a community potluck specifically to try to sew the town together before the gun debate had a chance to tear it apart.

“We’ll get tight and stay tight until we grow old,” said 19-year-old Summer Buckmiller, a graduate of Santa Fe High School, who searched for hours for her 15-year-old brother after he hid from the gunman in a closet.

Buckmiller hopes something will change. But if the shooting’s only legacy turns out to be bringing her town even closer together, that’s good enough for her, she said.

Wylie, too, believes the town must heal itself first before taking a stand. She said she admires the Parkland survivors for turning death and despair into a movement. She knows classmates who have been in touch with them who might try to do the same in Santa Fe.

But Wylie also agrees with many of her classmates and neighbors who say gun control isn’t the answer. She resents the political battles over guns that began here almost immediately after the last bullet was fired.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a firm gun rights advocate, convened a roundtable discussion Tuesday with a promise of “swift and meaningful action” to prevent future massacres. But drastic changes to Texas’ gun laws — among the most permissive in the nation — are unlikely. State lawmakers have focused on calls to “harden” school campuses.

Santa Fe High School already had an award-winning safety plan and two armed security guards on campus. They had practice: The building went into lockdown in February when what sounded like gunshots were reported at the school. It was, that time, a false alarm. Wylie thought they were ready.

“Once it actually happens to you, you’re not prepared,” she said. “They prepare us physically, but they don’t prepare us mentally and emotionally, and that’s the biggest part of it.”

So many here have made it a mission to rally around lawmakers’ calls to better defend themselves.

Melissa Fewell, a mother of two children who are now terrified to go to school, launched an online petition demanding metal detectors at the schoolhouse doors. When surrounding districts reopened Monday, she read with terror that six threats — either children caught with guns or caught threatening to bring them in — had been reported in that single day in Houston-area schools.

“I can’t just sit back and do nothing and pray and hope it doesn’t happen to me and my kids,” Fewell said.

Kristie Dickens, a 38-year-old elementary school teacher and mother of three, pleaded with her community to rise up and demand security guards and gates. She wants to carry a gun to her own classroom.

“And if it means my child’s school looks like a prison, I’m fine with that because I know my kids will come home to me at the end of the day,” she said.

Phillips noted that the journey of the Santa Fe survivors has only just begun.

Trolls will harass them on social media. Thieves will start fundraising pages in their name, and they’ll never see a cent. The reporters and volunteers will leave, and there will be silence. The sounds of ambulances or helicopters or fireworks will feel like hell.

Some mornings they might wake up and wish they had died instead.

And there’s always the prospect of another mass shooting to remind them that the cycle is starting again. Every massacre seems so similar, and yet each has its own rhythm, Phillips has noticed. Rural communities, like Santa Fe, tend to draw inward and reject calls for gun control.

Comparing the loud response of the Parkland survivors and the quiet one in Santa Fe, she sees a microcosm of the divide between left and right that always seems to stall the search for solutions.

“There’s a routine to it, and it has to be a routine that is offensive to all of us,” she said. “And we can’t just turn our backs and pretend it’s going to go away and you’re going to go back to what your life was before.”

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