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‘This is not a drill; people are getting shot’

July 30, 2018

MICHIGAN CITY – “A day meant for love turned into hate.” That’s how Mandi Jaffe, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, described the Valentine’s Day school shooting that claimed the lives of 14 students and three staff members.

Mandi and her twin brother, Harris Jaffe, were among the speakers at a “Community Preparedness in an Era of School Shootings: Lesson Learned” conference Thursday at Blue Chip Casino, Hotel & Spa. They were instrumental in helping organize the “March of Our Lives” – student-led demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and across the country on March 24.

More than 220 law enforcement officials, medical professionals, social workers, educators, parents and students from Northwest Indiana attended the event.

Organizer Ron Donahue, owner of the inHealth ambulance service company in La Porte and Porter counties, said the main question was: “Did these communities learn anything? The conference has been organized to help participants examine the issue from all angles – from EMT to nurse to parent.”

Coming from a medical background, Donahue said what impacted him most was how long the trauma from such an event continues after the immediate medical needs of victims are met.

“We need to keep in mind the social aspect of living through this. Some of this is graphic detail, but it’s a part of people’s lives. It shouldn’t be taboo to talk about this,” he said.

The Jaffe twins took part in a panel discussion with six other young people who were either students or recent graduates from Michigan City, Chesterton, Hobart, Gary and Boone Grove high schools.

Harris Jaffe described himself as “any normal kid at a normal high school” and how “before Feb. 14, I wasn’t worried about school safety.” Looking back, he’s thankful that for some reason he opted to wear his sneakers that day because of all the running he would do.

He said after hearing the gunshots and being told to run to a safe place, he and other students ended up in a classroom in another building.

“In that moment, when I was sitting in the classroom, I realized this is not fake – this is not a drill. People are getting shot. People are dying,” he said. “People on the outside knew more than those of us on the inside because the (cell phone) service was so poor.”

“Imagine not knowing how many people have been killed or if the shooter has been caught, and watching the news on your phone,” said Mandi Jaffe, who sought shelter with about 75 other students in a conference room.

Sid Augustyn, a junior at Chesterton High School, acknowledged “this isn’t something we understand and comprehend,” and asked about the climate in the classroom where Harris Jaffe hid for more than two hours.

“It was weird, awkward, scary and terrifying all at the same time,” Harris Jaffe said. “Some were crying, some were sitting in actual shock and some were calling parents and telling them that they loved them. I don’t think I can describe it without curse words, so I won’t.”

Michigan City graduate Myon McGee asked how Harris Jaffe’s perspective on safety has changed.

He answered he’s much more aware of security, and, for example, makes sure he’s in full view of exits in restaurants. He talked about heightened security measures at his school, including the video cameras, which are more closely monitored after a confusing 20-minute delay during the incident.

He also said it will take longer to begin school days this year due to multiple checkpoints set up to filter the 3,000 students.

The subject of metal detectors in school was brought up by Zharie Dodson of Gary. Mandi Jaffe said it will be “interesting to see how they will work” because of metal on book binders and other items.

Sid Augustyn said he and other CHS students have had conversations about school safety.

“The school has monitored social media a lot more, but I don’t feel our school has organized enough for some of the things that are so vital,” he said.

His mother, Heather Augustyn, explained that her son was one of the organizers of the peaceful walkout at Chesterton High and spoke that day to the student body.

She described her 16-year-old son as “into debate, outspoken and involved in social issues. He feels strongly about this. He believes that if there’s hope for change, it will be from his generation.

“I’m happy that they’re talking about this from a different angle of what we can do,” she said. “I still feel that there are things that need to happen at the legislative level.”

Eric Ailes, a Chesterton junior, said he came to the conference to be “educated and listen to the stories.”

A social activist himself, Ailes said he started the Summer Safety Fest at Chesterton’s Hawthorne Park when he was 9 years old.

“I wanted to step up from that and do more active things,” he said. “I think the most important part is trying to learn how to prevent it and think about how safe your school really is – the escape routes, safety procedures, making sure there’s an officer at the school. Speak up and prevent it instead of sitting back and not doing anything about it. Don’t take it as a joke – speak up.”

In addition to the student panel, the conference featured Lisa Hamp, survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting; Alissa Parker, co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools, whose daughter was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting; and Dr. Jennifer McCormick, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Donahue, along with other health care professionals in a group called The BAND, has organized conferences on subjects such as teenage drug addiction, the opioid crisis, elder abuse, and hospice. He said the conference on school shootings was the largest and most elaborate.

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