By Emma MacDonald
Editor’s note: On Thursday morning, two teens were killed and three were wounded at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California, when a student, identified by police as Nathaniel Berhow, pulled a .45-caliber handgun from his backpack and opened fire on classmates before turning the gun on himself. According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Thursday was Berhow’s 16th birthday. The reporting on the following story took place this fall as metro Atlanta teens, like young people across the nation, become increasingly troubled by school violence.
I vividly remember seeing the news notification for the shooting in El Paso, Texas, pop up on my phone that Saturday night in August. I had a friend sleeping over, and as soon as I read the headline, I remember rattling off the death toll to her — 22 people dead and 26 wounded — as I was consistently updated by the various news notifications I have enabled on my phone.
My friend and I were still up a few hours later, at ungodly hours of the morning, when I felt my phone buzz with another notification.
“There was a shooting in Dayton,” I stated blandly.
“Didn’t you already mention that?” she asked.
“No, that one was in El Paso,” I responded.
Both of us were silent for a second as we let that sink into our sleep-deprived minds. I knew logically how bad this was, and I knew that people across the country were devastated, but I felt numb.
I could recognize that absence of emotion, and I felt awful about it. I was becoming desensitized, or I already had been and didn’t notice. I wanted to be able to feel sorrowful or wrathful or frightened because I knew what had happened was objectively horrific. Instead, I felt nothing, much like how I’m sure you may have felt when reading through the statistics in the first sentences of this article.
On August 23, however, that sense of numbness shattered as I was flooded with nearly every emotion possible when I received a text from one of my best friends: “There was a shooting,” followed by, “I’ve never been so scared.”
Now, before I continue, I will assure you there was no shooting at the Heritage High School versus Salem High football game that Friday night. There was, however, a gunfire hoax that led to a mass panic throughout the stadium.
Everything had been running as it usually does at high school games, with sports teams and large groups of friends dominating their own sections across the packed bleachers. For some freshmen, this was their first game and for some seniors, it was their last. Everyone there was just trying to get some taste of that “high school experience” that movies and TV shows have had people longing for forever. At halftime, spirits were high as the score was 18-0 with Heritage, the home team, looking like they would have a solid win. However, this atmosphere quickly turned terrifying as a loud noise in the stadium threw the crowd into a panic and students and adults desperately tried to get out. Some students reported getting stuck in the fence while trying to escape, while others crowded into various cars with people they didn’t know.
The captain of Heritage High School’s Color Guard, Allison Adcock, 16, who attended the game to perform, told VOX ATL: “I just saw a stampede of people start running toward the front gates and they just kept coming. We ran to the band room and eventually ended up in a theater room called the ‘black box’ and hid there until the police made us walk out of the building with our hands up.”
The Rockdale County School System later issued a statement reporting that “There was no gun or gunfire at our game tonight. The safety of our students, staff, families, and community who attend our events is always our top priority.”
However, many students worry that there was, in fact, a real threat.
“I think that there was a threat at the game,” Adcock said. “I think there was a gun, and the school is just trying to keep a good image and sweeping it under the rug because there has been nothing done about the situation at school other than the principal saying there was no threat at the game over the morning announcements. Maybe there wasn’t a gun, but there was still a threat because everyone thought that there was one, which ensued panic. I saw people getting trampled by crowds which was a dangerous reality if you were there. That in itself is a threat to children’s safety.”
A State of Constant Fear
After it was revealed that there was no real threat at the game that night, social media posts of my peers turned from black screens with texts ranging from “Praying everyone at the game is OK” to “Thank god my friends and I made it out safe” to posts about how everyone was overreacting, accompanied by the inevitable memes and jokes about the matter. Some people I reached out to interview for this story claimed they were embarrassed to have even felt scared at the game. One student told VOX ATL, “I didn’t know what was going on, but I assumed it was a shooting because it happens all the time.”
One Rockdale County Public School junior, Madeline Lombard, when asked what she believed the likelihood of a shooting at her school would be, said, “I hope it’s not likely, but I feel like it’s more likely than I think it is.” One factor that may play into this would be the implementation of active shooter drills in schools. In my experience, these drills include locking the doors, turning off the lights, closing the blinds, and having everyone huddle behind a large desk, in a corner, inside a closet or a lab storage area. The execution of these active shooter drills can vary from county to county. In one of my classrooms, my teacher informed us that if anything ever were to actually happen, someone would have to break the window, and we would have to try and scale the chain-link fence that surrounds the outside to be able to run into the woods.
Sixteen-year-old Stephan Sellers, who attends Rockdale Magnet says, “It’s just another thing that we do. It’s like a tornado drill or a fire drill, it’s just something we do. We’re used to it.” Junior Winsly Cyrius added, “I don’t really feel anything [during school shooter drills] because I’m used to it, but maybe for someone like my parents who aren’t used to this kind of thing, they would feel fear, but I’m used to it because of all the drills we go through.”
This goes back to the idea that our entire generation may be suffering from desensitization. Rockdale Magnet School of Science and Technology student Gabby Wood believes that, “It’s [mass shootings] a lot more prevalent in the news and media, so yeah, every time you see it you’re kind of like, ‘Oh it happened again.’” With 366 mass shootings so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research group that tracks real-time data about gun violence incidents, it makes sense that the idea of mass shootings occurring both in and out of schools is becoming more and more normalized within our society to the point where no one seems to really care to talk about it in the time between the tragedies. It’s only human of us to try and go back to taking care of the trials and tribulations of everyday life so we don’t have to deal with the mental and emotional burdens that come in the aftermath of mass shootings where the faces, names, and lives of victims are pushed onto the general public causing a strong, but always seemingly temporary, push towards ending gun violence.
Though this hyper-awareness of gun violence may seem temporary, the number of false shooting scares shows the opposite as they have become more and more common in the United States with recent panics occurring in Atlanta; Lexington, Georgia; New York City; Milpitas, California; West Valley City, Utah; McLean, Virginia; Arlington, Virginia; and so many more cities – students, parents, teachers, and U.S. residents of all sorts are clearly terrified of the tragedies that can happen at any moment.
How can we prevent this in the future? And who is primarily responsible for the execution of safety precautions?
“I think it should be everyone’s No. 1 priority to keep children safe no matter where they are,” Adcock said. “School has sadly become a dangerous place for kids now and that should make the government and school system act more to ensure safety… Heritage and the county need to do better at keeping their children safe.”
Amanda Baskett, director of Rockdale Magnet School of Science and Technology, told VOX ATL, “I think that school safety has to be all of our priorities. We have to own it, but we also have to be good partners. So, obviously, safety is in the realm of our law enforcement agencies, and they are working diligently, but we are also, as a school system, an entity that has to interact and support and be open to learn from their experiences.”
She continued, “We have round table discussions where coming together was our superintendent, was our sheriff, was our chief of police all in the room sitting down at round tables with law enforcement officers, parents, students, administrators, teachers, together — and we’ve gotten some great ideas from that type of roundtable discussion. Students at that table made the conversation more valuable, made the action steps that we were able to take after those roundtables more valuable.”
When it comes to the division of labor for school safety, Baskett said, “Well, obviously law enforcement isn’t going to be able to know this school as well as I can every day, and school safety is going to be my first priority because if you don’t feel safe at school you cannot learn at your highest level. Your parents are not going to trust you to be at this school, and so we’ve got to master that school safety. That’s that priority, but I can’t do it because I’m not trained in law enforcement as far as from that standpoint, we have got to turn to them as partners.”
“Like, who’s more in charge? We all have to be. So you know that’s part of being trained as school administrator here, your school administrators have been trained in school safety for multiple different levels, whether it be citizen response to active shooter events, CRASE ( Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events) training that everyone has gone through on staff, or some more advanced trainings so that your administrators, like Mr. Corey Williams [Assistant Director at Rockdale Magnet] and I, can be prepared to be good partners for law enforcement in worst-case scenario types of situations. But it’s a constant thing. It’s not writing one safety plan and submitting it and being done. It’s something you have to come back to reevaluate, and it’s always going to be.”
Emma MacDonald, 16, attends Rockdale Magnet and is an aspiring documentarian who finds a way to fill every part of her schedule at every given time. She loves being involved in the visual and performing arts despite going to a STEM school. In her “free time” she enjoys going on little adventures with her friends, most of which involve obtaining food.
This story was published at VOXATL.org, Atlanta’s home for uncensored teen publishing and self-expression. For more about the nonprofit VOX, visit www.voxatl.org.