Five years ago, Mary Ann Jacob was working in the library at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, when a gunman began shooting at students. She quickly moved a filing cabinet to block the library entrance and shepherded the 18 eight- and- nine-year-olds in her class into a supply closet, where they hid until the massacre—20 young students and six faculty slain—was over.
When Jacob met teenage Parkland shooting survivors, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students Dylan Kramer and Ryan Deitsch, before they spoke as part of a panel at the Tribeca Film Festival Sunday afternoon, she gave them a high five.
“You probably thought that was the weirdest thing anybody’s ever done,” Jacob said at the panel. “The biggest gift we got as survivors was when the survivors from Columbine came and visited us a month after the tragedy.” Looking at the boys and then to the audience, she continued, “It’s like being thrown a lifeline, where we met people who were further along in their journey than us and were able to say, ‘I’m still alive.’”
Jacob, Kramer, and Deitsch were speaking following a screening of the documentary short Notes from Dunblane: Lessons from a School Shooting, which won the jury prize for Best Documentary Short at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The film is about the network of school shooting survivors across the world who are connected by grief and trauma. We meet a priest in Newtown who one night after the shooting receives a message from a priest in Dunblane, Scotland, offering his support and guidance 16 years after his parish was rocked by its own school shooting.
On March 13, 1996, a crazed gunman shot 16 students and one teacher at the Dunblane Primary School in Scotland. To this day, it remains the deadliest shooting in British history, something that is likely owed to how, in the wake of the massacre, the U.K. reformed its gun laws to be among the strictest in the world.
The extent of the government inaction in the United States is evident in the fact that, while director Kim Snyder was putting her finishing touches on this film connecting Dunblane with the 2012 Newtown shooting, the Parkland tragedy occurred. Also speaking on the panel, Snyder said that she and producer Maria Cuomo Cole (sister of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo) often thought the film “should have been called Unlearned Lessons from a School Shooting.”
The Tribeca panel reunited Monsignor Bob Weiss and Monsignor Basil O’Sullivan for the first time since Monsignor O’Sullivan flew to Newtown from Dunblane to help Monsignor Weiss officiate services on the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting.
“It’s a gift to be a priest in a universal church,” Monsignor Weiss said. “You realize that when a priest in Scotland in the middle of the night sends you an email to say that we’re praying with you.”
Snyder mentioned the epidemic nature of these shootings, and the eerie ways in which the communities who suffer them are connected.
“The crazy thing: The two librarians from Parkland and Newtown had gone to grad school together. These things are not struck by lightning anymore,” she said. But she took care to clarify that she’s not defeatist: “I’ve never been more heartened and grateful to these students. I just think they are the only hope.”
As part of the panel, Kramer recalled his experience during the Parkland shooting. He was in Holocaust Studies class in the 1200 building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Two of his classmates were shot and killed in the classroom while he hid behind a filing cabinet.
“We saw the shooter through the window and saw him point to our room, and I just ducked down and started praying,” he said. “I heard the glass shatter. That sound played back in my head. All those images for days, still to this day. To look to my side and see my friend was dead right next to me, and another girl was dead right next to me. Four of my other friends were wounded. It has such a terrible toll on you. Every day it plays back in your head. I can still taste the gunpowder, can still smell it.”
Jacob spoke personally about the theme of the film—the strength that can come from other survivors—when talking about how hard it’s been for those in Newtown to speak about their experience. Many of them were so young when it happened that they’re, all these years later, only now able to articulate their feelings about it.
“I think one of the gifts that they’ve been given from the people of Parkland is the permission to speak up and the ability to speak up,” she said, looking at Kramer and Deitsch. “It’s been three months for you, right? It’s going to be a lot more time before it’s over.”
A major takeaway of the film is how quickly the U.K. acted to reform gun laws following the Dunblane shooting 16 years ago, to the point that there hasn’t been a massacre on that scale in the country since, whereas there have been 1,600 mass shootings in the U.S. since Newtown. The panel’s moderator, Mad Men’s John Slattery, wanted to get at that frustration, asking Jacob, a teacher who survived Sandy Hook, what she thought of the suggestion to arm teachers.
“I think the only people who are having that conversation are the NRA leadership and President Trump,” she said. “I think the rest of us think it’s ridiculous. In an elementary school, when you’re having your morning meeting on the floor of the classroom with your 19 six-year-olds, is your gun on your hip and loaded? And when [a six-year-old] pulls it off your hip, what do you do? It’s just so impractical to even have a reasonable conversation about it.”
Deitsch, who has spent the months since the Parkland shooting touring the country and speaking out about gun violence and gun-law reform, also wrote off the idea.
“If you arm a teacher, it won’t solve the shooting at Waffle House. It won’t solve the shooting at Pulse. It’s Band-Aids on stab wounds,” he said, adding: “We say that our mission is only as strong as our weakest laws.”