Santa Fe and Parkland Are United in Tragedy and Divided by Guns
After the first major school shooting since the Florida massacre, journalists flocked to Texas, seeking sound bites on guns. Most residents wished they would just go away.
SANTA FE, Texas—With few exceptions, residents of the town where ten people were murdered in high school on Friday have so far shown little interest in going public with their grief.
As police let students back into Santa Fe High School to get their belongings on Saturday afternoon, few spoke to reporters, flummoxing the TV crews stationed along the school’s perimeter.
When The Daily Beast visited the store owned by the host family of a victim, Pakistani exchange-student Sabika Sheikh, a family member respectfully asked the reporter to leave. A majority of the Santa Fe residents approached by The Daily Beast said they weren’t ready to talk. Others simply ignored questions.
One apparent Santa Fe student, reached via Twitter, offered a common sentiment:
“Do us a favor and give us some time to recover. Don’t be selfish.”
That mood stands in contrast to the last major school shooting, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February. There, many grieving students sought the nation’s attention and found solace in activism, leading a nationwide push for gun reform that culminated with a march on Washington, D.C.
Parkland and Santa Fe are very different towns: the Miami-area suburb is wealthy and largely votes for Democrats; the Houston-area town is rural and situated in a conservative pocket of coastal Texas. What they have in common now is the mass murder of their children in school.
With Santa Fe still reeling, it remains to be seen whether mourning students here will find comfort in activism, as those in Parkland did.
On Sunday, students at Woodlands High School outside of Houston held a vigil in solidarity with Santa Fe and to call for gun reform. The vigil was in Spring, Texas, roughly 60 miles from Santa Fe. A spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-reform group that helped organize the event, said she wasn’t aware of any Santa Fe students in attendance.
Woodlands High School had its own gun scare last week, placed on lockdown for an hour after reports of a gunman.
“My friends and I hid in a closet,” Annika Galloway, a member of Students Demand Action and a student at Woodlands High School, said at the vigil. “It was terrifying.”
In gun-friendly Texas, many Santa Fe residents have blamed everything but guns—like bullying or lax school security—for the shooting. Those include the father of the alleged shooter, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, who has claimed with no evidence that his football-playing son was “mistreated at school,” CNN reported.
“Anti-gun backlash from a school shooting?” The New York Times wondered in a headline. “Probably not in Texas.”
Still, it’s worth remembering that Santa Fe residents—not any news commentator or political operative—are the ones struggling with the deaths of eight children and two adults. They’re entitled to grieve in their own way, to find their own explanations for the tragedy that unfolded on Friday.
By Tuesday, ten crosses were planted in the school’s front lawn. The crosses were covered with balloons, candles, stuffed animals, flowers and hand-written messages.
The handwritten messages included a mixture of condolences and inside references. On the cross of Kimberly Vaughan, 16: “#AlwaysAScout”
On the cross of Chris Stone, 17: “You were my brother rest easy”
On the cross of Christan Garcia, 15: “Your [sic] our brave hero. Love, Mom and Dad”
Sheikh’s cross had a crescent moon on it, a symbol of her Muslim faith. A cardboard poster sat nearby, next to a school sign. “More Peace + Love And Less! Guns In This World,” it read. The word “HATE” had been crossed out.
Of those in attendance who were mourning, few were interested in speaking with The Daily Beast. One exception was Emily Anderson, 16 and a sophomore, who choked back tears as she recalled meeting two victims, Shana Fisher and Christian Garcia, during school lunch.
Fisher, Anderson recalled, had been a funny and outspoken young woman. “I just wish they would come back,” Anderson said. “I wish I could have protected them.”
American Red Cross workers were there, giving out snacks and Gatorade. So were members of the “Billy Graham Rapid Response Team,” a part of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, who offered to pray with distraught students and encouraged them to pet golden-retriever comfort dogs.
“It takes [victims] away from their current state of mind,” Rich Martin, a member of Lutheran Church Charities who was visiting from Chicago, said. “It allows them to focus on something pleasant.”
There were still a few reporters in attendance, though the crowd of international TV crews had thinned out considerably since the weekend. Also present was Gina Dunckel, looking sad and annoyed.
A local psychologist who focuses on trauma, Dunckel was there, she said, to encourage journalists to give grieving students their space. “We need the media to document what’s going on, but not at the expense of these children,” Dunckel said. “There’s a time and a place for that, but not here. Absolutely not here.”
Dunckel was concerned that some journalists had come “with an agenda,” sticking cameras in the face of grieving students and asking them probing questions about guns. But mostly, she said, she just didn’t want students to be retraumatized. “This is a private community,” she said.
“There are many, many people who are never going to be the same,” Dunckel added. The shooter, she said, had no idea how many lives he’d affected.