Hollan Holm’s daughter Sylvia, 5, came home from kindergarten recently and described a school activity sandwiched between play time, coloring and learning letters and shapes: The teacher turned off the lights in the classroom and locked the doors. She told the kids to huddle and be really really quiet so the “bad person” couldn’t hear them.
Holm, 35, an attorney in Louisville, Kentucky, said it broke his heart to hear his daughter’s innocent description of what he recognized as an active-shooter drill. And he knew how real the danger was, too. Holm was shot in the head at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997 when another student opened fire as a prayer group was leaving the school lobby. Three students died, and five, including Holm, were injured.
Whenever he hears of a school shooting — as he did last week when a gunman opened fire on students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — "it dredges up the event and the immediate aftermath," he said.
But there's a difference this time. He's watched with fascination and pride as the students at that school — still just teens and despite being traumatized — have stood up to lawmakers, organized marches and spoken to media to demand action to prevent school shootings, with an emphasis on stricter gun control. They've rallied other students nationwide.
"It's inspiring," said Holm. “They are out there, getting coverage. … I feel kind of ashamed that adults in the prior generations in this country have not been able to come to the table on this issue.”
The Deseret News interviewed Holm and nine other survivors of school shootings nationwide, spanning more than two decades, to learn what they think the national conversation about school shootings should focus on. Their solutions range from stricter gun laws to more security and greater attention and care for students who struggle with mental illness and other challenges.
They don't agree on everything, but they all agree that action is overdue.
"It ticks me off that it's 2018 and nothing has changed at all. The thing about the national conversation is that's all it is. No action," said Bradley Gunnell, 21, a Utah State University student who was a senior when a student shot others at Arapahoe High School in suburban Denver in 2013.
His classmate at Arapahoe, Sydney Barton, 21, adds, "It has taken so long for nothing to happen."
“It is a big puzzle, there's no doubt about it. There is no easy solution,” said Jon Lane, 70, a former teacher who charged and disarmed a 14-year-old shooter at Frontier Middle School in Moses Lake, Washington, after the boy killed two students and a teacher in 1996.
Lane’s experience proves school shootings are not new. People often mark Columbine High School, the 1999 school shooting that left 12 students and one teacher dead in Colorado, as the beginning of the school shooting phenomenon. But before Columbine, similar but less deadly incidents dotted the country. Just the year before, four mass shooting sprees by armed students prompted then-President Clinton to form a White House expert committee to address school shootings.
What’s changed since Clinton was in office is the number who die in each incident. If mass shootings are defined as those with three or more fatalities, including the perpetrator, then since 1970, according to several unofficial but widely circulated compilations, there have been 29 mass school shootings. From 1970 until 2000, those shootings involved 65 total fatalities, but there have been 149 mass school shooting deaths since 2000. Scores more have been wounded, some severely.
“It happens again and again,” said Holm, who noted that Marshall County High, a school in Benton, Kentucky, 30 miles from his home, was recently the site of a shooting where two students died and 18 others were wounded. The victims were flown to the same hospital he was taken to 20 years ago.
“It’s traumatic for the victims and for the community when these things happen.”
Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are on a vocal campaign for change, no longer satisfied with the "thoughts and prayers" politicians usually offer, however sincerely.
“We would never have thought then to mobilize and march. But these kids have grown up with this,” said Matt Varney, 36, a survivor of the Columbine massacre. He noted that in 1999 when his school was attacked, mass shootings were not part of the public consciousness like they are now.
Something else has amplified the students’ voices: video and social media. The Parkland students used their cellphones and social media as the rampage unfolded, dropping strangers into the sounds of the gunshots and the sight of bloodied bodies in real time. It made the event starkly real and undeniable, according to Mary Ann Jacob, 55. She helped hide 19 children in the library at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 during a shooting that killed 20 6- and 7-year-olds and six adults.
Those images have ignited students who weren't there, but know it can happen anywhere.
Elizabeth Love, 17, a senior at West High School in Salt Lake City, said social media platforms are also allowing young people to better voice their opinions and turn their ideas into action. “We're not kids anymore. We're getting old enough where we can speak out,” she said. She is among organizers of a march in Salt Lake City, part of the international March for Our Lives movement, to protest gun violence.
So is Matthew Davis, a 23-year-old Southern Utah University online student. He lists reforms he hopes to see: gun buyback programs to reduce the number of guns, and tighter restrictions on bump stocks, flash suppressors and high-capacity magazines.
Love's list includes the end of background check exemptions for gun shows, and a repeal of the Dickey amendment, which is supposed to stop the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from promoting gun control, but effectively restricts research on gun violence.
Like Holm, Varney is proud to see Parkland students making political action a part of their healing process from the very beginning.
“I wish we knew more back when I was 17 to call upon policymakers then,” he said.
Most survivors interviewed for this story said American gun laws need revision, at the very least. But even those who are fiercely anti-gun say they understand America will never eliminate the weapons completely. After meaningful gun reform failed to follow the Sandy Hook grade school shooting, many lost hope for legislative action. Still, they fight for commonsense gun laws that restrict unnecessarily powerful weapons, such as assault rifles.
“You can’t kill 26 children in three minutes with a handgun,” said Jacob. That’s exactly what a shooter did with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle at Sandy Hook.
Holm believes he’d be dead, along with the other four students who survived the Heath School shooting, if his assailant had been using such a weapon.
“If you believe that a mentally ill person should be able to buy an AR-15, then your mind probably won’t change until someone shoots up your family or your school,” Varney added.
Not everyone points to gun laws as the answer, though. Barton, now a college student studying family and marriage counseling, believes fighting over gun control won’t solve the problem and could “tear the nation apart.”
Several of the survivors emphasized they’re not advocating gun buybacks or bans on owning handguns or shotguns. Some, however, believe that gun shows and private sales should be eliminated entirely because they skirt existing laws. They want enforcement of current restrictions and some enhancements, tougher background checks, waiting periods and limits on what types of guns one can buy.
“I think we all agree no one should have a machine gun. That was banned since the 1920s or ’30s. No one can have a tank. There are no military weapons that a private owner can get,” said Holm, adding AR-15s and similar weapons should be banned, too.
A more caring society
Most school shooting survivors who spoke to the Deseret News agreed reforming gun laws could help reduce fatalities. But many, including Cindy Barker Maudsley, 34, who was at Columbine in 1999, don’t think guns are the source of the problem.
“I wouldn’t go straight to gun control; we need to address the roots of the problem first,” said Maudsley, who was 15 when the tragedy occurred. “It doesn’t just start with people having a weapon of some sort.”
She thinks it might start with mental illness, or being desensitized to violence by video games or having a troubled family life and relationships. Real prevention has to dig into causes, and they’re probably not the same in every situation.
Even survivor families are divided on the topic. Daniel Sabey’s mom Lisa thinks gun control would help; her son, who survived the Arapahoe shooting, disagrees. Now 22, he was a senior and knew the shooter pretty well. He still feels a great deal of sympathy for everyone involved, including the shooter and his family.
The younger Sabey thinks addressing mental health issues and helping kids cope with failure and pressure, as well as teaching kindness, empathy and compassion would all reduce school shootings.
Lane, the former teacher who survived the Frontier Middle School shooting, said he thinks the real solution to school shootings is caring more about one another. If people pay more attention to those around them, they will be able to take action before violence occurs, he said.
“Teachers know what's going on. Friends of kids know when they are in trouble,” said Lane. “If something is going on, you need to report it. And there needs to be better communication between schools, police departments and the FBI.”
Shooting survivors also told the Deseret News that beefed-up security could effectively reduce, if not eliminate, attacks in schools. It’s not a complete solution, “but if every door is locked and you have to come in through that way, theoretically it should stop some,” said Barton.
The gunman at her school “made bombs to go off in the library, but he didn’t make them well,” she said. They caught fire, but didn’t explode. It’s possible a metal detector could have prevented the shooter from bringing his arsenal into the school, she said.
Gunnell doesn’t see a downside to metal detectors. They’re in airports, at sporting events and concerts. “Just that simple thing would increase the safety,” he said.
Erick Cervantes, who was a junior when a student opened fire in the lunchroom at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Washington in 2014, also suggested metal detectors in schools as a solution, in addition to stricter gun laws.
“If there isn’t some type of change, America is going downhill really fast,” said Cervantes, who was standing mere feet away when the young man killed four students and himself.
"Parents that are gun owners need to lock their guns up," said Chris Sutter, 36, who was 14 years old when he saw a classmate kill his algebra teacher and two other students at Frontier Middle School. "It is too late to take guns away but it's not too late to require all gun owners to be responsible with their weapons."
Time doesn’t heal all wounds
“Twenty-two years after our incident, we still live with it,” said Lane. “It's not just those who were in the incident, it's their extended family and the whole community,” he said.
Holm won’t sit with his back to doors. He’s watchful in ways that probably wouldn’t occur to him if he hadn’t been shot.
When news of the Parkland shooting reached her, Barton felt overwhelming sadness for all the students in the school and for their broader community. She knew the pain would extend well past the event itself. “It really hurts to know they have to go through that,” she said, her voice choked with emotion.
She suspects that many survivors, like her, still watch for exits and hiding places while doing even mundane things, like visiting malls and watching movies. School was, after all, an ordinary task.
That’s what Gunnell does. “I still to this day have huge, tremendous effects.” Anything out of the ordinary worries him. A sound that resembles gunfire sends him back to that moment and he has anxiety. His family hunts and shoots recreationally, but he won’t touch a gun, he said.
When he hears of another shooting, “It’s hard; I hate hearing about it because it brings me back, but I can’t get enough of it. I feel like I’m in some sort of school fraternity as a survivor and we need to stick together.”
Maudsley was in PE class at Columbine when students started running past and a principal opened an equipment closet and told them to get inside and be quiet. They huddled, fire alarms in the background, unsure what was happening, but they knew it was bad.71 comments on this story
Today, when a situation is uncomfortable, “I kind of shut down. I start to get anxious.” The Bountiful, Utah, mom admits she’s had to “compartmentalize” a little to send her own daughters, 8 and 6, to school.
For Daniel Sabey, experiencing such a traumatic event has helped him to realize what is truly important in life. It’s one of the more “interesting impacts” he’s noticed.
“My inclination to panic over some stupid homework assignment is way down,” he said. "How much I appreciate my family and friends — that’s way more important.”