Sunday Mornings with Rania: Survivors and Families after School Shootings
By Monday, we had learned that two survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting had committed suicide (Sydney Aiello who was diagnosed with PTSD and survivor’s guilt and 16-year-old Calvin Desir) one year and about one month following the anniversary of the shooting. We also learned that one of the parents from Sandy Hook Elementary School (49-year-old Jeremy Richman, father of first grader Avielle Richman) had also “succumbed to the grief,” over six years after their tragedy.
And by Tuesday, due to pure coincidence, I was starting a four-day journey with the mothers of Josephine (Joey) Gay and Emilie Parker - (two of the 20 first graders killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting). Michele Gay and Alissa Parker came to Houston to launch their inaugural National Summit on School Safety with co-hosts Region 4. What an honor it was for Crime Stoppers of Houston to weave their work and journey throughout Houston media and share best practices between our great organizations.
As I sat and watched them work, and witnessed the conversations and questions and insight, I could tell that many seemed to want to ask Michele, Alissa and the many survivor speakers this summit brought to Houston: How are you coping, having survived a shooting or lost a child, even so many years later? And How do we as a country stop these senseless tragedies in schools? In watching this, I realized the many things, some fair, some unfair, that we place on surviving families. I wanted to share them with you in hopes of getting us all thinking about these important conversations and next steps.
How are You Coping?
This is not only a fair question but an important one! This is one I think we need to ask and keep asking. Whether speaking to a parent who lost a child or a student who survived a shooting, this is an important question to ask. While we are not all equipped to handle the conversations, on some level, it shares an important message that we, as a community, are with you, behind you and here for you. Alissa Parker, in her opening remarks, spoke of the need for mental health providers following tragedy. Not business cards but services.
Michele agreed and added the need for community and personal pillars - she challenged the group to stop right now and take an inventory of the tools currently in your life that sustain you or could sustain you in the face of trauma. That was a tough exercise to think through but one I recommend everyone does.
Beyond everything, I realized that while we don’t always know how to do it, we shouldn’t be shy to ask about their well-being even years following the incident. Certainly, as the days pass and years change, the pain lessens. Additionally, many who have experienced loss have gone on to do incredible things on local and national levels. All that said, we can understand that the memories, the sights of things seen, the sound of things heard, the smells of gun powder can live on in one’s senses.
These incredible surviving families - while strong and incredible in every single way - need us to stay by their sides. As they pour out so much to us, we must pour back into them.
This is an unfair question. I realized that we tend to turn to those who have suffered the most trauma for answers on how to fix disasters moving forward. That’s not fair. These families cannot become the poster families for trauma or sadness. While they are pillars of hope and love, they have lives that they live and often other children to care for. Many have turned their focus to school safety but they themselves can’t be held responsible to find comprehensive answers for the rest of us.
After all, the safety of our schools is not found in any one incident or any one answer. Shockingly, it’s not all about gun control. It’s also not all about mental health. Instead, it’s a mix of those and so many other facets - legislation; mental and emotional health and well-being; architecture of public schools and facility structures; the flow of schools; the ingress and egress plans; the type of materials used for windows, doors and locks; the visitor management services; the emergency management services; alert plan during a lockdown/lock out; anonymous reporting platforms; the reunification in the aftermath of a tragedy and more.
School safety is a multi-tired, multi-faceted issue that organizations like Crime Stoppers of Houston in our Safe School Institute and national organizations like Safe and Sound Schools study daily. The “what now” question is not one for the families impacted to answer alone but one for the community as a whole to embrace.
As I sit here in the empty hall at Region 4, I’m comforted by the chatter I hear just beyond these walls. There are 350 of the nation’s top experts on safety and security here. This is the largest gathering of survivors; there’s a plethora of mental health experts and law enforcement and we are all here together with one goal in mind - the health and wellness of our children in school today, tomorrow and indefinitely. This network made up of blood, sweat and tears (literally) is here for all to embrace. More than anything, we gather in the memory of Joey, Emilie and the many other lives lost during or in the aftermath of a school tragedy.
To read more about school safety programs locally as well as the incredible national work of surviving families who lost children in school based tragedies, go to:
- Crime Stoppers of Houston's Safe School Institute
- SafeandSoundSchools.org - Started in 2013 by Michele Gay and Alissa Parker following the loss of Josephine (Joey) Gay and Emilie Gay at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the mission is to support school crisis prevention, response and recovery, and to protect every school and every student, every day.
- ILoveYouGuys.org - Started in 2006 by Ellen and John-Michael Keyes following the loss of their daughter, Emily. The Foundation is committed to school and community safety, and family reunification following a crisis.
- JesseLewisChooseLove.org - Started following the tragedy at Sandy Hook, its mission is to ensure that every child has access to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in their classrooms and to help facilitate this teaching within their families, schools and communities. In honor of Jesse Lewis, who at 6 years old left this message on his family’s kitchen chalkboard shortly before he died – “Nurturing, Healing Love.”
Read past Sundays with Rania posts here. Find more information on Crime Stoppers of Houston on their website or follow them on Facebook. Have topics in mind that you’d like Rania to write about? Comment below or email her at email@example.com. Rania is co-host of a weekly podcast which features interesting local and national guests who used their platforms for the good of the community. Connect with Rania on Instagram and Twitter.
Editor's Note: Views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Buzz Magazines.
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