Before and after Sandy Hook: 40 years of elementary school shooting survivors

On the 10th anniversary of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., four survivors of elementary school shootings, ages 52 to 10, talk about what it’s done to them

From left: Cam Miller, Shannon Hill, Jordan Gomes and Jaydien Canizales. (Rick Loomis, David Walter Banks, Jesse Dittmar and Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)
22 min

Ten years ago, on Dec. 14, 2012, a man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary and opened fire, killing 20 first-graders and six adults in what many people thought to be a singular event: a school shooting so horrific that nothing like it could ever happen again.

That massacre, of course, was not the last one at an elementary school — but it also wasn’t the first. Most Americans know what happened on that day in Newtown, Conn., and then again a decade later in Uvalde, Tex., where 19 kids and two teachers died in May. What far fewer know is that for more than 40 years, people with guns have been killing this country’s youngest children in the places they go to learn and grow.

Gun violence at elementary schools remains rare, but thousands of American kids have experienced it. To capture what that’s done to them in the days, years and decades afterward, The Washington Post interviewed four survivors who endured shootings before any of them reached fifth grade.

Each has been shaped by what they saw and heard and lost: the 52-year-old from California who has spent more than half his life pleading with parole boards not to release the woman who shot him when he was in fourth grade; the 40-year-old from South Carolina who waited three decades to talk about the day her first-grade teacher was wounded in front of her; the 19-year-old from Connecticut who doesn’t always know what to say when strangers ask if she saw the dead bodies at Sandy Hook; the 10-year-old from Texas who hid under a table earlier this year as his best friends at Robb Elementary were killed in front of him.

Their interviews have been edited for length, clarity and continuity.

Cam Miller, Cleveland Elementary

Now 52, Miller was 9 years old when Brenda Spencer opened fire outside his school in San Diego in 1979, killing two staff members and wounding eight children and a police officer. Spencer, who was 16 when she shot Miller in the back, remains incarcerated.

The first time that she came up for parole [in 1993], I was a little surprised, because I didn’t understand back when she was sentenced to 25 years to life. I just thought she was going away for life.

During her trial, I remember walking in and seeing Brenda Spencer sitting there. It was very scary as a 10-year-old to see somebody that almost killed you, and who had no remorse.

She was just like a monster. She wasn’t a real person to me. She was just a demon. It was like you could see almost through her. She had this, just, blank stare.

Growing up, after the shooting, my mom would walk me around the house in the middle of the night, because I would wake up scared that [the shooter] would be in my house. And I’d have to turn on all the lights.

I never slept through the night for years.

Each time a parole hearing comes up, it does bring back a lot of memories. It triggers everything that happened. It’s like, “How could you do this? After you shot eight kids, a cop, killed two people, and you think you’re okay to get out?” You know, it builds anger.

I denied it for a long time, that I was shot. Because I had a hole in me. You know, I had a scar, and I didn’t like that my body was now scarred because of this.

When I first started going to these [hearings], I had an expectation of, “Hey, I’m gonna receive an apology today.” That never happened. I don’t understand why she doesn’t look at me. But she’s never looked at me and said, “Hey, I’m really sorry.” None of that.

When I do hear about her coming up for parole, it kind of numbs me. It’s a sleepless night before, but I’m used to it. I know that that’s normal, and it’s the way it’s gonna be.

To get ready for it, I go through my speech. It’s on the computer. I want it to be succinct, and I don’t want my meaning lost in a bunch of words. Over time, you know, as I’ve grown up and aged, I’ve learned to pare down.

It gives a little backstory on me getting dropped off. My mom dropped me off right in the path, basically right across from [the shooter’s] house. She waited for the car to pull away. And that’s when she shot me. It went in my back and out the front, about an inch away from my heart. So it went clear through me.

The feeling when the bullet entered my body was like an electrical shock. Bad electrical shock. I never lost consciousness. I just kind of blacked out for a moment. I could see everything in black and white.

And then I move forward to, you know, basically, “You have the audacity to want to be released? You killed two people. And then you think you deserve a second chance? Why?” There is no remorse.

The principal and custodian do not have a voice any longer. That’s what really motivates me to go, because these two people that were killed, they didn’t get to see their kids graduate, marry, any of that stuff. And that’s what keeps me going. Because if that were me, and my family, I would want somebody to speak for me.

There’s not a lot of people that attend because it is a time commitment. It’s putting your face out there in the news again, and some people want to suppress it. Some people just want to be like, “That was back then. I’m not going to relive it. I’m just gonna move forward.”

I do not find this as a burden at all. I will continue to do this until she’s no longer with us, or I can no longer do it.

I want my community to be safe. I want my kids to be safe. So I’m going to do what I can to keep somebody that did this, that started all these school shootings, in a place that I know she can’t hurt innocent people. And hopefully my speech is persuasive enough to keep her in there.

Shannon Hill, Oakland Elementary

Hill, 40, was in first grade in 1988 when a 19-year-old walked into her school in Greenwood, S.C., and opened fire. Two 8-year-old girls were killed, and several other children and adults were wounded. The shooter was sentenced to death.

In 2018, a lot of churches started having active-shooter trainings. My daughter worked in a church at the time, and I didn’t want her to go through something like that alone.

I felt like I was pretty good at keeping my feelings kind of at bay. The [South Carolina Law Enforcement] agent who was doing the training apparently picked up on some stuff. After it was over, he said: “Well, I can tell this is very personal for you. You were at Oakland, weren’t you?”

I kind of teared up a little bit. And he said: “I just want to let you know that you’re normal, and everything that you are feeling is normal. And everything that you have felt is normal.” And I just let it all out right there and cried.

I had never been told that before. I cannot describe the feeling you get whenever somebody tells you that, when you think you’re the only person who suffers from something.

I knew I wanted everybody else at Oakland to have that feeling.

I looked on social media to try and find my first-grade teacher. Once I reached out to her, there was another classmate that I was friends with. She was glad I reached out to her. I asked them what they thought about starting a support group on social media, and they thought it was a great idea.

I used my yearbook to go through each person and look them up on Facebook.

I just wondered: Did it upset other people as much as it upset me? Did other people think about it like I thought about it?

I had never processed it as a kid, and I needed to.

I was in the cafeteria. We had just sat down to have lunch. A man came into the door that was closest to our table. We’d only been in school for like six weeks, but it wasn’t uncommon for them to have people come in. We had an open-door policy.

So he holds up a gun. And at first, I thought it was a water gun. That’s what a lot of kids have said they thought, that it was just a toy. He started shooting.

It wasn’t until my teacher stood up that I realized that something was wrong. I was sitting right by her. She was shot the first time, and when she turned, he shot her again. Then there were three classmates that were shot. I didn’t know that at the time. But I knew that my teacher had been shot. I went under the table and hid. There was an adult who pulled me out. I don’t know who it was.

This happened on a Monday. We were back at school on Thursday. That’s crazy to even think about right now.

The day that we returned, the teachers talked to students. I remember sitting on the floor in a circle. We talked about our feelings. No one really remembers them bringing in counselors.

They put tennis balls on the chairs so that whenever you slid the chairs, they didn’t make loud noise. There were holes in the wall, where he had shot. They had someone come in and paint a mural. It said “Oakland.” It was really big bubble letters.

They created a memorial garden at the school. They had a couple of plaques that were donated and a little statue with the girls’ names on it.

Apparently — and I think this is still common now — there was a thought that if you can just move past traumatic events that happen, then it isn’t an issue for you anymore.

I thought about it, not like obsessively thought about it, but it was there. And whenever there was a shooting, I would be extremely upset.

I knew that other people didn’t talk about it either. People are thinking the same stuff that I am. People are struggling with it.

This whole time, it’s like we’ve all been waiting on permission to talk about it. And now we have permission to talk about it. We have close to 200 people in the group now.

A lot of us over-plan. It’s apparently very common for people who have gone through traumatic events to try to plan for anything that might happen.

Most of us have admitted that if we’re in a restaurant or a meeting somewhere that we’re going to be sitting somewhere that we’re facing the door.

I met with my teacher. She couldn’t remember if she told our class to run. And she has struggled with that. She’s found out since then that she did, but she says she wishes that she could remember telling us to run.

Coming up on the 30th anniversary [in 2018], the people that were in our support group, a lot of them were talking about wanting to see everybody. So I asked in the group how everyone felt about meeting at the garden. A lot of people came out to help, and we spruced it up.

One of the girls that died, her mom came. She had not been back either. Those families felt like no one remembered them either. Didn’t really feel like they had the support from the community.

None of us did. That’s what I’m trying to work on. I want people to know, who were victims, that it’s okay to talk about it.

Then Uvalde happened. I had the worst panic attack I’d ever had. Uvalde was different for everybody.

I wanted to help everybody. But I knew I had to work on myself. I met with this counselor. I processed really what happened when I never had done that before. And that did something for me. I was able to figure out why am I afraid to go out in the dark by myself. The night terrors. Feeling vulnerable, not being in control, not knowing what’s going to happen.

We kind of talked in the group about who had gotten counseling. I started searching on the internet: “free resources for mass shooting victims.”

I found several. And one of those was Voices Center for Resilience. I reached out to them.

Within the next month, we already had our first session scheduled. It was virtual, which was huge, because there’s people who don’t live in Greenwood anymore.

I made it very clear in our group that we’re going to focus on talking about the things that we’re dealing with, the things that make it better. And if you want to talk about your memories of that day, you can, but it’s not pushed at all.

We’ve had three sessions. And in each of those, there’s always one person that says, “I’m sorry. I’ve never talked about it before.”

Jordan Gomes, Sandy Hook Elementary

Gomes, 19, was in fourth grade when 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down in the worst elementary school shooting in U.S. history. The shooter killed himself.

The first time that I was actually exposed to people just asking about it, just because, was probably college.

My freshman year [at Fordham University] we had a floor meeting the first night that everybody had moved in, where our RAs called us into the lounge area and were like, “Okay, everybody go around in a circle and introduce themselves.” And it got to me, and I was like, “I’m Jordan. I’m probably going to do poli sci. And I’m from Newtown.” And somebody piped up across the room and was like, “Newtown — like Sandy Hook?” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m from Sandy Hook.” And then the room kind of got quiet and somebody went, “Damn.” And we all just kind of awkward-laughed and moved on.

I had, I think, a fear of people thinking that I was trying to get attention by saying where I was from. I didn’t want them to think I was looking for attention or pity or anything like that.

I remember having a very long and drawn-out conversation with my friends in our social lounge super late at night, because one of them had kind of just out of the blue asked me, “You’re from Sandy Hook, right?”

You know, these people are my friends. I trust them as much as I can trust people that I’ve spent two or three months around, pretty much 24/7.

I think they assumed I was probably in a different school. And I was like, “Well, I was in the gym that day.” And they were like, “Wait, like you were there, when this was happening?” People always clarify like that: “You were in the building, when it was happening that day?” And I’m like, “Yes, I was.”

They had asked, “So, did you know anyone or anything like that?” And I remember just being like, “Yeah, I did. My brother’s first-grade teacher and my principal [were killed], and two of my friends lost their younger siblings.”

I kind of went into detail about it. And they were all just sitting there looking at me, like, shocked, you know, just eyes wide open like, “Wow.” That was the common reaction.

They were sorry that I had to go through that. And they wanted to know a lot about what happened afterward, like how did I cope with it? What are my parents telling me? When did I go back to school or what was it like going back to school? How did I get over it? That kind of thing. Because they were like, “I’d be so scared to ever go to school again.” And I was like, “Yeah, I was, for a long time.”

It doesn’t feel like a burden so much as it feels like something that I know I’ll always, always have to talk about. There’s no way I can get around it. There’s no way I can avoid talking about my entire childhood that was lived in this one place, and an event that shaped my entire childhood. And it really just comes down to me knowing that their reaction to it will determine my relationship with them.

Sometimes kids just viewed it as a bit of something shocking or interesting to talk about rather than somebody’s life. They would just ask really personal questions: “Oh, did you hear anything? Did you see blood? Did you see any of the bodies?”

I did have people at college who would weirdly try to debate me. They would try to talk to me about guns and things like that.

They’ll be like, “Are you really anti-guns? Like you hate guns? I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with guns. I think everybody should be allowed to own what they want to. I think it’s actually like a mental health thing. It’s not about guns at all.”

In the age of such extreme polarization, not just when it comes to politics in general, but particularly with gun violence, there needs to be a degree of tact in the sense that this person is opening themselves up to you, regardless of what side you’re on, and telling you about something in their life that greatly impacted them.

The biggest thing, I think, is realizing that these are people’s lives, and not just evidence for your political debate. They’re not fodder for your ideology, on either side.

Jaydien Canizales, Robb Elementary

Jaydien, 10, was in fourth grade on May 24 when 19 of his classmates and two of his teachers were shot to death in Uvalde. Police killed the gunman, 77 minutes after the shooting began.

It was about to be time for lunch. But then our teacher told us that we were going on lockdown. And then the next thing I knew was everybody, all of my classmates, were huddling next to my teachers and Miss [Irma] Garcia’s desk. And then I heard gunshots, shooting through our doors, and everybody was screaming. When I heard that, I ran and I slid under the table.

There was a black curtain covering me. I wasn’t making a single noise or move.

[The shooter] came into our classroom and said, “It’s time to die.”

He was going to Miss Garcia’s desk where all the kids and the teachers were at. The teachers were in front of the kids.

One of the teachers got shot, but she was still alive. She was losing blood and air. I heard her crying that she’s gonna die. She kept saying it over and over.

I saw most of my classmates get shot.

[The gunman] was playing sad music. He was watching the news — that they found out that he was in the school. So he was just staying near the door. So when he heard the cops, he will start shooting at them.

Khloie Torres and Amerie Jo Garza — they called the cops. And they said that there was an active shooter in the school. They said that he was in the next-door classroom. That they heard everybody screaming.

The lady said that they were sending cops. They came late.

Amerie Jo Garza didn’t make it.

My friend Jordan kept whispering to me, so the shooter won’t hear us. He was telling me every time when I would hear the gun shooting just to cover my ears.

I heard the cops kill the shooter, and then they came into our classroom. I heard the cops when they came in [say],“Oh my God.” There was a lot of dead bodies and blood.

One of my cousins — the cops dragged him in the hallway when they were taking us out. I saw the bullet in his head.

I lost some of my closest friends. All my best friends. It was Uziyah Garcia and Xavier Lopez and Jose Flores and Jayce Luevanos and Rojelio Torres.

[Jayce] would watch “SpongeBob” most of the time, and he would put chongos [hair ties] on his hair. Because he would like to be funny. He would always make me laugh.

It was me and Rojelio that were doing Pokémon. We would always trade. He would always give me some of his Pokémons that he didn’t want that were good. And I’ll give him some of my Pokémons I didn’t want that were good.

Rojelio gave me one of his best Pokémons. It was a Raichu. I have it in my room.

He was very nice and kind. If people felt left out, he would ask them if they would want to play with him.

Xavier, he was my best friend. He would always be chill a lot in class.

Me and Xavier would always draw together. And every time we would draw, we try to see who did the best drawing, and he would always beat me in the drawings.

[Jose and I] would always make a lot of paper planes. And every time we would go outside for recess, we would throw them outside and see who can go the farthest. And his was the one that would always go the farthest.

Uziyah was into football, drawing and “Fortnite.” We would always play “Fortnite.” And we would always get a win. We were “sweats.” That’s people that are good at the game a lot.

I don’t play “Fortnite” no more since the shooter played “Fortnite.”

I’ve been feeling sad most of the time because I miss my cousins and my best friends. I felt angry because of the person that did it. I felt angry because he didn’t have to come just to shoot kids.

I was taking medicines for all my anger. Because I was mad at the guy and the police.

Some of my classmates talk about him. And when they would say his name, it would get me mad. I will tell them to not say his name.

My counselor, she told me when I’m angry to count to 10 or breathe in seven times and out seven times. She’s always nice. And I would mostly see her every week. And now I hardly see her since she has a lot of people to help.

I felt nervous after it was over. Every time I would hear a police siren or an ambulance, I would cover my ears. I would have bad dreams of me being in school again. When I would hear knocking, and I didn’t know who it was, I would hide under the table. I felt scared about who it’s gonna be.

It feels a little better to open up, because I want to get all of that out of my body.

I want people to know what happened there at the Robb shooting, what I’ve been through. I want everybody to know how I felt.

About this story

Editing by Lynda Robinson, photo editing by Mark Gail and Mark Miller, copy editing by Thomas Heleba, design by Tara McCarty.