(Lucy Engelman for The Washington Post)

These School Shooting Survivors Are Building Remarkable Networks of Friendship and Support

Across the country, students who survived attacks find themselves turning to each other. By grim necessity, their sprawling group keeps growing.

On Aug. 9, the first day of her senior year of high school, Mia Tretta scrolled through texts from her friends. One told her that they hoped the day went well. Another said they understood how hard it could be to go back to school. A third offered to talk anytime she needed.

For Tretta and her friends, returning to school means more than the end of summer. It means revisiting the worst day of their lives. Three years ago, as a freshman, she survived a shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif. She and her best friend, Dominic Blackwell, were walking together past palm trees and benches in the school’s courtyard at the end of first period when a 16-year-old student opened fire. Tretta was shot in the stomach; Blackwell was shot and killed. Their schoolmate injured two other students and killed another before turning the gun on himself. Students still walk through the area on their way to class, the tragedy marked by a plaque dedicated to the victims. “It’s certainly hard to be on campus, having to concentrate at the place where everything happened,” says Tretta, who stopped having lunch in the grassy quad.

Although the friends she was texting didn’t attend Saugus, they know what it’s like when walking to class brings back traumatic memories. The fellow teenagers and young adults have survived shootings at their schools, too: Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.; Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Tex.; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.; Marysville Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Wash. “If I look at my contacts, I see someone’s name and then what school they were shot at,” says Tretta, now 18. “Once you’re someone who has experienced gun violence and you want to talk to people, that’s what your phone looks like, because there are so many school shootings.”

Tretta has become part of an informal network that shouldn’t need to exist: young people who have survived school shootings in the United States, and who now turn to one another for comfort and advice. They talk on anniversaries, around the holidays and when the latest tragedy happens. Some have found fellowship through gun-violence survivor organizations; others have created these relationships organically.

It took Tretta some time to build her network. In the days and weeks after the shooting at Saugus High, she struggled to talk to people about what she had experienced. There were community events — a vigil, a school picnic — but Tretta was the only survivor still in the hospital. “After the feeling of shock goes away, you can feel very lonely,” she says. In the following months, as she recovered, people reached out who had survived the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas two years earlier, where 60 people were killed and hundreds wounded. She found that talking to them helped, although their experiences diverged in meaningful ways. “Every shooting is so different, and a lot of them were significantly older than me,” she says. “But I was looking to these people like, ‘What do I do now?’ ”

She ended up getting involved in local activism, lobbying the city of Santa Clarita to dedicate a park to her two classmates killed in the shooting and raising over $6,000 in 2020 through lemonade stands to fund a memorial there. Afterward, Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control nonprofit, contacted her and she joined Students Demand Action, its youth advocacy arm. Tretta started to speak virtually to audiences across the country against ghost guns, such as the one used to shoot her and her classmates; these guns are assembled at home from kits, enabling users to sidestep some regulations.

Tretta didn’t meet any school shooting survivors in person until Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit founded by family members of those killed in the 2012 Newtown shooting, flew her and about 20 other survivors to New York City to record a video for a public awareness campaign in the spring of 2021. “We all connected over sharing a gun-violence experience, the way that normal people connect over liking the same movie or TV show or sitting together in a class,” she says. “It was sad, but happy that we were able to meet each other.”

They could discuss things few others understood: how uncomfortable it was when people talked to them as though they were celebrities, feeling isolated from classmates who had experienced the event differently. But the teenagers were also just that — teenagers. They were staying at the same hotel as Lil Nas X, so they figured out which room was his and knocked on the door. Security “immediately pushed us away, obviously,” Tretta says, giggling at the memory. “It was just a normal teenage thing to do.”

Eventually, the Everytown Survivor Network — an initiative from Everytown that connects those who have been personally affected by gun violence — asked Tretta to talk to a girl who’d recently experienced a school shooting. “That’s when I realized that I can offer support to people as well,” she says. The network that she and other young people had built would, by grim necessity, have to keep growing. “There are a lot of handbooks on how to come home as a soldier with PTSD, or how to deal with the loss of a mother or father or sister or brother,” she says, “but there’s not a lot on what you do if this unexpected tragedy happens at your school, a place where you’re supposed to feel safe.” Together, young people are searching for those answers — and building support systems — for themselves.

Twenty years ago, school shootings seemed like isolated tragedies. Towns turned inward, rather than finding support in a broader community; students navigated grief and the national spotlight with school counselors and family members who were often experiencing their own trauma. “When Columbine happened, we didn’t know what to do, both in terms of prevention and response,” says Franci Crepeau-Hobson, who was working as a school psychologist in a Colorado district near Columbine High School when the shooting occurred in 1999.

Now after a shooting, she and her colleagues from the Colorado Society of School Psychologists’ Statewide Crisis Response Team show up at the school to triage, figuring out which kids need the most support and working with local organizations to provide it. She herself has provided support at three shootings in Colorado and given advice to responders at many more. “We get calls all the time from groups in other states, asking, ‘How did you do this? How does your team work?’ ” Crepeau-Hobson says.

She also chairs the School Safety and Crisis Response Committee for the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), which has trained psychologists from districts and states across the country on how to prevent and respond to a school shooting. NASP created national guidelines for school staff: In the first two hours, use a triage structure to assess levels of trauma based on physical and emotional proximity to the shooting; in the first 24 hours, dispel rumors on social media; in the first two weeks, establish a family assistance center for long-term needs.

The mental health response to school shootings in the United States is often led by the school district, supported by a patchwork of nonprofits like the Red Cross, government organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and local volunteers; regions and districts often don’t have their own protocol for responding to a school shooting. “After something like this happens, then they get trained and have a team, which is a silver lining,” Crepeau-Hobson says. She and her NASP colleagues are working to get more districts prepared for the possibility.

From her experience on the ground, Crepeau-Hobson sees survivor relationships, especially those centered on activism, as a key part of moving forward, along with psychological care from professionals. Those friendships can help reestablish a sense of belonging and control, particularly for young survivors.

Peers can also offer practical advice. “Someone else who’s been through this will say to you, ‘I know you’re probably not thinking about this, but here’s what happened when I went back to school,’ ” says Laura Wilson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington who studies how trauma affects survivors. “It can be so relieving for someone to share, ‘Here are some things I struggled with and some things that helped me get through it.’ ” For example, the sound of a locker banging shut might bother a survivor, Wilson suggests, so a peer might advise staying inside the classroom for a few extra minutes or listening to music in the hallways.

The main organization building a network for gun-violence survivors is Everytown for Gun Safety; it offers trauma-informed programs, connects individuals to resources and supports those who choose to advocate for gun control. The organization was founded in 2013 when gun-control advocacy groups Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Mayors Against Illegal Guns merged. A year later, the group formalized the Everytown Survivor Network. “We’re a club that no one wants to be a part of,” director Keenon James says. Today, the Everytown Survivor Network includes thousands of people. James is one of them; when he was 12, his brother Sean was shot and killed.

The network intentionally defines “survivor” broadly. Some participants were threatened with a gun or shot; others witnessed a shooting; some lost a loved one. Everytown connects people who are grappling with related challenges. “When you’re amongst a group of people who had a similar experience, they know some of what you’re going through without you even having to use words,” James says. His team connects individuals one-on-one and sets up quarterly peer-led support groups that address different needs: parents who’ve lost their children to gun violence, those whose loved ones died by firearm suicide, survivors wounded by gun violence who live with ongoing health issues.

After a school shooting, students are often encouraged to turn to their school counselors and parents. That can be hard when trusted adults have experienced the trauma, too: school staff who sheltered students and feared for their own lives, parents coping with post-traumatic stress. It’s also a challenge for teenage survivors because of their natural tendency to drift away from their parents and turn more to their friends. Wilson says: “These typical teenage difficulties are going to creep into the recovery process for a young person, too.” She’s seen this conflict as a clinician. Parents want to support their child’s recovery, but a teenager needs space from family to process their trauma.

For many teen survivors, their first post-trauma community is with their fellow students. “I thought it’d be super awkward to get back together with friends, but everything that happened actually made some friendships a lot stronger,” says Zoe Touray, 18, who survived a shooting at Oxford High School in Oxford, Mich., in November 2021, when a 15-year-old shot 11 people, killing four students. “After what happened, I didn’t even want to talk to my parents about it, but I could talk to survivors about every little thing that happened that day.”

In the weeks and months after the shooting, Touray got close with a few other survivors she had previously known, including Maddie Johnson, 18, whose best friend, Madisyn Baldwin, was killed in the shooting. The girls formed a tightknit group. They have turned to each other to process what they’re going through: experiencing traumatic flashbacks, tensing up when they hear a loud noise, using dark humor to get through a hard day. “We have moments where we talk about it and we’re sad, but it’s mostly just a normal high school friend group,” Johnson says. “We like to go to Target a lot, or just drive around and get Taco Bell. … It’s not just a relationship based in tragedy.”

Those new relationships are often connected to new priorities. A couple of months after the shooting, both Touray and Johnson decided to actively advocate for gun-violence prevention. Johnson helped lead No Future Without Today, a group of Oxford survivors pushing for change; Touray gave a speech on the steps of the Michigan Capitol in Lansing as a member of gun-control organization March for Our Lives, which was founded by survivors of the Parkland shooting. The fervor of Touray’s new friends recommitted her to speaking up as a way to heal. “At first, I was really nervous and kind of closed off,” Touray says. “But meeting other survivors was eye-opening for me, to see that I wasn’t the only one going through these things.”

For many survivors, activism offers a way to make sense of what happened and move forward. Clinical psychologists use the term “meaning making” to describe this step in trauma recovery. “After trauma, people feel restless sometimes about what they’re going to do and what their lives are going to look like,” Wilson says. “Having role models of how people can turn grief or frustration or depression into movement toward positive change gives examples of how they can use that restless energy to do something.”

After Jordan Gomes survived the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in fourth grade by hiding in a supply closet in the gym, she turned to family and friends; she doesn’t remember speaking to a psychologist or medical professional. “I found myself comforting younger kids a lot — my brother, my neighbors,” says Gomes, now 19. “It felt like an incredible weight had been put on very young shoulders.” As a freshman at Newtown High School, she joined the Jr. Newtown Action Alliance, a group of students against gun violence, and started to share her story publicly, meeting survivors outside her community. “As I got older, I needed that support system,” she says. “I needed somebody to lean on who really understood.”

She estimates that since then, she’s become friends with over 50 young survivors, many of whom she keeps in touch with through social media. These connections have helped her reckon with feelings of frustration and despair over how little has changed since Newtown. When an 18-year-old shot and killed 19 fourth-graders and two teachers in Uvalde, Tex., in May, “it was like a time machine in the worst way,” Gomes says. In those moments, she now turns to her friends who are also survivors. “Talking to people who know what you’ve gone through is a full feeling,” she says. “It makes you feel a little less alone.”

Sari Kaufman, now 20, didn’t see herself as a survivor or activist right after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School. “I honestly wouldn’t have identified as either,” she says. She had been on campus, but she hadn’t been in the building where the shooting occurred. “Saying, ‘I don’t know if I identify as a survivor’ let me push the reality of how it affected me away.”

That denial is the kind of response that she now talks to other survivor activists about. A few months after the shooting, Kaufman met some Columbine survivors who encouraged her to come to terms with the experience now rather than decades later. “It was hard for me to talk to them because I realized that they still had PTSD, which I had thought might go away by their age,” she says. “But that was also helpful, because they gave me the advice to process what I went through then, rather than pretending my high school experience was normal.”

Today, Kaufman calls herself a survivor and an activist. Both labels have helped her regain a sense of control. She’s an active member of the Everytown Survivor Network and Students Demand Action. In fall 2021, she led an affinity group for school shooting survivors within the network over Zoom. The group started off with icebreakers, talking about their favorite foods. By the end, they were discussing how to share their survivor stories without invalidating someone else’s differing memories.

In May, Kaufman was interning in Sen. Chris Murphy’s office in Connecticut; when the Uvalde shooting happened, she was able to work with legislators and friends at Students Demand Action to organize walkouts and rallies in more than 250 cities nationwide. On May 26, she spoke alongside legislators at a rally on Capitol Hill; on June 11, she spoke at a March for Our Lives rally in Parkland. “That helped me cope with it, instead of sitting at home, thinking about the shooting and what their families are going through,” she says.

It’s never too late to forge these connections. Salli Garrigan was 16 when she survived the massacre at Columbine High School. She buried her memories for decades, leaving home and building a life far from Littleton, Colo. Nineteen years later, Garrigan watched coverage of teenagers fleeing Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Her anger and despair — and the Parkland students’ activism — pushed her to join her local chapter of Moms Demand Action in Virginia. She spoke about her experience at Columbine publicly for the first time; she also joined the Everytown Survivor Network and began to meet others like her.

For Garrigan, her most meaningful relationships aren’t with other survivors of school shootings, many of whom are decades younger than she is. Instead, she’s found community with those who are navigating grief and fear from different vantage points. From Everytown, she has a close friend group with three other women. She’s the only one who survived a school shooting. One of her friends lost her daughter to gun violence; another lost her mother; another lost both parents. “Usually, we all come together when school starts,” she says. “We’ve bonded through our own kids.”

After the shooting in Uvalde earlier this year, survivors of Parkland and Sandy Hook reached out to Javier Cazares, whose 9-year-old daughter, Jackie, was killed. A few weeks later, several Parkland survivors joined family of Uvalde victims at a rally in Austin as part of March for Our Lives. Those calls and visits were especially meaningful for Javier’s teenage daughter, Jazmin Cazares.

“It was surreal to meet them, because the Parkland shooting is something I saw in the news when I was in school,” says Jazmin, 17. “It’s different from talking to someone who lost their friend in a car crash. Of course, that’s devastating, and we relate on the same level of our loved one passing, but this wasn’t just my sister. It was my sister and all her friends.”

The Parkland survivors told her details from their experiences that her sister will never be able to. “They helped me understand what they went through and what my sister went through,” Jazmin says. “Except they were able to make it out alive, and my sister wasn’t.”

She also asked them for guidance: How do the grief and mourning change? How should she evaluate which reporters to trust with her story? How can she keep her composure while talking about her sister? “One really good piece of advice they gave me was to take a break and say no to people,” she says. “When they were beginning their fight, they worked until they dropped, and they wouldn’t want anyone else to experience that.”

This support inspired Jazmin to resolve to offer the same to families of the next mass shooting. She’s already had that chance. Six weeks after losing her sister, she and her parents connected with families who lost their loved ones in the mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill. She shared the advice she had received weeks earlier: how to grieve, how to move forward, how to fight. Jazmin knows that another teenager will lose their little sister to a school shooting, and when that happens, she’s ready to reach out. “Part of the grieving process is that you feel alone, but you’re never truly alone,” she says. “That will be my advice.”

This past summer, many of these teenagers met in person for the first time. As Congress deliberated the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, survivors led a week of rallies and marches in D.C. in support, largely organized by March for Our Lives; a few weeks later, the Biden administration invited survivors from across the country to attend the bill’s signing.

It was a familiar scene for some, like Mia Tretta, who flew with her family from Southern California, and Jordan Gomes, who flew alone from Hartford, Conn. For others, like Zoe Touray and Maddie Johnson, the two friends from Michigan, it was their first time being advocates under such a bright spotlight. To them, many of the survivors seemed intimidating, famous and familiar from TV. “It was like stepping into a room of celebrities,” Touray says. “It was really surreal.” But much more meaningful was being in a room full of others who had gone through what they had.

On a muggy July day in D.C., the girls both attended an event on the White House lawn celebrating the bill becoming law, listening to speeches from President Biden and Vice President Harris. That evening, they walked into a dinner party at an upscale restaurant.

While looking for a seat, Johnson’s mom started talking to another mom, and they quickly introduced their daughters: Johnson and Tretta, then both 17, both of whom survived school shootings where their best friends died. The girls clicked right away. Johnson asked Tretta what it was like to go back to school, if she ever stopped feeling fear, if the pain of losing her best friend lessened with time. “I asked her, ‘Does it ever get better?’ She said, ‘It doesn’t. You never miss them any less,’ ” Johnson says. “It was comforting, in a way, to talk to someone who’d been through something so similar before, but it’s also really sad.”

That same day, Johnson and Touray saw a little girl and her family dressed in Robb Elementary T-shirts, survivors of the Uvalde shooting. The girl had on acrylic nails — purple and black, the favorite colors of her best friend, who had been shot and killed in their classroom weeks before. The teenagers approached her and her parents, introducing themselves as fellow survivors — and in Johnson’s case, as another girl who had lost her best friend. For both teens, it was their first time in that position: Seven months after surviving a shooting at their school, they were giving advice on how to cope. “I had never been in a situation before where I was the person who had been through it before, looking down at a little girl who was still very obviously traumatized,” Johnson says. “It sort of felt good, to try to help somebody in that way.” Johnson and Touray gave the family their phone numbers, promising to reconnect. “I could tell she was nervous about school this year, so I told her, ‘I’ll text you before you go back to school and see how you’re doing,’ ” Johnson says.

Since the summer, Johnson has continued those friendships, as has Touray: with Tretta, with Gomes. They’ve continued to talk to the little girl from Uvalde, too. At first, Johnson didn’t feel ready to give advice. She still suffers from panic attacks and sometimes finds it impossible to leave the house. But stepping into that role supports her, too. “It’s been helpful to be a guide for someone, because it makes me realize that I can talk about what I’ve gone through,” she says. “It puts it into perspective that this issue isn’t just about me.”

Charley Locke writes about young people and K-12 education, including for the New York Times Magazine and the Atlantic. She’s a regular contributor to the New York Times for Kids.

correction

A previous version of the story misstated the year Everytown for Gun Safety was founded. It was founded in 2013. The article has been corrected.

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