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As Highland Park heads back to school, scars of July 4th shooting remain

Flowers and messages mark the memorial site for the Fourth of July shooting in Highland Park, Ill. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Susan Isaacson was at a Highland Park cafe one recent morning when a smoke alarm began blaring.

Her grandchildrenCasey, 7, and Ava, 5, — panicked. “Are the bad men back?” they asked.

Isaacson said her family has not been the same since a shooter fired into the crowd at a local Fourth of July parade, killing seven and wounding 40 more. “The kids are not settled,” she said.

That sentiment is echoed by parents and officials throughout this tightknit town, who say the community is struggling to regain its sense of safety as children head back to school this week.

“We thought covid was difficult,” said Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent of the town’s elementary schools. “This makes covid look simple.”

Lubelfeld has held nine trainings for teachers on the subject of trauma. And he has made improvements to the school’s security system, including alert systems with panic buttons for all teachers, bulletproof windows and updated security cameras and door locks.

Even so, some parents are demanding armed guards or a prohibition on large bags, subjects of an upcoming school board meeting.

Others are worried about how their still traumatized youngsters will adjust to a new routine.

Jordana Greenberg was at the parade with her family when the shooting began. She said her children — ages 7, 5 and 2 — are still processing what happened.

Her daughter Hazel, 5, has regularly struggled to sleep. She does not want to ride her bicycle anymore. On a recent visit to Madison, Wis., Hazel looked at the top of the state capitol building and asked her mother “Could a shooter get up there?”

Lindsey Hartman, 41, said her family is still shaken by what happened at the parade, when she and her husband Danny dove onto their daughter Scarlett, 4, to protect her. The trauma rears its head in all kinds of ways, she said.

Recently, the family traveled to Wisconsin. One night, as they put Scarlett to bed, they heard a loud popping noise — fireworks from a camp nearby.

Hartman said it was like “muscle memory” and she dove on top of Scarlett, who asked “is the bad man coming to hurt us?”

“A lot has changed, and nothing has changed,” Hartman said. “We are safe from [accused shooter Robert] Crimo, but there is a next shooter around the corner until we get a ban on assault weapons.”

Therapy dogs and questions: How Highland Park’s children are coping

“Parents are traumatized too,” said Laurie Hochberg, a pediatrician who works in the heart of Highland Park.

Hochberg’s office was so close to the shooting that bullets pierced the walls, shattering the floor-to-ceiling windows. Her practice has since bought new and brighter furniture, and all the children who come in get stress balls and extra stickers.

“It’s hard,” she added. “We are working with the whole family to get back to normal.”

Shelley Firestone, a psychiatrist who grew up in Highland Park, has begun hosting free therapy sessions in a local park. Demand, she said, has been steady.

Many people have come to her trying to make sense of the decisions they made at the shooting. One person is still dealing with the guilt of running past victims because they were desperate to find their own children.

Another told how they fled in a car too small to hold everyone, so people piled into the trunk as they sped away.

Talking about these memories with other survivors has offered a space to process the violence.When they meet each other, realizing that they are not alone and talk in a way that honors each other, that is the healing piece,” Firestone said.

Gerry Keen, 76, a lifelong Highland Park resident, has attended group therapy weekly. She and her husband were at the parade. As bullets whizzed around them, Keen and her husband lay on the ground, pretending to be dead with injured people all around them.

Keen is still suffering flashbacks. She said she sometimes finds herself suddenly shuddering, getting nauseous and forgetting to breathe.

In the weeks since the shooting, the community has canceled a handful of events because of safety concerns. The Ravinia Festival, a summer-long outdoor music festival in Highland Park, canceled the live cannon fire it sets off during its annual performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture performance, recognizing the potentially triggering effect on the community.

Fireworks scheduled for a wedding reception at a Highland Park Country Club were also canceled.

Since the shooting, the Highland Park City Council unanimously passed a resolution to ban all semiautomatic weapons, high-capacity magazines and body armor. A proposal for a gun shop and indoor shooting range in nearby Long Grove, Ill., was withdrawn after the village manager received over 1,000 emails in protest.

But even as the community has struggled, some here said they have also been impressed with the resilience people have shown.

Jeff Gobena grew up in Highland Park. He now owns Tamales, a popular restaurant that has been in business for 16 years. After the shooting, he closed his doors for just two days, reopening with crime tape still up a few yards away.

“The community needed a place to gather, mourn, talk it out and see each other,” he said.

In the weeks since, he has noticed a change in his customers, he said.

“If table three doesn’t get their burrito quickly, people understand,” Gobena said. “The little things don’t matter so much now.”