The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I was not one bit surprised that it happened.’ Shock over school shootings has turned to numbness.

Wendy Long weeps as she waits for her daughter’s friend to pick up her personal belongings at Santa Fe High School the day after a shooting at the Texas school.
Wendy Long weeps as she waits for her daughter’s friend to pick up her personal belongings at Santa Fe High School the day after a shooting at the Texas school. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Daniel Gelillo glanced at his phone between taking Advanced Placement exams Friday morning when he saw that there was a shooting at a high school in Texas. His sadness quickly gave way to frustration — another school day in America, another school ­shooting.

“I was not one bit surprised that it happened,” said Gelillo, a 17-year-old senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md. “I feel as if we lived in a country where this wasn’t the norm, time would stop. We would all be just in like a state of absolute and utter confusion and despair. But life goes on. That’s just how it is here.”

High school students have spent their entire educational lives participating in lockdown drills and walking into schoolhouse doors fortified with bulletproof glass. They remember the 20 elementary schoolers and six teachers gunned down in Connecticut in 2012, and now their phones buzz with news of school shootings as they sit in class. After absorbing school shooting after school shooting, there is a pervasive sense of numbness. The 10 people killed in Santa Fe High School on Friday are, tragically, just another entry on the growing list of massacres that keep happening in schools.

While school shootings remain rare, it is no longer a matter of whether there will be another one in America; it is a matter of when and where. The reality has led to students sitting in class plotting how they would get out should someone start shooting, parents afraid to send their children to school and a resignation that nothing is likely to change any time soon.

“It’s been happening everywhere,” said Paige Curry, a student at Santa Fe High School who was asked by a reporter if she ever thought that a shooting could not happen at her school. “I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.”

The legacy of Newtown: Lockdowns, active-shooter training and school security

Since 13 people were killed in a massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, more than 214,000 students have been exposed to a school shooting at 216 schools nationwide, according to a Washington Post analysis. This year alone, there have been 16 school shootings, with 29 people dead.

This includes the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed in February. Students started a wave of activism in its wake, marching in Washington for safer schools and gun control and starting the #NeverAgain movement to stop school shootings.

“It’s so difficult to shout #NeverAgain with as much conviction when I am constantly losing hope for our country and our government,” tweeted Carly Novell, who survived the Parkland shooting. “I can only say the same phrase so many times, but it keeps happening again and again and again and again . . . ”

Gelillo remembers people talking about Columbine, which happened the year before he was born, and thinking it meant a word for something bad, but he was not sure what. He has memories of participating in lockdown drills in kindergarten but did not know why they were necessary until after the Connecticut shooting, which happened when he was in seventh grade.

“I’ve gone to school every day since then in fear of the possibility of staring down the barrel of a rifle, and I don’t think I’m the only one that feels that way,” he said.

Now he absorbs news of school shooting after school shooting: Parkland, a student killed at a high school in southern Maryland. There are also the close calls: an 18-year-old who brought a loaded gun to a high school near Gelillo’s and that police said had multiple weapons and tactical gear in his home. Gelillo said the wave of student activism after Parkland — in which he has participated, leading gun control protests and school walkouts — gives him hope. He wants politicians to do something, whether it’s making parents liable for improperly storing firearms or banning bump stocks.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said he went to Santa Fe on Friday and encountered a shattered community. Acevedo, who believes some gun control measures should be put in place to prevent such shootings, said he hit “rock bottom” after the most recent attack.

“When you start hearing young people that go through this say ‘I knew it could happen here, I’m not surprised it could happen here, I expect it could happen here,’ it tells me that we failed,” Acevedo said in an interview. “We failed as a nation, we failed as policymakers.”

Sam Heidler, an 18-year-old senior at Richard Montgomery, said every time she walks into school, she thinks of the best way to get out should there be a shooter. She turned on her phone after taking a test on Friday morning and learned of the shooting in Texas.

“At the beginning, there’s usually a bit of an emotional disconnect at this point because it’s something we’re so used to,” she said. “When you hear more about it, especially when you hear from other students, it hits home because they’re the same age as us.”

She received dozens of messages in a group text chain with fellow members of Montgomery County Students for Gun Control. After school, eight of them took the train to the U.S. Capitol and had a lie-in in front of the office of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) Four of the eight were arrested; Heidler was not.

“We knew we just wanted to do something,” she said.

Maryam Kia-Keating, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara who studies childhood trauma, said in addition to the news of school shootings, children as young as three and four are now participating in lockdown drills, which opens up the concept that violence can happen anywhere and at any time.

“It’s really shattering our beliefs in a safe and just world,” she said. “In some ways, we’re just surviving by becoming a little bit numb, but it’s not a desirable outcome. It’s going to have a very bad ripple effect down the line and even right now.”

Armed and safe? At Ohio schools, the security plan includes teachers and guns.

After the Parkland shooting, Chalmers McCahill had to explain to her children that their babysitter Gina Montalto had died and was “now a beautiful angel.”

After hearing about the shooting in Texas, she thought about how Santa Fe will now feel the same loss and shock that still pervades Parkland. While she felt “heartbreak” for those strangers, she wasn’t shocked another shooting happened.

“I think you’re so desensitized to it now,” McCahill said. “At this point you just become numb and you’re like: At what point will this stop? What’s it going to take? How much more?”

McCahill never worried about her children going to school before, but now she is “petrified.”

She said she is a Republican who believes in the right to bear arms, but she also believes in certain restrictions on guns. In her home, she keeps a revolver in a safe that can only open with her thumbprint. She grew up in North Carolina, where her father hunted with a rifle, but she remembered how it was locked away, never loaded and only used for sport.

“How do we keep our children safe in school? I’m so tired of it being pointed at parties and making everything political. It has nothing to do with politics,” she said. “Why can’t this be about the kids?”

Coy Ferreira’s six-year-old daughter turned on the family’s Xbox on Friday and saw YouTube videos of kids running from Santa Fe High School. She then asked: “Daddy, has that happened again?”

Six months ago, a gunman opened fire at her elementary school in Rancho Tehama Reserve, Calif., while she, her father, and other students and teachers sheltered inside a classroom. A secretary there put the school on immediate lockdown as the shooter approached, preventing his entry, a move credited with saving lives.

“I said, ‘Yes it has,’ ” said Ferreira, who wants to see teachers armed and schools fortified. “I was grateful she didn’t ask if it would happen at our school again, because I would have to say ‘No,’ but you can’t guarantee it.”

Teddy Amenabar, Kayla Epstein and Ellie Silverman contributed to this report.