NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: signs of healing in Santa Fe, Texas.
On May 18th of last year a 17-year-old student walked into Santa Fe High School and started shooting. The rampage began in an art classroom. By the time the shooting stopped, eight students and two substitute teachers lay dead. Thirteen others suffered injuries. Police arrested the gunman, who’s now awaiting trial on capital murder charges.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Santa Fe High School was not the only campus to experience a mass shooting last year. But much of the nation’s attention stayed on Parkland, Florida.
That left Santa Fe to begin its healing process largely outside the public eye. Local churches in the rural community near Houston played a big role in that process. WORLD Radio correspondent Bonnie Pritchett recently visited one to see how the community’s doing one year later.
BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: There’s a hallway in Santa Fe High School that some students can’t go down. It’s not blocked off. They simply refuse to take that route to get to class.
It’s where their classmates died one year ago.
AUDIO: Her leg, she got shot in her leg… She was in the Art hallway… She just got shot and the next thing you know all the Art windows are getting shot out, shattered…
Houston radio station KTRH talked to survivors who ran out of the building that day.
A fresh coat of paint covers the hallway now. But it can’t blot out the memory of what happened there. Maintenance crews spent last summer creating a detour through the weight room so students could bypass the hall to get to class.
And physics teacher Jon Graschel says that’s not all that’s changed.
GRASCHEL: So, when the kids finally came back it was weird. It was. It was weird, for probably a week. It just felt different…
Beefed up security at Santa Fe High School includes metal detectors. Doors with alarms. Security guards patrol the campus. And everyone must wear an ID badge.
The physical changes remind students and staff that everything has changed.
GRASCHEL: It was just a lot to take in.
Graschel recalled how difficult it was for students on the first day of school in August.
GRASCHEL: They wanted their school back. They wanted it to return to normal. And they still do. They want their school to be how it was. And it never will.
Graschel understands how they feel. He grew up in Santa Fe and graduated from the same high school where he now works.
So did Jake Bigford. He’s the youth pastor at First Baptist Church Alta Loma in Santa Fe.
Both Graschel and Bigford say their students are processing the tragedy differently.
BIGFORD: Some don’t want to talk about it at all. And some are, uh, some don’t know how to feel. You know. Some say, “Is it strange that I don’t feel much at all?”
Still, many struggle to make sense of what happened.
BIGFORD: You know, I had people that were just broken. This is just terrible… We had some who were just emotional. We had a lot of survivors’ guilt as well…
Graschel got to know one such student over the summer. Both worked for the school district’s maintenance department, painting buildings. That gave them time to talk. The teenager, who is a Christian, was in the art class where the shooting began.
GRASCHEL: He froze when it happened. He sat there. And people entirely around him got shot. And the only reason he didn’t get shot is because the pitcher actually grabbed him and ripped him down underneath the table… He has no idea why he didn’t get hit. And he felt guilt from that.
In the days following the shooting, through the summer and into the new school year, mental health professionals poured into the community. They offered counseling services to students and school employees. They taught teachers how to recognize signs of stress in themselves and their students.
But they couldn’t answer survivors’ most difficult questions. Bigford urges students to direct those to God.
BIGFORD: One of my high school boys with tears in his eyes said “How can you say that God protected us but he didn’t protect them.?”… First of all, I don’t understand everything about God…But here’s what I know is to blame for this, it’s not God. It’s sin. And sin is evil and bad. But that doesn’t change the fact that God is loving and good.
Every student’s journey is different. But Graschel and Bigford say they have seen signs of healing and God’s grace.
BIGFORD: A lot of our students grew up real quick. You know what I mean? They had to really put on some maturity and think about, you know, big things—life and death. Not just themselves but other people. Their emotions. How they were supposed to feel…
And how they are supposed to forgive.
Filling in one evening for Bigford, Graschel broached that subject with the youth group.
GRASCHEL: We have to forgive. I mean, he is an individual, he is a person and… it’s very hard…
BIGFORD: A lot of our students will really struggle with that.
BIGFORD: But it’s important.
And, by God’s grace, it’s not impossible.
Neither is taking the first steps down that dreaded hallway.
GRASCHEL: They’re finding they can overcome obstacles. They can rise above something that should have torn them down or what they feel like should have torn them down. They can go down that hallway. They can, you know, go to that place where they used to hang out with that individual, with that person. And they can still move forward.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Bonnie Pritchett, reporting from Santa Fe, Texas.