11 Survivors Of School Gun Violence Share How It Still Reverberates Through Their Lives


Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, at least 185 children, teachers and other people have lost their lives in campus shootings across the country, according to The Washington Post.

The latest school shooting took the lives of 21 people, including 19 children at an Uvalde, Texas, elementary school that was just days away from breaking for summer vacation.

The students who survived had their childhoods stolen that day, too: The lives of those children, who were already as familiar with active shooter drills as they were with math homework, were irrevocably changed.

They’re also now part of another sobering, distinctly American stat: Since Columbine in 1999, more than 311,000 students have experienced some form of gun violence at school.

In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, HuffPost spoke to 11 survivors of such school shootings ― students and a few teaching staff, too ― about how the news of yet another campus shooting has affected them, and how the shootings at their schools affect them to this day. Here’s what they had to say.

Jaimee Roeschke || Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California, on Nov. 14, 2019

Jaimee Roeschke was 15 when the shooting occurred. To the right, a photo of Roeschke today.
Jaimee Roeschke was 15 when the shooting occurred. To the right, a photo of Roeschke today.

Jaimee Roeschke, now a senior in high school, was 15 when a 16-year-old classmate at Saugus High School shot five schoolmates, killing two and wounding three, before killing himself.

“I was in a classroom nearby with my sister. When we were finally escorted out, we could see the quad where it happened. I saw what I thought was blood as well as yellow tape. Later on the news, I saw them giving chest compressions to one of the victims. I knew one of the victims who was killed, Gracie Muehlberger. The other victim who was killed is Dominic Blackwell. Gracie and I weren’t close but when we did talk, she was such a sweetheart, just a genuine ray of sunshine. Although I didn’t know Dominic, I heard that he was a fun-loving goofball and amazing friend.

“Experiencing gun violence has greatly removed the sense of normalcy from my life. I cannot go out to breakfast with my parents without hypervigilance setting in. My heart races, I hyperventilate, I get chest pains, cry and constantly replay triggering memories in my head. I cannot walk to class without being completely overwhelmed by the anxiety the rush of a crowd brings. Hearing people scream or run in the halls makes my blood run cold. I have PTSD, trouble sleeping. It’s incredibly isolating and it’s taken a huge toll on my mental health. Every time I hear about a new school shooting, I feel as though I’m grieving for those victims and that school but also my own trauma and school. Every time it happens, I relive my own trauma and feel more and more horrified by this country and its lack of humanity. Every time it happens I get more and more scared to set foot outside or pursue an education.” ― Jaimee Roeschke

Julie Schardt || Cleveland Elementary School shooting in Stockton, California, on Jan. 17, 1989

A man and two students at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton on Jan. 17, 1989, after a gunman killed five children and injured 30 others before turning the gun on himself. On the right, Julie Schardt, who was a second grade teacher at the school at the time.
A man and two students at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton on Jan. 17, 1989, after a gunman killed five children and injured 30 others before turning the gun on himself. On the right, Julie Schardt, who was a second grade teacher at the school at the time.

Julie Schardt was a second grade teacher at Cleveland Elementary School in 1989, when five kids, age 6 to 9, were shot and killed. More than 30 others were wounded by the gunman, who shot them with a semi-automatic rifle. Today, the retired school teacher is a founding member of Cleveland School Remembers, an advocacy group which pushes for stricter gun laws across the country.

“Even though our incident was over 33 years ago, when something like this happens, the images from that day always revisit me. As a teacher, my job was first to make sure my students were safe. The shooting on that day changed the trajectory of our experience at school. Nobody would ever have imagined the horror that invaded our peace. Five of our children were murdered that day, and more than 30 others were wounded. My student, Oeun Lim, a delightful book-loving, imaginative 8-year-old, was killed that day. Two more of my students were wounded by bullets and shrapnel, and all of them were seared by what they witnessed.

“Uvalde took me back to our cafeteria, where parents came to pick up their children. They didn’t know if they’d be able to hug their children and take them home or have to face the worst day of their lives. It sickens and chills me to think about it. And I think about Uvalde’s teachers. They might be survivors, but their hearts and souls will be tattooed by the pain of that day.

“It will be a long while before the families feel safe anywhere. Fireworks on the Fourth of July will be unbearable, their explosive cracks bringing back the sound of AR bullets leaving a gun and shattering little bodies.

“I remain hopeful through all this that at some point we will ‘do something,’ but it has to be soon and it will take everyone who cares about children, about the common good, about the possibility of a better day to make it happen.” ― Julie Schardt

Crystal Woodman Miller || Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, on April 20, 1999

Crystal Woodman Miller pictured during an interview after the shooting, and today.
Crystal Woodman Miller pictured during an interview after the shooting, and today.

Crystal Woodman Miller was a 16-year-old junior at Columbine High School when two classmates killed 12 students and one teacher, also wounding around 23 others, before killing themselves. Today, Woodman Miller, 39, is a speaker and author of “Marked for Life: Choosing Hope and Discovering Purpose After Earth-Shattering Tragedy.”

“I was in the library, where much of the violence took place. For 7.5 minutes, as I took cover under a table, I listened to the killers gun down friends and classmates, and waited to die. I was wrapped up in my friend’s arms and chest who told me that he’d take a bullet for me, so I didn’t see much, only heard what they were saying. They laughed and joked as they gunned down their victims, making fun of them and mocking them for the color of their skin, if they were overweight or wore glasses. They targeted those who believed in God and told us all we were going to die. Later I learned that I knew five of the victims, including my coach for softball and basketball, Dave Sanders.

“I didn’t feel safe for a long time anywhere. I was skeptical of everyone I saw, thinking they wanted to kill me. I had endless nightmares, where I would not only relieve my experience at Columbine, but dream up new tragedies that I was trying to escape. I was a walking, talking paradox: I wanted to be around people, but also wanted to be alone. I wanted to see what they were saying on the news, but was also repulsed by watching the news. I needed noise and wanted it quiet. I wanted a manual to walk through suffering, but also didn’t want anyone telling me what to do or how to feel or heal. I wanted to cry, but I was tired of crying. I wanted to smile and laugh again, but I felt guilty to do so. I was thankful I lived, but also wished I had died because the pain was overwhelming and the grief was suffocating. It was nearly impossible to find footing in those days. It’s normal: That’s grief and trauma.

“Being a survivor of a mass shooting means dealing with its effects for the rest of your life. It will forever be a part of your story ― but the degree to which it will affect you depends on choice and some intentionality. Because we are unable to change what has happened to us, we must instead choose our response and it takes intentionality. Setting goals, working with others like a trauma-trained therapist to put one foot in front of the other toward healing. It’s easy and natural to want to give up, hide, self-medicate, choose anger, hatred, bitterness and even un-forgiveness. It is easy and natural to stop trusting people and push them away, and isolate yourself. It’s incredibly easy to give into despair, and hopelessness. Believe me, I get it. But when we choose daily, that our story doesn’t end at tragedy, but can be a new point of beginning, we have the perspective we need to live again, and even thrive.” ― Crystal Woodman Miller

Gabrielle Ben-Zaken || Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018

Gabrielle Ben-Zaken and a classmate <a href="https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/isabella-vanderlaat-and-gabrielle-benzaken-9th-graders-at-news-photo/920072956" target="_blank" role="link" class=" js-entry-link cet-external-link" data-vars-item-name="attending the funeral" data-vars-item-type="text" data-vars-unit-name="628d4eece4b0b1d9844e3d1e" data-vars-unit-type="buzz_body" data-vars-target-content-id="https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/isabella-vanderlaat-and-gabrielle-benzaken-9th-graders-at-news-photo/920072956" data-vars-target-content-type="url" data-vars-type="web_external_link" data-vars-subunit-name="article_body" data-vars-subunit-type="component" data-vars-position-in-subunit="19">attending the funeral</a> for geography teacher Scott Beigel in February 2018. To the right, Ben-Zaken today.
Gabrielle Ben-Zaken and a classmate attending the funeral for geography teacher Scott Beigel in February 2018. To the right, Ben-Zaken today.

Gabrielle Ben-Zaken, now 19, was 15 when a classmate opened fire on students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others.

“At 15 years old, I had to say goodbye to my two friends, Alyssa Alhadeff and Martin Duque, as well as my geography teacher, Scott Beigel. I also had to say goodbye to everything I perceived as normalcy.

“At first, I was incapable of being in public, especially in large crowds. I spent years of my life fearful of leaving my house. Going to school became an everyday struggle. There was never a day at school where I felt safe, I was constantly on edge. My eyes would always scan a classroom searching for the safest hiding spot in the scenario a shooting would happen again. Every time I hear about another mass shooting, these thoughts tend to come back.

“I definitely still have my days where I’m reminded by everything. Overall, though, I believe I am almost there with closure. Within the past year, I have seen life from a new perspective. I am finally capable of enjoying experiences that life has to offer. I was so sick of living my life in fear, constantly waking up discouraged and feeling like I was living for nothing. I’m capable of being in public spaces, whether it’s everyday activities such as grocery shopping or going to concerts like I once did. It’s crazy to think that I was incapable of dining in at a restaurant a few years ago given that I now work as a hostess in one. Acknowledging my progress encourages me everyday. I never want anyone to feel as if their trauma will forever define them.” ― Gabrielle Ben-Zaken

Alexandra Rozenblat || Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018

Alexandra Rozenblat the year of the shooting and Rozenblat today.
Alexandra Rozenblat the year of the shooting and Rozenblat today.

Alexandra Rozenblat, now 19, was 15 and in 10th grade when the Parkland shooting occurred.

“I remember being 10 years old when Sandy Hook happened and being terrified then to go to school. I wouldn’t go to the bathrooms or walk the halls alone in fears of what would happen. When it did happen for me, I was in 10th grade. The shooter was roaming the halls while I was hiding in my classroom. I heard what felt like endless rounds of gunshots going off and screams and cries for help. I had a few classmates lose their lives and others get injured.

“Now, my sense of security and safety is completely gone. Every time I walk into a room I look for the nearest exit or for a good hiding spot. I analyze every person that walks into a room, specifically if they’re carrying a large bag. I am a big concertgoer and it took me a while to feel comfortable at my safe place after the shooting. But on the other hand, I take every opportunity I can to travel or do something I love. I am aware of how short and precious life is and I don’t want to waste a single second of it.

“I think it is hard to get closure especially with something like this that was so tragic and so easily preventable. I will get closure once I know that it is safe to go into a classroom, or a grocery store, or place of worship. We shouldn’t have to live like this. ” ― Alexandra Rozenblat

William “Tipper” Thomas || Randallstown High School in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 7, 2004

William "Tipper" Thomas around the time of the shooting and today.
William “Tipper” Thomas around the time of the shooting and today.

High school football player William “Tipper” Thomas was 17 when a fellow student got into a fight with some of his teammates in the parking lot and outside the steps of the school. The student pulled out a gun and fired into a crowd, leaving Thomas partially paralyzed and three others wounded. Thomas, now 35, is senior principal systems engineer for the aerospace and defense industry.

“In 2004, I was a graduating senior with collegiate athlete aspirations. I was shot at close range while protecting a fellow student. I was left paralyzed. The other three had non-life-threatening injuries including my quarterback, Marcus.

“People don’t talk enough about the rush to return to ‘normalcy’ after a mass shooting. The shooting incident I experienced was on May 7, 2004, which was a Friday. May 10, school was back in session. Prom went on as planned on May 14, senior farewell and graduation all commenced without skipping a beat as if four students weren’t just shot on school grounds. I can only imagine what my classmates felt and went through having to return to school that Monday with the main entrance of the school riddled with bullet holes in the brick walls and boarded up windows from broken glass.

“The shooting drastically changed my life in multiple ways: physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. I suffered two gunshot wounds: one to the back of the neck, the other to the left shoulder, which traveled through my chest cavity, hitting my spine and leaving me paralyzed. It destroyed my collegiate athlete dreams. I had to learn how to live life navigating a wheelchair. Due to my paralysis, I had to figure out how I was going to financially provide for myself and a potential family: how and where I was going to live. I had to figure out what living a productive life following trauma and paralysis would look like without an example to model after.

“I am always on high alert when I am in public spaces. I do not like being in the middle of large crowds. In public spaces, I usually position myself to where I can have a wide vantage point. I hate loud unexpected popping noises. When I hear of other mass shootings, it is a real struggle to not mentally go down memory lane and relive the shooting I narrowly escaped.

“I teach my godchildren and younger cousins to never be distracted in public, to always keep their head on a swivel and practice situational awareness. I teach them the importance of communicating where they are and where they are going so in case, God forbid, something happens, someone will know where to find them. I’ve done significant healing mentally from the shooting, however, when a new shooting happens, it does pull back some of the Band-Aid.” ― William Tipper Thomas, III

Cindy Clement Carlson || Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in Dec. 14, 2012

Cindy Clement Carlson was a librarian at Sandy Hook Elementary School when a gunman opened fire.
Cindy Clement Carlson was a librarian at Sandy Hook Elementary School when a gunman opened fire.

Cindy Clement Carlson was the librarian at Sandy Hook Elementary School when a gunman killed 26 people, 20 of them children.

“I have an all-too-American skillset for coping with the aftermath of a mass shooting. I identify deeply with the staff at Robb Elementary. I want to support them as they mark books lost in their catalog so shattered parents don’t get automatic overdue notices. I want to design bookplates and paste them into the two slain teachers’ favorite books. I want to sit by their side as they look to see if any books on hold were for students who died.

“I don’t know ― and the Robb teachers may not know yet ― if they’ll ever go back to their library. Although I know what they need most right now is each other and not necessarily outsiders, I can’t help but identify powerfully and pragmatically with what will unfold in that school community over the next few years.” ― Cindy Clement Carlson

Shana Sweeney || Mount Pleasant High School in San Jose, California, on May 4, 1990

Shana Sweeney at age 14 when the shooting occurred. To the right, a photo of Sweeney today.
Shana Sweeney at age 14 when the shooting occurred. To the right, a photo of Sweeney today.

Shana Sweeney was 14 when a student from a nearby school fired shots at a classmate, who the shooter believed had used racial slurs against friends at the school. One of Sweeney’s classmates died. Sweeney, 46, is now a chief human resources officer.

“When you have a classmate shot and killed at school, you can’t leave the experience without the belief that safety is an illusion. It doesn’t exist. Bullets can find you anywhere, anytime. And I wish that this was one isolated incident in my life, but we had a gunman in the parking lot at one of the places I worked violating a restraining order against domestic violence. Because of my prior experience, I helped get everyone away from the windows and locked all entrances, while the police stopped the person in the parking lot. Then in 2016, while I was with one of my children, we were in Dallas in an area of a mass shooting and under police lockdown. It just keeps happening whether it’s school, work or vacation. There’s never any closure.

“As a parent, when sending them off to school, I could only hope that they didn’t experience anything similar. When they were in kindergarten, their school did a live active shooter drill in conjunction with the police department. There was no option to opt our kids out of school that day. It was horrible. They were huddled in the classroom with the police running around the campus and dogs barking as someone pretended to try to get into the classroom. So I had to talk to my twins, starting at the age of 5, about the reality of school shootings. No one should have to do that. Ever.

“We’ve had conversations about making yourself a harder target by not running in a straight line, not running through open fields but finding obstacles to provide some cover, knowing where all of the exits are, how to tune into the police scanner via the phone to hear what might be happening. We’ve also had conversations about living your life with no regrets because you never know what might happen and always being kind to others because you don’t know what they are dealing with.

“Every time there is another school shooting, I cry. It’s been 32 years and absolutely nothing has changed. Nothing.” ― Shana Sweeney

Drew Pescaro || University of North Carolina at Charlotte on April 30, 2019

Drew Pescaro shows his scars from the shooting. To the right, Pescaro at graduation last year.
Drew Pescaro shows his scars from the shooting. To the right, Pescaro at graduation last year.

At the end of Drew Pescaro’s sophomore year, a gunman and former UNC student barged into a classroom and opened fire, killing two students and wounding four. Pescaro, who was 19 at the time, was shot in the back, only an inch from his spine. Pescaro is now 22 and works for the Carolina Hurricanes.

“Experiencing gun violence at a place like a school has completely shifted my perception of comfort in public spaces ever since. The only place I feel truly safe is my home and my PTSD makes it difficult to go places as common as the grocery store. Hearing arguments, a certain noise, or even smells can be extremely triggering for me and set me into panic mode. When I hear about another mass shooting, it causes me to have visual flashbacks of my own experience. It forces me to remember the physical trauma I experienced and the paralyzing fear of my potential death. I then think about how that community now has been shattered by violence and that so many people ― victims, families, friends ― will never be the same as a result.

“Although I have made progress in my mental recovery, I don’t think I will ever truly feel closure from the shooting. I will always deal with survivor’s guilt and wonder why I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones that lived through my experience. I also don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with the legal outcomes of the shooting.” ― Drew Pescaro

Lucy Sarkissian || STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting in a suburb of Denver, Colorado, on May 7, 2019

Lucy Sarkissian at the time of the shooting and now.
Lucy Sarkissian at the time of the shooting and now.

High school student Lucy Sarkissian was in eight grade when two students at her school, STEM School Highlands Ranch, opened fire, killing one student and wounding eight others.

“I was directly across the hallway from where the shooting occurred. I knew one girl who got shot through the leg and I knew one kid who got grazed with a bullet. My classroom was one of the only ones in the hallway that did not have any bullets enter the room. While I was being evacuated from the classroom by SWAT team we actually had to pass one of the shooters as he was being apprehended outside my classroom door.

“After, school became such a stressful environment for me that I ended up leaving in-person school to do online school in the second semester of my junior year. It completely changed how I exist in public space. Every time I walk into a new space, whether that be a grocery store, a movie theater or a mall, I’m constantly looking for the nearest exit and planning an escape route.

“I’ve developed PTSD as a result of the shooting. It’s caused substantial amounts of nightmares, panic attacks and flashbacks to the shooting. I still struggle with hearing things like fireworks, balloons and thunderstorms.

“When I hear about another mass shooting, it obviously breaks my heart. I think back to last year, when 10 people died at a supermarket about 45 minutes away from my house — the King Soopers store shooting in Boulder. With it being so close to home, it really hurt. With the shooting in Texas this week, I don’t have the words to describe the feelings I have about it. Mostly heartbreak for the students and family. But there’s just a lot of guilt surrounding it for me. Guilt that I’m not there to do more for the survivors, that I’m not there to comfort them.” ― Lucy Sarkissian

Susan Rodgers || Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, California, on March 22, 2001

Susan Rodgers at the time of the shooting. To the right, a photo of Rodgers today.
Susan Rodgers at the time of the shooting. To the right, a photo of Rodgers today.

Susan Rodgers was 16 years old when a former student at Granite High School opened fire at the school, wounding two teachers and three students. Today, Rodgers is a part-time seamstress, librarian and mother of two.

“My memories from that day are vivid: the looks on the other student’s faces as we sat in waiting, the shocked words I shared with another student next to me after the first flurry of shots, the sounds of the news reporter’s voices coming over the TV in the classroom ― we were trapped there for hours and turned the TV on ― and my teacher’s attempts to keep us calm while clearly being rattled herself. I recognize now how young she was.

“No one at my school was killed. We were lucky? Five people were shot, including a future classmate of mine who would later show me her bullet wound scars and describe her dread about testifying at the trial. No one died, but the gunshots were real, the fear was deep, and the hours of uncertainty while trapped in a classroom were brutal.

“In the wake of the Texas shooting, I find myself consumed with grief. Because this time, I am a mother of an 8-year-old. My daughter is around the same age as the victims of the Robb Elementary shooting. I see the victim’s photos from the recent shooting and I see her face in theirs. It terrifies me. I am torn up at the idea that victims of school shootings like me are now faced with the possibility of becoming parents of victims of school shootings. There has been no relief from the risk I faced in 2001 but instead it has gotten significantly worse. Now instead of a shotgun and a .22-caliber pistol ― what the shooter brought to my school ― the shooters bring AR-15s. I shudder to think what would have happened on my campus if the shooter had brought an automatic rifle. The victims would not have wounds, they’d be dead.” ― Susan Rodgers


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