School Shootings Have Turned Survivors Into Advocates—But They Shouldn't Have To Be

Former students from Columbine, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and other survivors of gun violence in schools are fueling long overdue change, but the burden can’t fall on them alone. Here's how parents can help.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 11: Gun control activist David Hogg speaks during a March for Our Lives rally against gun violence on the National Mall June 11, 2022 in Washington, DC. The March For Our Lives movement was spurred by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. After recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas, a bipartisan group of Senators continue to negotiate a potential compromise deal on gun violence and gun safety legislation. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Editor's note: This story contains descriptions of gun violence, which could be triggering for survivors of gun violence.

It's been 23 years since Crystal Woodman Miller hid under a library desk at Columbine High School while two teens murdered her classmates—ultimately they killed 13 people that day—just steps away from her. She still remembers the day vividly.

"I was 16 at the time and had asked a couple friends to come study with me in the library," she says. "All of the sudden, we heard screaming." At first, they thought it was a senior prank, but then a teacher came running into the library shouting that there were two guys with guns and bombs, instructing them to hide under the tables. Miller huddled under one with her two friends as they listened to the unmistakable sound of gunfire.

Miller says that she was sure she was going to die. "My life flashed before my eyes," she says. "I thought about my regrets, the future dreams I'd never experience, and how I didn't tell my family I loved them as much as I should have."

The steps of the shooters got closer and Miller heard one of them announce that they were going to blow up the library and kill everyone inside. Many in the library did die that day, as the shooters went around the room, making fun of their victims before shooting them and asking who was next.

At one point during the seven-and-a-half minutes, Miller hid under the table, a bomb was detonated and exploded right by her. Shrapnel hit her legs. The boots of the shooters were inches away from her as they used the table to see how many bullets they had left. They were running low and decided to leave to get more. "They made it very clear that they would be back to kill us," Miller says. But ultimately, the shooters left the library and she made it out alive.

The 1999 Columbine High School shooting was the most gruesome high school shooting in U.S. history at the time, but, as this month has made all too clear, it would not be the last. At press time, there have been over 678 school shooting incidents in the U.S. since Columbine where at least one person was killed or wounded, according to the non-profit USA Facts.

The shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is, of course, the latest tragedy making headlines. And the fact that survivors of that shooting—kids as young as 11 years old—are already standing up and speaking out makes it clear that change surrounding gun control is not happening fast enough. School shooting survivors are raising their voices to speak to lawmakers about what's needed, but for lasting change, they need our help.

For School Shooting Survivors, Support Is the First Step in Healing

It's inspiring to see people like former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, who both survived the shooting at that school in 2018, leading marches and helping to create landmark change, including the School Safety law that was passed in Florida last year. But Melissa Brymer, Ph.D., the director of terrorism and disaster programs at UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, says that addressing the grief that comes with surviving mass violence must come first. "It's important to first acknowledge the grief by honoring those who are no longer with us," she says.

Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with decades of experience working with children who have survived trauma, echoes this, nothing that grief is not something one "overcomes," but something you learn to live with. "Over time, you are able to tell stories about the person and find ways to incorporate their memories."

Both experts say that when it comes to the trauma that comes with being a survivor, mental health support is key. "What helps the most in the healing process is for the kids to have loving adults in their lives," Dr. Gurwitch says. Kids especially need to feel safe and cared for during this time, and support from adults is critical, including parents as well as teachers, coaches, and others in the community. "This makes a world of difference in how they cope long-term," Dr. Gurwitch says.

For many children, the physical and emotional trauma responses they experience go away after a few weeks, although both experts say that trauma can continue to manifest during pivotal times related to circumstances or moments that may make them think of those who died, like a birthday or graduation. If the symptoms persist after one month, it is possible the child has post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and it's important to work with a trauma-informed child psychologist to help them overcome it. One study notes that about 16% of children who experienced trauma develop PTSD. Dr. Brymer says that the risks for developing it include how much exposure to the trauma the child had (for example, being in the same room as the shooter versus not), a child's ability to deal with stress in general, and how much support they have. Both experts emphasize that the vast majority of school shooting survivors overcome what happened.

Using Trauma to Spark Social Change

Miller says that, for her, activism has been a huge part of her healing journey. In the two decades since the Columbine shooting, she's written a book about her experience and has given numerous lectures about hope after tragedy.

Helping others who have faced trauma has also been healing for her. "In 1999, I traveled to Kosovo with Samaritan's Purse to give shoeboxes filled with gifts to the children affected by war. And that really moved me, in terms of healing," she says. "In many ways, their country reflected what I felt in my heart: cold, broken, and shattered. But then I would give the kids a toy and their whole face would light up with hope. Seeing their hope helped me to start seeing it in myself."

Brittany Sinitch, who was a teacher at Marjory Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, when the 2018 school shooting occurred, has also used her experience to speak out. Sinitch launched The Unbreakable Org, a non-profit helping individuals and communities heal from trauma. This non-profit surely would not exist had it not been for what Sinitch experienced, another example of how powerful change can come from tragedy.

Sinitch says it's been inspiring to watch her former students, who were freshman at the time, use their voices in powerful ways too. "I had them write letters to themselves when they were freshman. It was the one thing I rescued from my classroom that day," she says. "I gave them back the letters this year—their senior year—and it was really special to see how far they've come. Some want to be in the military. Some are passionate about music. They are so brave and inspiring."

For Mandy Cooke, who is also a Columbine school shooting survivor, her impact is felt in her direct community in Columbine. She helped build the memorial in remembrance of those who died, a key part in facilitating the grieving process for herself and others—a crucial part of healing, as Dr. Gurwitch and Dr. Brymer explain.

Cooke also directly makes an impact through her job; she is now a teacher at Columbine High School herself. "Going back to the high school [as a teacher] was another part of healing for me," she says. By being there, Cooke shows that students should not be scared to go to school. And, as Dr. Gurwitch and Dr. Brymer emphasize, community support is key. Change is slow—especially in terms of lawmaking—and support from community members, including teachers like Cooke, is just as important as legislative change.

The Burden of Change Can Not Fall on Survivors Alone

While the impact school shooting survivors make can be immense, it can be emotionally exhausting living in a country where this is still a pressing issue. "Every time a school shooting is on the news, it takes me back to that day," Sinitch says. "It reignites my sadness so immensely and strongly that I feel it in my whole body."

Cooke says that she minimizes the amount of news she watches whenever a school shooting occurs. Like many, she believes there need to be stricter regulations surrounding guns. "I believe people have the right to own guns; I just wish there were more sensible gun laws," she says. "I wish it was harder to access weapons. I wish both sides of the political party would come together on this." All three survivors say that the recent proposal of gun and safety regulations proposed by a bipartisan group of senators is a start, but not an end.

Like Cooke, Miller expresses that coming together regardless of political party is key for ending school shootings for good. "We are a very divisive, hostile culture right now, not just about this particular issue, but so many others," she says. "We've lost the ability to stay connected. We need to remember that every person has a story and when you know someone's story, it's really hard to hate them." To this point, she says that while legislative change is vastly important, so is raising children to be kind, empathetic, and accepting—something every parent (as well as grandparent, aunt, teacher, and coach) can help do.

Miller also expresses the need for greater mental health resources, another key to raising healthier kids and, ultimately, creating a safer school environment. For this reason, supporting mental health initiatives in schools and communities is another important layer in creating lasting change.

Yes, it's inspiring to see school shooting survivors leading the charge. But this should not be their burden alone. We can all vote, we can all support initiatives that create positive change in our communities, and we can all inspire the children in our lives to be accepting of others. Only then will our country's future look different than its past.

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