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Santa Fe is the forgotten school shooting (Editorial) | #hacking | #aihp

Driving through Santa Fe for the first time, Nikki Cross would never have guessed that five years ago, a school shooting splintered this small country town. 

“I was surprised there weren’t many memorials, like lining the streets with flags or pictures of the kids maybe? At least something to acknowledge the victims,” Nikki said.  

In Uvalde, where Nikki and her husband, Brett, lost their 10-year-old son, Uziyah Garcia, to a mass shooting last year at Robb Elementary School, shrines for the 21 victims are ubiquitous: crosses and bouquets lined the town square days after the shooting. Murals for each victim were painted all over the city. The City Council wasted little time approving a plan for an official memorial and the use of standing headstones, which are prohibited at city-owned cemeteries, for the victims’ graves.  

In Santa Fe, it’s as if time froze on May 18, 2018, the day a 17-year-old student entered Santa Fe High School, the town’s only high school, and killed eight students and two teachers. 

Other than an 8-foot aluminum “Unfillable Chair” monument on the school’s campus, the 10 victims’ names emblazoned and backlit, there are few visible signs that Santa Fe endured a tragedy on par with communities such as Uvalde, Parkland, Sandy Hook or Columbine. A few unofficial memorials exist, and for several months after the shooting, ribbons and crosses did mark the tragedy, but school officials eventually asked families to collect any items left in remembrance. 

In a nation divided by gun reform debates, where the phrase “thoughts and prayers” can inflame rather than comfort, Santa Fe itself seems fragmented. The struggle to build a permanent monument represents an underlying problem: In the landscape of American politics, the survivors and victims’ families feel left behind.

Many factors set Santa Fe apart from other communities wrecked by school shootings. The city is a deeply Republican area with a proud tradition of gun ownership, a far cry from Parkland, a more politically diverse and affluent suburb. The type of weapons authorities say were used in the shooting — a shotgun and a pistol — are rarely targeted by activists, such as the Uvalde victims’ families who have sought to limit assault rifles. The fact that the accused shooter is still alive but remains in custody in a mental health institution in Vernon, not yet competent to stand trial for capital murder, has stalled any semblance of justice. And most of the victims’ families still have no knowledge of the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths, as autopsy reports and other details about what happened have been kept secret, bottling up information that would help bring some closure to the tragedy. 

Yet it also became clear in the immediate months after the shooting that some city officials attempted to move on too quickly, failing to recognize that trauma can hang over places such as Santa Fe for years. That desire to turn the page was not necessarily out of callousness, but perhaps stemmed from a desire to reestablish normalcy. Nobody runs for office expecting to deal with the trauma of a mass shooting. But when such tragedy occurs, there is a responsibility to help a community maneuver through grief and find its voice, even if that’s something as simple as finding space for and funding an official memorial.   

“Some of us want to honor these children, who were heroes,” said Christina Delgado, a Santa Fe resident and gun safety advocate whose daughter is now a senior at the high school. “And it is a little disheartening to see that the community feels like they, for whatever reason, cannot share that same sentiment.”

The Santa Fe Ten Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit founded after the mass shooting, has tried. Through private donations, it raised enough to erect a monument to the shooting: A Native American man wearing a headdress and holding a spear — a nod to the school’s team name, the Indians — with 10 feathers adorning the weapon to represent those killed, and the initials of each victim carved into the statue. It was unveiled in front of the school building Thursday, the fifth anniversary of the shooting, in a dedication ceremony that included representatives from the Choctaw and Cherokee tribes burning cedar as a token of prayer and healing.  

Still, the prevailing feeling among many Santa Fe survivors is that they have been forgotten. By the national media who parachuted into the traumatized community, only to leave soon after. By state and federal lawmakers. By local officials, and even neighbors. A plan for a larger memorial on school grounds was rejected by the school district’s board, citing concerns about security, traffic and emotional distress to students and staff — and about spending taxpayer money to maintain or fund the memorial.

Even the resources provided to help the community grieve and cope with their trauma were treated as an inconvenience. A resiliency center was established one month after the shooting at a local church to provide free mental health services, then forced by city officials to change locations three times. At the second location, a county building at a local Little League baseball park, group therapy sessions were often interrupted by people knocking on the door, requesting to go to the bathroom. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, the city closed the center permanently. 

Unlike in Uvalde, where school officials announced plans to demolish the school 10 days after the attack, Santa Fe High School remains, at least from the outside, largely unchanged. Renovations were made to the school’s art wing, where much of the shooting occurred, but construction took several years. A metal wall was erected around the art rooms while remodeling took place, but students would still have to walk through the adjacent hallway where a teacher and police officer were wounded by gunfire and another teacher was killed. 

In the year after the attack, that hallway haunted Reagan Gaona, a former Santa Fe student whose boyfriend, Chris Stone, was killed. Her chest would tighten as she approached the newly tiled hall on her way to the locker room for softball practice. The gleaming new yellow and orange squares might as well have been burning coals. For months, she changed elsewhere.  

“I was never, like, a normal high school student afterwards,” Gaona told us. 

As one mass shooting follows another in America, there is a broad spectrum of processing trauma for families and friends of victims. While many channel grief into a call to action, fueling activism around gun reform, mental illness and school safety, others recede into the depths of their grief, withdrawing from the public eye to grapple with the loss in private. 

Three days after burying their son in Uvalde, Nikki and Brett Cross were protesting for gun reforms. During the legislative session, they were among a cohort of Uvalde families who traveled to the state Capitol every week to lobby for a bill that would raise the minimum age from 18 to 21 to purchase an assault rifle.

“We don’t make this political, but when political policies enabled this, that is when we have to speak up,” Brett said. 

Yet five years after the Santa Fe shooting, Gaona is still trying to find her voice in the vast community of gun violence survivors across the nation that is tragically expanding, seemingly every week. The Santa Fe shooting occurred in the immediate shadow of a similar massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. That attack sparked a flurry of protests and marches led by Stoneman Douglas students, which helped drive the passage of sweeping bipartisan gun laws just 23 days later in a Republican-led state. 

That immediate success created an expectation that Santa Fe students would take up a similar cause in Texas, despite the community being far more conservative than Parkland, and steeped in a culture that values gun ownership. Days after the shooting, a Chronicle reporter found that many residents were dismissive of gun regulation efforts after the shooting in Parkland, instead pushing solutions that didn’t threaten their Second Amendment rights, such as allowing teachers to carry guns, fortifying school buildings and focusing on mental health resources. 

Gaona is no different. She grew up around guns and went hunting as a child. She believes that mental health is more of a driving factor behind mass shootings than the availability of guns. While some Santa Fe residents and victims’ families have joined the broader gun reform movement, Gaona is struggling with how to show solidarity with communities such as Uvalde while still maintaining her own values. 

“I would love to be a part of Uvalde, also Parkland, I want to be a part of their community as well,” Gaona said. “I haven’t taken the chance. But you know, it’s getting farther out to where I’m starting to be able to process things a little bit differently than I used to.”

For now, Gaona finds strength in helping the Santa Fe foundation raise funds for its memorial, helping achieve symbolic, rather than political change. After all, in Texas, lawmakers are so beholden to the Second Amendment that even minimal reforms remain well out of reach.

After Santa Fe, Gov. Greg Abbott convened three days of roundtable discussions at the state Capitol on school safety that included testimony from survivors, as well as students, parents, teachers, lawmakers, law enforcement officials and interest groups. Yet no meaningful gun safety legislation has passed. Not red flag laws or background checks or raising the legal age to purchase an assault rifle. The biggest legislative win for Santa Fe was a bill passed this session that would grant victims’ families access to autopsy reports and video footage of their loved ones’ last moments. Abbott has yet to sign it into law. 

This failure by lawmakers is its own kind of forgetting. Gun violence victims and survivors don’t ever fully bury their trauma. They can merely learn to coexist with it. That’s a harder journey without support from a community that acknowledges the horror and loss and offers support for healing.  

We’re heartened that some in Uvalde seem to have found such a community locally, and we’re inspired by how they’re working through grief by fighting for safer gun laws that can save lives. Some from Santa Fe have joined their efforts.

All Santa Fe victims and their families deserve the support. A permanent memorial shouldn’t take many years and reliance on private donations to build. Mass shootings are the new normal in this nation awash with guns and loose gun regulations. Our Republican political leaders seem fine with that. We the people, hopefully, never will be. 

The sudden murder of children in a place that’s supposed to offer sanctuary and learning requires not just an immediate response but a vigil. Remembering isn’t political or pandering or prolonging the pain. It’s human. And it’s necessary for healing. 

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