How Santa Fe rebuilt itself in the year after a school shooting
As lawmakers in Austin work to pass a sweeping school safety bill, many Santa Fe survivors and their loved ones say they’re focused less on what’s happening at the Capitol and more on what can be done to rebuild and uplift their community.
The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.
Annabelle O’Day’s mom prepared her to expect the unexpected and always be ready for the best — and the very worst.
“She would always tell us statistics don’t matter,” O’Day said. “Statistically, you probably won’t be a school shooting survivor. But it happened to me.”
On May 18, a shooter opened fire at Santa Fe High School, killing 10 people and wounding 13 others. O’Day, then a 17-year-oldhigh school senior, was sitting in her first-period English class when she heard a fire alarm go off. She remembers her history teacher yelling at her to run when she left that classroom. And she remembers SWAT and FBI cars circling her once peaceful campus before she was ushered a safe distance from the school.
But as lawmakers work to passa sweeping school safety bill in Austin before they adjourn at the end of the month, O’Day said she’s spent less time focused on what’s happening under the Capitol’s pink dome and more on what can be done to rebuild and uplift her community back home.
“We’re not as political here,” she said. “We’re more focused on the community and healing.”
Despite a push by some advocates to use the massacre to pass stricter gun laws, several survivors and their loved ones said gun control hasn’t been a goal in the solidly Republican town since the shooting. Instead, residents spent the bulk of their time discussing what could be done to prevent — or at least mitigate — the next mass tragedy. They coalesced around initiatives that seek to strengthen mental health services — both inside and outside of schools.
Days after the shooting, O’Day helped start a nonprofit called Hearts United for Kindness, which aims to eliminate the stigma around mental health. Mandy Jordan, a 2001 Santa Fe High graduate, said she lobbied city officials to turn a 1.5-acre park into a therapeutic garden for people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The community has struggled over the past year, but I believe we continue to support one another and all want to help our community and students heal and recover,” Jordan said.
The school district created a dedicated crisis support hotline for the Santa Fe community — which is still active to this day. The district also beefed up campus security, adding real-time video monitoring, door alarms and an increased number of police officers on campus.
“It’s a whole package of everyone coming together to really react, respond, recover and rebuild and hopefully put things in place to strengthen for the future,” said Santa Fe ISD Superintendent Leigh Wall.
Donna Hayes, whose 16-year-old son survived the brutal tragedy, got so many calls and texts from friends and family members the morning of the tragedy that her phone died within the hour. Later that evening, people gathered — some crying, some praying, some donning T-shirts bearing the phrase “Texas Tough” — for a candlelight vigil.
Hayes said she left the vigil early to mourn with close friends who had lost their son in the shooting.
“The community definitely stepped up,” she said. “They would do whatever the victims’ families needed them to do — whether it be cutting their yard and making dinners. People just wanted to help.
“There’s a lot of amazing people out there,” she added, her voice quaking at the memory.
Then came the outpouring of outside resources and swift calls to action.
The city of Santa Fe helped start the Santa Fe Resiliency Center to help address the mental health and wellness needs of the community. Julie Kaplow is the director of the Trauma and Grief Center at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, one of several entities the Santa Fe center relies on to provide services like crisis management. She went to Santa Fe the day after the shooting and said the idea behind the center was to create a tiered model of mental health care since “not everyone was impacted by the shooting in the same way.”
Immediately after such a tragedy, she said, it’s common for those involved to experience flashbacks, lack of appetite and trouble sleeping. But over time, those reactions shift toward intense grief — and sometimes even regret or distress over the traumatic way friends, family members and peers died.
“We were eager to not only help the kids as quickly as possible, but to find a way to ensure that our services were sustainable,” Kaplow said. “We wanted to better understand the needs of the community and how we could help, not just in the immediate aftermath, but over the longer term.”
“We need to do more than just pray for the victims and their families,” Abbott said at the time. “It's time in Texas that we take action to step up and make sure this tragedy is never repeated ever again.”
Less than two weeks after the shooting, Abbott laid out a wide-ranging school safety plan — including programs for mental health screenings, expanded school protections and even a few narrow measures regulating gun usage. At the heart of the proposal was “hardening” schools both with increased police presence and by persuading more school districts to join existing state programs for arming school staff.
One of the items mentioned in Abbott’s plan that Democrats backed was adopting a so-called “red flag” law that would allow courts to order the seizure or surrender of guns from people whom a judge deems an imminent threat. But Patrick suggested such a measure would be dead on arrival in the Senate, and the idea made little progress this legislative session.
“Some of the recommendations in the governor’s plan that made sense ... were not filed as legislation; the bills did not get a hearing or the bills did not get out of committee,” said Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense. “Gun violence is preventable. There is much work to be done.”
Instead, the proposals that have gained the most traction this year are bills filed by a bevy of Republican lawmakersthatwould expand what's known as the marshal program, which allows districts to arm school personnel. Among the legislation that has picked up steam this year is a bill that would abolish a state-sanctioned cap on how many trained school employees can carry guns on campus. Another bill, which passed the Texas Senate, would allow local school boards to let their marshals carry concealed guns on campuses.
Meanwhile, the Texas Senate approved a broad school safety bill, authored and sponsored by the two lawmakers who represent Santa Fe, last month. The bill, which is likely to be debated in the Texas House early next week, would strengthen mental health initiatives in Texas schools, among other things.
“They looked at all of the facets that go into making a school safer — from mental health to hardening schools. I'm glad they looked at all the pieces,” said Flo Rice, a former substitute teacher shot five times last year.
Many Santa Fe residents insisted that the Legislature went in the right direction this session — particularly since survivors weren’t asking for stricter gun laws in response to the shooting.
“I don’t believe this was a gun issue,” O’Day said. “Someone that wants to perform something as evil as a school shooting and has that much hate in their heart will find a way. So I really think the job is in the teachers and the peers to do their best to be as kind as possible.”
Remembrance and resilience
For some current and former students, realizing their school is now the site of a mass tragedy was a hard pill to swallow.
“I definitely dealt with a lot of grief and anxiety. I had a classmate whose brother ended up dying, and he was the same age as my brother,” said Kaitlyn Richards, one of the shooting survivors. “That was a very hard thought for me. That is what I struggled with the most: My brother survived and hers didn’t.”
“I had a classmate whose brother ended up dying, and he was the same age as my brother. ... That is what I struggled with the most: My brother survived and hers didn’t.”
— Kaitlyn Richards, shooting survivor
But overall, O’Day said she’s pleased with her town’s progress. She said Hearts United for Kindness has grown significantly since its founding. Seven people now sit on its board. It’s hosted several events for community members since the deadly massacre — and she says the group always expects a large showing.
“We want to make sure everyone knows that it's OK to reach out to get therapy,” O’Day said. “We want to make sure that all of the students are remembered and that we are here for them.”
On Friday, the town is holding a volunteer day of service at the resiliency center. Students at the high school are also able to stay home for the day pending permission from a parent or guardian so that they can be surrounded by their friends and family.
During the afternoon, the school will host a tree dedication to honor the lives lost. And tomorrow, on the anniversary of the shooting, the community will gather for an all-day kickball tournament hosted by two teachers from the high school. The resiliency center also has a candlelight vigil planned for the evening.
O’Day said the memories of the shooting get harder around its anniversary, but she sees the good that came out of the horrible tragedy.
“This is something we’re never going to forget and we’re going to have to live with forever. It does get easier with time, but it doesn’t ever go away,” she said. “The upside is that I know at Santa Fe there are so many people I can go to for support.
“You can't choose what other people do to you; you can only choose how you respond. We’re here right now; we just want everyone to get help and not feel alone.”
Disclosure: Texas Children’s Hospital has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.