Texas school shooting underscores how Americans no longer feel safe

Paula Reed, a teacher who survived the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado that killed 13 people, said that sadly it’s something one comes to accept.

“You just give up on the notion of ever feeling safe anywhere,” she said. “At first that feels scary, but then you get used to it. You realize that you never were safe, but you just didn’t know it.”

It’s a sentiment adopted by many of the Parkland students who called themselves the “mass shooting generation” after a gunman killed 17 people at their high school in Florida. As they turned tragedy into the March for Our Lives movement, those students emphasized that they lived in a world of school shooting exercises and a growing list of mass casualty events in the United States caused by gun violence.

Texas school shooting underscores how Americans no longer feel safe
Texas school shooting underscores how Americans no longer feel safe

The belief that another shooting is just around the corner is a notable change in American culture, however. When 13 people died in the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, the reaction was very different.

From the Files - Worst Mass Shootings in the U.S.
Students and faculty run out of Columbine High School during a shooting rampage by two teenagers on April 20, 1999.Gary Caskey / Reuters, file

“It was like an alien attack — they were completely taken by surprise,” said Dave Cullen, the author of the 2009 book “Columbine” who researched the massacre for more than a decade. “The kids in Parkland and many have grown up with this. They’re brought up in a world of drills and shootings. With Columbine it was like they discovered there really were monsters under the bed. I mean, how do you go to sleep again? It shook up their whole worldview.”

But Reed said she wasn’t surprised that contemporary American kids might feel resigned to a shooting at their school or in their community. They were brought up in a totally different era.

“The sense of safety that I had [before Columbine] doesn’t exist for kids today,” she said. “How can they have it if [these shootings] happens all the time?”

For some in Texas, the memories of the trauma will get stuck in their minds, said Rauch, and that is what develops into post-traumatic stress disorder. That may also prove to be a problem for the survivors of Parkland and shootings throughout the United States.

“For kids that are already struggling this is going to make it harder,” Rauch said. “Those are people who are more likely to feel like they’re helpless because they’re seeing it happening again. That’s confirming a lot of the fears that they have. It’s also possible that some of the kids who were doing okay start backsliding because of this next school shooting.”

People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

In the aftermath, survivors will need the help of mental health professionals to deal with the traumatic fallout that stems from this most recent shooting in Santa Fe. Experts said that many will feel immediately like Reed described, in constant fear for their safety.

Reed advised the students, teachers and staff of Santa Fe High School and Parkland to realize that “there’s the person you were before and the person you are after.” But she said there is an opportunity to move past the event.

“It takes years to get over,” said Reed, nearly two decades after Columbine. “So if you feel like you are still crazy three years from now, just know it won’t last forever. It lasts for a long time — longer than many people want to give you space for — but it is not forever. For me it really started to turn around after five years went by.”

“But it’s not forever,” she continued to emphasize. “I swear to you it’s not forever.”

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