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'Double trauma': Back to in-person learning, students confront school shootings once again

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Just days into the new school year, more than a thousand schools have temporarily closed or shifted to online learning due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Others have closed for another reason: School shootings.

Several U.S. schools, finally back in person after more than a year of remote learning, have locked down in recent weeks amid reports of active shooters. That's struck panic among students, staff and parents already on edge about coronavirus risks.

"It's just like double trauma," said teacher Laurie Schaefer, a teacher at Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "Off the year of remote, finally seeing the kids, and then a week-and-a-half in, we are stopped in our tracks, quite literally, and have to find a way to restart yet again. It is life-altering."

Last Wednesday, on the eighth day of classes, one student fatally shot another inside Mount Tabor High School, causing schools throughout the district to lock down for hours. EMS tended to several students who were "panicked" by the incident, and at least one student had a seizure, Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. said.

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Schaefer said she was about to go to lunch when an assistant principal sprinted past, shouting into a walkie-talkie that a gun had been fired. She pulled "visibily shaken" students from the hallway into her classroom, turned out the lights, locked the doors and closed the blinds.

Hungry and afraid, they sheltered in place for hours as they texted and called loved ones.

"One of my former students sat next to me and just started talking about witnessing the shooting, which took place in front of her. I listened and encouraged and hugged," Schaefer said.

Schaefer said the students were eventually questioned by police, boarded onto buses and taken to their families. She said seeing her students in evacuation lines with their hands laced behind their heads was "jarring."

Nabria Varner, 15, was attending her second week of high school when she heard shots ring out in her building and took shelter inside the school gym. Her mother, Sashua Patterson, was sitting at home working remotely when she got the call.

"She was scared. She said, 'Mommy, please come get me'," Patterson said.

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School was not in session the two days following the shooting and were allowed to re-enter the building Friday to collect their belongings. Schaefer said she and other staff members gathered Monday night to discuss how to broach the topic with students. They received advice from Frank DeAngelis, the principal of Columbine in 1999.

"He said he learned really fast that you have got to do things to take care of yourself or you will not be able to help anybody else. And I think that is helping us," Schaefer said.

Students returned to classes Tuesday and were met with therapy dogs, Schaefer said. Many teachers spent the day trying to help the students process what had happened.

"It's harrowing to live it through all the perspectives of where they were and how they felt – those that were trapped in bathrooms, or hiding in the media center or evacuated to the auditorium," she said. "We haven’t had all the kids return yet. There are a lot of parents and kids who are still scared."

Just two days before the shooting at Mount Tabor High School, a 15-year-old student shot another juvenile at New Hanover High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, as a fight between several students escalated into a chaotic scene inside a school passageway. Authorities locked down and later evacuated the school.

Aiden Wright, a student at New Hanover High School, said he was walking through the passageway when he saw the fight break out. He witnessed the shooting.

Wright said many students didn't return to classes the first day back. "What people were telling me is that when they heard any loud noises, it scared them," Wright said.

His mother, Jennifer Wright, a teacher at New Hanover High School, said she has experienced a "numbing feeling" at school this week.

"Students and some of the staff are still trying fathom why this happened and how we can be safe at the school we love," she said. "The healing process is going to take some time for some of the students and staff."

The teachers at New Hanover High School developed lesson plans for what to do with their students on the first day back. When the shooting happened at Mount Tabor, they emailed over their lesson plans.

"They’re only two days ahead of us, and they thought of us. I just will be forever grateful for that," Schaefer said. "Sadly, since I anticipate that this will not be the last time there is school violence, I intend to pay that forward."

A week after the shooting at Mount Tabor, some kids were crying at school Wednesday, Nabria said.

Her mother, Patterson, said Nabria does better with in-person learning and needs to be back in school. But she’s scared.

"She doesn't want to go to school, and I don't blame her for not wanting to go to school. It’s traumatizing," Patterson said. "How do we know this won't happen again?"

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Last month, three days into the school year, a shooting at an Albuquerque middle school left a 13-year-old student dead. The school canceled classes the following school day.

Weeks later, two students were shot just after dismissal outside an Indiana high school. The school switched to remote learning the following school day.

On Wednesday, reports of an active shooter at a nearby Indiana high school triggered a similar panic. Lake Central High School in St. John and surrounding schools locked down.

St. John Police Chief Steve Flores said no guns were found at the school and no shots were fired. Flores said a student had heard what he believed was a gun being loaded in the bathroom and called 911.

Al Sanchez Jr. said he got a text from his 17-year-old daughter early Wednesday informing him the school was locking down.

Sanchez said he gathered outside the school with other parents, who were "crying" and "freaking out because they couldn’t reach their kids." Sanchez said he got little information from the school district and didn't know what was going on as he watched SWAT, FBI and local police teams swarm the area.

His daughter, meanwhile, crammed into a hidden room in the back of the school's library with 15 other students, reading rumors about student deaths on her phone.

"All I could do is tell her everything will be ok and I love her," Sanchez said.

Wednesday evening, all she could do was lay down, he said.

"She is honestly mentally drained," he said.

Sanchez said it was "frustrating" students were expected to return to Lake Central High School Thursday.

"Even though it was not a real active shooter like they reported, they still felt the trauma and the emotional stress and feeling of fear," he said. "This wasn’t just a drill. It was real life."

Sanchez said he's happy his daughter can return to in-person learning for her senior year, but he's disturbed by what happened Wednesday.

"It will have an everlasting effect," he said.

Students, teachers and parents said they need time to process the traumatic events but are confident their communities will come together..

"We were rebuilding after virtual, we were redefining ourselves in the first week-and-a-half, and now we have to do that again as a school where there was a school shooting," Schaefer said. "We’re now redefining ourselves again as an even stronger community."