This article originally appeared in the Daily Beast on May 10, 2019.
by Gail Sheehy
Once a month, every month of the 2018-19 school year, the principal of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School makes an announcement, usually before 9 am, when classes begin. “OK, we’re going into a Code Yellow drill. Take a breath. We’ll keep teaching but somebody might be trying to get into the building.”
The school notifies parents five minutes before these “Code Yellows” begin that it’s only a drill. Many parents try frantically to text their kids. They may not be able to get through. WiFi is not reliable in the school. Five minutes later, the principal will come on again and announce a Code Red. It’s the mandated signal that an active shooter emergency is in progress. Most of the children have no idea whether a Code Red is the real thing.
Without any meaningful consultation with parents or teachers, the Florida state legislature mandated monthly Code Red drills for every public school in the state, starting last August. Student survivors of the infamous school massacre in Parkland, Florida are forced to endure a flooding of fight-or-flight hormones again and again, further eroding their sense of safety in the world—without having any idea that the “emergency” may be, and probably is, fake. Many of the kids have panic attacks, even when the fire alarm goes off. But 15 months after the tragedy that took 17 lives, the people most infuriated by this scenario are not the students—it’s their mothers and fathers.
“Horrific,” “obscene,” “disgusting,” “insane,” “an atrocity” are among the strong words the parents use in describing their gut feelings about the toll these monthly active shooter drills take on traumatized students.
On the day of the Parkland shooting, Valentine’s Day 2018, Meredith Barry’s 11th-grade daughter Isabela and her classmates ran outside when they heard a false fire alarm set off by the shooter. Hearing popping noises, their drama teacher, Melody Herzfeld, hustled most of her students inside to a closet. But noting that Isabela and others were in a glass-door office, the teacher took a chance to step out of the closet and pull the kids into one hiding place. The killer was firing indiscriminately through windows in classroom doors. “A lot of kids, my daughter included, were texting they were scared they were going to die and they loved us,” Barry told me. Like all the frantic parents, she had to wait outside for hours before she was able to respond to her child’s pleas for a hug.
“These kids are living every day with that recurring nightmare,” lamented Parkland parent Stephanie Savransky. “Everyone has to pass the 1200 building,” which used to be the main building. It stands smack in the middle of a wide-open campus, one of its shot-out walls boarded over in plywood, a trigger for flashbacks. “My daughter Ashley and her friends see that crime scene every day,” Savransky laments. Displaced students see it from a virtual trailer park of 34 “portables”—temporary classrooms set up where the campus tennis courts were paved over. “The teachers were just as affected by the rampage as the students,” says Savransky. “They hate the drills.” The main building is not in use. Still, authorities insist the building be preserved, intact, probably for two years or more so a jury can walk through it. And because prosecutors have rejected the “not guilty” plea by the accused killer, Nikolas Cruz, a lengthy trial is all but inevitable.
Day and night, 16-year-old Ashley Savransky is confronted with the ghost building. When her astronomy class goes out to look at the moon, all Ashley sees are the lights on the top floor of an empty mausoleum where escaping students had to step over bodies of some 14 of their classmates. On days that Ashley suspects there might be a drill, she doesn’t go to school.
“These Code Reds cause insane trauma for the kids. And I don’t think they’re teaching them anything.”
In addition to the scheduled Code Yellow and Code Red drills, the school is also dealing with unscheduled fire alarms that have been malfunctioning all year, going off inside the deserted building as often as three times a day. After a year of these triggers to further trauma, Parkland parents are up in arms, says Laura Waite Zuckerman. “These Code Reds cause insane trauma for the kids. And I don’t think they’re teaching them anything.” She called out to her 15-year-old daughter Iliana, “Do you know what to do if there’s a real Code Red?”
“No,” came the bored answer.
Zuckerman’s complaint is with government authorities who don’t seem to know much about human psychology. “After a life-threatening trauma, people are easily triggered to feel a resurgence of the trauma,” she says. They may start shaking, feeling as if their heart is jumping out of their chest. They may space out or have nightmares or panic attacks, become distrustful, angry, hypervigilant, and develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The very threat of mass shootings throughout the nation’s schools is also damaging to mental health. “Nothing within our town has ‘settled,’” declares Zuckerman. “Even though a lot of the kids wish that their parents would stop talking about it.”
Joe and Wendy Garrity, leaders of several hundred angry MSD parents, empathize with the teenagers. “They think if we don’t talk about it anymore, the problem will go away,” Wendy Garrity told me. But it doesn’t go away, because early life trauma rips away children’s already tenuous grip on a sense of control. Joe Garrity adds, “The kids still have their whole lives ahead of them. It’s parents who think we have to come up with a solution, and that wears on all of us.” His wife sighs and admits, “I have survivor guilt, regularly. You never know when it’s going to hit you.”
Their daughter, Sawyer, a junior at the time of the shooting, resisted surrender to the waves of helplessness. Two days after the terror she called her friend Andrea Peña: “Let’s write a song.” Over their cellphones, Sawyer on guitar and Andrea on keyboard, they created “Shine.” By week’s end, they were asked to perform the inspiring anthem at a CNN town hall. Unbeknownst to them, CNN put them on air. Suddenly, they were famous and the song went viral. But to the girls, it also felt like another loss of control.
Tragically, there are more dangerous ways to regain a sense of control, including self-harm, like cutting. For students who descend into PTSD hell, suicide is a desperate attempt to reclaim control. Over spring break this year, Parkland parents had to face yet another terror: two students had taken their own lives.
While there is little research devoted to the psychological impact of active shooter drills, not even on lockdowns, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that any of these procedures can produce a state of fear. “Neurologically, fear impacts their behavior and they can’t learn, can’t pay attention,” says Dr. Franci Crepeau-Hobson, co-chair of the National Association of School Psychologists’ school safety and crisis committee.
Shannon Green, a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, thought the hardest thing she’d have to explain to her children one day was sex. “But try telling a 5-year-old that a ‘bad man’ with a gun isn’t going to hurt her at school but, just in case, she should be prepared.” Green described her alarm when her child cried out in a shrill voice, “Mommy, will you sleep with me? I don’t want the bad man to get me.”
Liz DeCastro was at work when a friend alerted her to trouble at MSD. She drove like a madwoman but before she reached the school, her son’s name popped up in a message on her dashboard. He’d reached out to her via text to tell her he was OK. “Mark, where are you?” she texted back. “Send me a picture so I can find you!” The boy was completely disoriented; he sent a picture of the tops of palm trees.
Mark was on the top floor of 1200 in study hall. His young teacher received a text that this was a Code Red.
The teacher pulled the kids back inside and locked the door. A fusillade of shots rang out. Just outside, a terrified kid was yelling for help. A furious banging on the door shook the students—was it the shooter? Teachers had been trained that once the door is locked, it cannot be reopened for anyone. Eventually, even the police had to break down the door to the classroom.
As the students scrambled to their feet, the teacher warned them not to look down. Mark DeCastro could not help himself. The hall was littered with bodies. Three dead, others horribly injured. The worst off was Anthony Borges, a soccer star. He was the one who had been pounding on their door while the shooter riddled his body with holes. Miraculously, he recovered.
This wholesale annihilation of schoolchildren is not confined to Parkland or to Florida or even to high schools. It is a national emergency. The other dire emergency is how to help the young survivors of these atrocities. As of 2016, almost 95 percent of students in U.S. public schools practice some sort of lockdown drill. And by now, more than 228,000 students across America have been exposed to gun violence at school.
Even as parents and teachers, administrators and legislators struggle with how to agree on gun control measures, as well as school safety plans, are we missing the most obvious danger under our noses? Are we actually raising a new generation of adolescents under a dark cloud of anxiety and hypervigilance, blocking out the model of risk-takers who stride up and down the earth searching for solutions to mankind’s vexations?
As of 2016, almost 95 percent of students in U.S. public schools practice some sort of lockdown drill.
In 15 months, no one has come up with a solution that satisfies a plurality of parents. I asked Parkland Mayor Christine Hunchofsky what might have prevented this tragedy. “There were things that could have been handled differently, such as tips to the FBI about the shooter,” she said. “The most recent tip was a month before.” But records have surfaced that show the shooter’s mental illness was documented by his school.
His dangerousness was reported by his adoptive mother, fellow students, police, and a child welfare agency. Two years after Cruz dropped out of MSD, threats he issued were blatant on social media. Shortly before his rampage, he made a video of himself holding up an AR-15 and stating his intention to shoot up the school. All this, including tips to the FBI, were ignored. The Broward County sheriff, Scott Israel, was removed from office in December 2018 for failing to prepare his deputies to respond to an active shooter. Ty Thompson, the principal of MSD, is under review as part of an ongoing investigation into school administrators following the shooting.
Max Schachter, whose son Alex was killed in the Stoneman shooting, has accused MSD of lying to the Department of Education between 2014 and 2017 by reporting that the school had zero threats. As a result, he said in a PBS interview, Parkland maintained its status as the 15th safest place to live in the country. “We have to be honest with the public and report what is happening with violent incidents. Once the public knows what is happening on campus, they will be putting pressure on school districts to make their school safe.”
Schachter also fervently believes in “hardening” schools. “There needs to be a good guy with a gun on campus to take out the murderer,” he says. He wants principals and coaches to have guns. His argument is that law enforcement will never get to a shooting in time to stop it. This is the shocking fact: The MSD killer dealt enough mayhem to slay 17 people—all in five minutes and 32 seconds.
The most vocal opponent of more guns in schools is Jeff Kasky, father of Cameron Kasky, the laser-focused teen who typed out an op-ed the night of the massacre that went up on CNN and launched the movement, March for Our Lives. “It’s crazy to talk about hardening schools and video game parlors and churches and synagogues and all the places where mass murders are taking place,” Kasky says. “The simple answer is to make it virtually impossible for a mentally disturbed person to buy an AR-15.”
After the shooting, Kasky offered his son and fellow activists the use of his traveling ex-wife’s house as their war room. Over the next two weeks, they fell asleep sitting or standing up but didn’t leave the house. One day Kasky brought them pizza. The minute he showed his face, they all stopped talking. “They looked at me like a rhinoceros had entered the room.” Translation: Adults were, if not the enemy, part of the problem.
That spurred this dad to create a PAC, Families vs. Assault Rifles. Kasky has suspended his life to travel the country speaking to groups, including some with NRA members. “The liberals are not coming for your guns, no matter what Sean Hannity says,” he tells them. “More than 80 percent of school shootings are performed by assault weapons. We want to keep those weapons of war out of the hands of civilians.”
His favorite solution is to wrap this limitation into the National Firearms Act of 1934, legislation that the NRA assisted President Roosevelt in drafting. It prohibited the purchase of machine guns used by gangsters to commit crime. But when it comes to protecting defenseless children stalked by deranged young “ammosexuals” (Kasky’s name for isolated male shooters in erotic love with their weapons), there remains a stubborn absence of compassion for victims.
Lawsuits and parental petitions have been filed all over the country after unannounced drills have left students stressed and fearful. Florida’s state legislature has already stiffened the counter-violence-with-violence approach by sending a bill to a sympathetic Republican governor to allow classroom teachers to carry guns in school. This despite the fact that the majority of the state’s school districts prefer to put law enforcement officers in schools.
If all this effort by guilt-ridden parents is too little, too late, what other methods might help to restore the equilibrium of anxiety-riddled students?
That was the vision of Peter Yarrow, the iconic folk singer of the trio Peter, Paul, and Mary.
Three months after the killings at MSD, he summoned a dozen of the most gifted activist singer-songwriters he knew to gather in a Parkland living room and mentor a contingent of students gifted in the arts. “I want to help them write songs to tell their own painfully authentic stories in music,” Yarrow told me. “I believe this might bring the kind of emotional power to the students‘ movements of today, similar to what we shared during the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.” He invited me to observe and record this historic collaboration.
During the visit, I was struck by a sense of the students’ aloneness. Most sat on the floor hugging their knees, as if trapped in an aftermath of fear that might persist—perhaps for years. Yarrow mesmerized them with his impish smile and gentle voice, singing songs that his trio performed at the March on Washington in 1963. Once he sang Bob Dylan’s anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he had the kids up on their feet, arms crossed, swaying with a sense of solidarity.
Over the next 48 hours, these drama and music students came out of their funk and eagerly put their souls to paper, writing and performing a dozen exhilarating songs. It was a historic collaboration across generations. Yarrow is working toward a release of the public service album that could become the soundtrack of the Never Again movement.
“There is no back to normal. And active drills do re-traumatize people.”
It was Sawyer Garrity and Andrea Peña who shared another brainstorm: Why not help other kids to heal as they did, by making music and art? Their idea turned into a real summer camp when the girls decided to sell their song “Shine” on iTunes to raise the money for their foundation: Shine MSD.
The first Camp Shine was led last summer by Jessica Asch, a licensed creative arts therapist. She made full use of sound exposure therapy. Children with PTSD are easily triggered by sounds. Asch would gather them close in a circle on the floor and say, “We’re going to play sirens -- are you ready?” Week after week, they listened to sirens over and over, gradually re-integrating the sound back into their lives. They also had songwriting workshops. The most effective of the arts, as documented by a University of Miami study, was drama.
“Often there is a hierarchy of trauma - who suffered the most?” says Asch. By encouraging every participant to tell his or her story, the students understood that everyone was traumatized. But often, trauma has no words. In one session, Asch suggests students pick out an object and explain how it feels. One boy picked up a TV remote. “This feels like I’m just changing channels, rewind, fast forward, stop, like somebody is taking over control of my remote.”
Wendy Garrity has bird-dogged her daughter through many downs and ups over the last year, but when she steps back, she sees that Sawyer has been building resilience. Every time the exuberant teenager comes home from traveling to give concerts, she seems more grounded by knowing that her message is getting through to her peers. These experiences have also prompted her to change her career path. Last year, all she wanted was to be on Broadway in musical comedies and go to University of California, Berkeley, where she was accepted. But this year, she has committed to becoming a musical therapist. She is headed for the Frost School of Music at University of Miami, which enables her to stay closer to home so she can continue to be part of the work of Shine Foundation.
Camp Shine will start again June 17. But Jessica Asch is quick to add, “There is no back to normal. And active drills do re-traumatize people.” Jacob Moreno, the Hungarian-American psychologist who created the concept of psychodrama in the early 20th century, put it simply: “The body remembers what the mind forgets.”