Underreported: The Santa Fe School Shooting Survivors the Media Ignored
Kelsey Bolar /
SANTA FE, Texas—On May 18, Grace John woke up late as usual.
“Everybody talks about senioritis, but it’s real,” she told The Daily Signal.
Grace, a senior at Santa Fe High School, located an hour outside of Houston, was looking forward to cruising through her last few days of high school. That day, she walked into the band room, and told a friend she was going to take a nap because she was sore from playing in the powder puff game the night before.
She woke up to commotion in the hallway, and walked into the hallway to see what was going on. “I thought there was a fight going on, and I’m nosy,” she said.
Grace opened the door to see a bunch of people screaming: “Then I heard a really loud noise, and that’s when I saw somebody go down.”
“I don’t know if it was a kid, I don’t know if it was a teacher—but somebody fell.”
Grace had witnessed yet another mass school shooting in the United States. The shooting at her high school occurred just over three months after Parkland, where a 19-year-old man allegedly gunned down students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, murdering 17 students and teachers.
The Parkland students have been credited for changing the gun debate. Students such as David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez took on the National Rifle Association, launched the #NeverAgain movement, and organized rallies and walkouts across the country.
At Santa Fe High School, 10 people died—eight students and two teachers. The suspected shooter, a 17-year-old male student at the school, allegedly used a stolen shotgun and revolver from his father. He also allegedly brought in explosive devices.
Grace was lucky to make it out alive. The band hall, where she and her fellow band students took cover, is located right next to the art rooms, where the shooting took place.
“We could hear all the gunshots,” she said. “We could feel it in the floor.”
After a while, the shooting stopped and law enforcement arrived to escort Grace and the remaining students out from the band room, where they were hiding in the cement air conditioning control room.
“They said, ‘Don’t look down because you’re going to see a lot,’” Grace said. “Nobody really can prepare you for that.”
Walking in a single-file line, Grace saw pools of blood and kids laying on the floor. “Dead kids,” she said.
“That was the first time that it hit me. Even though I had seen what I’d seen, it hadn’t hit me.”
“I remember accidentally stepping in some of the blood,” Grace added. “I looked down and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t even know whose this is.’”
Before she even made it out safely, Grace said she was met with a handful of reporters asking for first-hand accounts. She said they found her location on social media.
“I was being contacted while I was in shelter by news outlets trying to figure out what was going on, when I didn’t even know if I was going to make it out of there alive,” she said.
Grace, 18, said she understands that it’s their job. “But let us take some time to process the fact that 10 of our peers have just died. Let us go to these funerals and mourn, and understand that our lives are completely changed now.”
Once she did engage, Grace said she didn’t feel the media treated her or her community fairly.
“They came to our town expecting us to throw these rallies, and march for our lives, and lay on the ground with posters. That’s not what we’re doing,” she said. “We don’t want to wait around and protest for change. We want change, but we don’t want outsiders coming in and forcing it upon us.”
‘It’s Not Solely a Gun Issue’
“Santa Fe is a very country town that probably has more livestock than people,” Grace said, describing the Galveston County town that’s home to some 12,200 people. “Most of everybody here has grown up with guns, or seen a gun, or shot a gun.”
A small handful of people in Santa Fe responded to the shooting with calls for gun reform. But most, it appears, stood firm in their support for the Second Amendment.
“I think what people need to realize is that it’s not solely a gun issue,” said Grace, adding:
You can’t make stricter gun laws or stuff like that and expect it all to go away. People will break the rules if they want to. It’s illegal for a 17-year-old to have a gun. It’s illegal to kill people. It’s illegal to have a gun on campus. But people still do it.
So making stricter gun laws isn’t going to stop people from doing it. Even if you were to take guns off this entire earth, somebody could come in with a knife. Somebody could put anthrax in all the ketchup packets in school. It’s going to happen regardless if somebody has the motive.
“This boy tried making bombs,” Annabelle O’Day, 18, another survivor of the Santa Fe shooting, told The Daily Signal. “If there were bombs that had gone off, you blame the bomber. If there is a drunk-driver accident, you blame the drunk driver. You blame the person. You blame the human. But if it’s a shooter, you blame the gun. That’s what society is doing here.”
It’s because of their support for the Second Amendment that, compared to Parkland, many say the media has ignored them.
“You look at the mainstream media … after the Parkland shooting, [and] it was round-the-clock coverage of the students calling for aggressive gun control because that happens to be the political agenda of most of the media,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told The Daily Signal in an interview in May.
“In this case, where the students aren’t calling for that, suddenly … the media isn’t interested in covering it,” he added.
“I think everyone knows that the media portrays a certain political agenda that they choose to go with—it’s that simple,” said Steve Rose, a history teacher who survived the shooting. “It’s not a political agenda that the majority of Santa Fe adheres to. I want all schools safe. That’s it. We can agree to disagree on how to go about doing it. I’m open to different solutions, but our schools have to be safe.”
“A lot of us do believe that there is a problem,” added Annabelle. “It’s just that what we believe in being the problem is not the same as media. A lot of us do want change. Most everyone’s change is just not gun reform, but nobody sticks around long enough to ask us what that is.”
‘I Think We Need to Lock Doors’
“If you take the gun issue away, we’re all fighting for the same thing,” said Grace, speaking about the Santa Fe students and the Parkland students. “We all want change.”
Instead of focusing on guns, Grace supports a national dialogue surrounding school safety.
“I think we need to lock doors. This door that [the shooter] came in was a bus entrance that was unlocked,” she said. “I think we need more police presence. We have three school cops at my high school and I see them sometimes in passing periods, but mainly I only see them at lunch.”
Beyond that, Grace supports the idea of arming teachers.
“It shouldn’t have to be an option, but unfortunately we’re at a place where it has to be an option,” she said.
Across the country, hundreds of schools already have armed teachers and staff. In Texas, some public school systems have been arming teachers and administrators for more than a decade. But in the wake of high-profile mass shootings, the idea has become a political and emotional sticking point.
For Grace, the prospect is personal. After graduating college, she hopes to become a teacher:
Protecting your students from a school shooter should never be part of the job description. It should never be your job is to teach the curriculum, and test your students, and also be willing to take a bullet for them. That should never be the case, but I’m willing to take that risk because who wouldn’t?
Rose, who began his teaching career in 1979, said he’s thought “long and hard” about arming teachers.
“I don’t think that’s the end-all by any stretch. I don’t think it’s the magic answer. But I will say this. I truly wanted that pistol in my hand [on that day].”
“Just speaking generally for me, I would do whatever training is involved,” he added. “All that would have to be done, but let’s face it, it’s another line of defense against evil.”
Annabelle, who strongly supports Second Amendment rights, worked with two friends to start a nonprofit, Hearts United for Kindness. The goal is to spread kindness and love while raising awareness for mental health.
“We believe that mental health is a big deal. We have to change people’s hearts and people’s minds, how people see each other,” Annabelle said.
‘We Are Thoughts And Prayers’
Nearly three months later, Santa Fe is still grappling with the fallout of such a massive tragedy in the rural, small town.
“You drive past the high school and you think, ‘Why us? How did this happen?’” said Annabelle. “A lot of us are Christians, so a lot of us have been leaning on God a lot during this time.”
Some now mock the role of “thoughts and prayers” in responding to school shootings. But Annabelle said that “most everyone in this town does want thoughts and prayers.”
“We are thoughts and prayers,” she said, describing the Santa Fe community.
This fall, both Annabelle and Grace will attend college.
Grace, battling PTSD from the shooting, had to quit her summer job at a restaurant because the dishes banging in the backroom reminded her of gunshots. Now, she’s unsure how she’ll pay for tuition:
It’s hard to think that that happened at our school because we’re such a tight-knit community. It’s hard to think that the fine arts wing is never going to be the same, the students in the fine arts wing are never going to be the same. We saw things that people shouldn’t ever have to see.
Although things will never be the same, Rose will return to Santa Fe this fall to teach for his 12th year.
“Santa Fe will bounce back. We will be stronger than ever because to not do so, allows evil to win. No one in our community will even consider that.”