Part of the Memory Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
The details are embedded in Sam Leam’s memory, even though it happened more than 30 years ago, when he was just a kid. Recess on a chilly January day. Waiting with friends by the tetherball courts for a chance to play. A sound like the crack of fireworks, and a simple thought running through his head: It’s too early for Chinese New Year. Plugging his fingers in his ears. His classmates running and screaming. Following them into the school, and watching a panicked teacher drag students into his room. The teacher shutting the door on him. Continuing down the hallway. Falling, and being unable to get up. Crawling down the hall. Another teacher closing her door. Reaching his classroom, where his teacher pulled him in. Another kid, telling Sam that he’d been shot.
Leam was 7 when a man brought a semi-automatic weapon to Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California, killing five children who were immigrants from Cambodia and Vietnam, and injuring about 30 others. Leam was one of them, shot three times, twice in the buttocks and once in his arm. The shooting took place in 1989. At the time, mass shootings at schools were incredibly rare. Leam couldn’t have known that tragedies like the one he experienced would, a decade later, be a horrible national trend, and that while uncommon, they would only continue, becoming more frequent in the decades after. At the time, he was just a kid, struggling to make sense of what happened.
It wasn’t easy. “My mom, coming from the killing fields of Cambodia and surviving her own trauma, didn’t want to talk about it. I remember asking her certain things about the school shooting,” he said, but “it was traumatizing for her, too.”
The kids who lived through the start of the school shooting era have grown up. Most of them came of age in the late ’90s and the 2000s, when mass shooters started showing up in schools in Pearl, Mississippi; West Paducah, Kentucky; and Springfield, Oregon (though some, like Leam, survived them even earlier). Now adults in their 30s and 40s, many with children of their own, they are navigating a world in which what happened to them was not an anomaly but the beginning of a recurrent feature of American life. As children, they practiced tornado and fire drills at their schools. Because of what happened to them, their kids have active shooter drills, too.
There’s no real guidebook for recovering from what they experienced. What distinguishes the thousands of survivors of the early wave of school mass shootings from those who came after is that they experienced those shootings in a world wholly unprepared to deal with the aftermath. Few got the mental health treatment now considered necessary for survivors of mass violence. As a result, many were left on their own, to process their trauma in the countless years — and school shootings — since.
When Leam came back to school after the shooting, he remembers, a group of Buddhist monks were there to lead a cleansing ceremony in the cafeteria. A therapist used a large teddy bear with a moving mouthpiece to speak to him. He was comforted by it, and by the chance to say that he was afraid of the spirits that he worried might now be haunting the school. Beyond that, he didn’t receive any formal counseling for years.
His experience was not unusual. Missy Jenkins Smith was 15 years old when a classmate opened fire at her high school, in West Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997. Jenkins Smith, who had just left her morning prayer circle, was shot and paralyzed. The shooting at Heath High School was among the first to receive widespread media coverage in the cable news era; three people were killed, and five were injured.
Jenkins Smith received thousands of letters and gifts from well-wishers around the world, which helped her feel supported in her recovery. There were specialists at the hospital who worked with her to adapt to using a wheelchair. But, she said, “I didn’t have anyone who focused on the fact that I saw someone get shot in the head.” Her twin sister, who also survived the shooting, tried group counseling, but the other children in the group were dealing with different problems (a parent making them practice piano when they didn’t want to, for example), which made sharing her own experiences feel absurd.
Instead of seeing a professional, Jenkins Smith and a few of her friends started an informal therapy group, supervised by their guidance counselor. They held sleepovers and created a safe space to talk about their memories. They stopped, 10 months after the incident, when the shooter pleaded guilty but mentally ill and was sentenced. His plea, they felt, seemed like a logical end point.
Even when schools had counselors on hand after a shooting, the survivors often didn’t feel comfortable using them. “I refused to see a counselor,” said Kristen Dare, who was 16 in 2001 when a classmate opened fire at her school in Santee, California. “I refused to talk about it. I didn’t want to open up.” Her peers, she realizes now, were struggling, too. The cultural understanding of mental health was totally different 20 years ago; the importance of seeking professional help wasn’t as widely acknowledged as it is now.
There was also a profound sense of alienation that teenagers felt then, trying to speak with therapists about an experience that was most likely new to them, too: How can I explain this to an adult who has no idea what I’ve been through?
“I only wanted to talk to people who understood. I didn’t want to talk to people who didn’t see what I saw or understand how I felt,” Dare said. “I found it more therapeutic to be among my peers who had the same understanding as me.”
Heather Martin, who survived the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 by hiding in a teacher’s office with her classmates, felt the same way. “I didn’t want to be around people who hadn’t gone through it,” she said.
I wanted to reach out to the adult survivors of school shootings because I have something in common with them. When I was in sixth grade, a student from my school brought a gun to a dance. He killed one of our teachers and wounded three other people. It happened in 1998 — a few months after the shooting in West Paducah, and almost exactly a year before Columbine — at which point our town’s tragedy was swept away in the public consciousness by other, even deadlier acts of violence.
I did not witness the shooting firsthand, but I was standing right next to the dance hall where the shooter was, and had to run and take cover in a concession stand when the shooter came outside with the gun. I crammed in with other students, crouched down on the ground, until an adult came and told us we were safe. Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about what happened, and about other kids who had these experiences. Back then, the phenomenon seemed so new that we didn’t have the language to discuss it. Talking to adult survivors was a chance to learn about their experiences. It was also an opportunity to better understand my own.
Because of my distance from what happened, I’ve never thought of myself as a survivor; to me, it would feel insulting to the students more directly affected. Some of those I spoke with also didn’t recognize themselves as victims who might be in need of help. Each shooting created concentric circles of trauma. Often, the further out someone was, the less justified they felt seeking treatment.
Hollan Holm was in the same prayer circle as Jenkins Smith in West Paducah, and he was shot in the head, though his injuries weren’t life-threatening. In the days following the incident, he remembers thinking that he needed to get back to class sooner than the other students who were more seriously hurt. He was in school again just a few days after the shooting.
Holm and his friend Craig Keene dealt with their injuries in a typical teenage fashion: They made jokes. Of the five students injured who survived the shooting, they were among the least seriously hurt, and dark humor is how they processed it with each other, ranking themselves by the severity of their injuries and teasing each other about it. I spoke to Holm and Keene on the same afternoon in September, and Holm pulled out his 1998 yearbook to read what Keene wrote: “sup number #5 I got an exit [wound]. #4 (craig)”
Keene, though, was unusual among school shooting survivors of the era: He recognized that he was struggling, and sought help. “I had this huge bandage that covered half my neck; it was like a highlighter for ‘the kid who was shot.’ While I had that bandage on, things went really well,” Keene said. “After that came off, people kind of stopped asking and caring, and that’s when things got pretty rough for me mentally. I felt invisible.” He lost interest in sports and had difficulty sleeping — he couldn’t shake the sense that he was still in danger. He doesn’t remember much of the details about those early therapy sessions, but he is certain that they helped.
For Holm, it would be decades before he sought treatment. “I guess I wasn’t injured enough to justify going to a trauma counselor, which is just kind of insane and sad,” Holm said, reflecting on his attitude at the time. He remembers going to see his pastor once to discuss it. “It was really grossly inadequate. That’s what you get when you let a 14-year-old boy lead his own mental health response to a crisis.”
Jenkins Smith doesn’t remember there being much conversation about what happened outside of her group. She got a sense of why when she connected with classmates at her 20-year high school reunion. “They felt like for them to have a problem was ridiculous because there were people that were worse than them.” Jenkins Smith felt tremendous sympathy for them, and then she felt something unexpected. “I felt kind of lucky,” she said. “Because I was a victim, because I was injured, it did give me that ticket to heal.”
Each survivor was trying to make sense of an experience with mass tragedy with a brain that was still developing. They’d spend years processing and reprocessing the trauma as they got older. Experts still don’t have a complete picture of the different ways that brain development can affect the processing of trauma. “As a field, we’re still figuring it out,” said Laura Wilson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington and editor of The Wiley Handbook of the Psychology of Mass Shootings.
Still, the field of psychology has come a long way in understanding how children and teenagers might experience post-traumatic stress. “Young people are in a lot of ways more resilient,” Wilson said, but they also have less life experience to help them make sense of violence, making them more susceptible to destabilizing shifts in their worldview. It might be harder for young people to feel safe again after experiencing a mass shooting.
Mass shooting trauma can be different from the kind of trauma experienced after natural disasters, because the traumatic event was caused by another person. “You have more individuals that may develop something like PTSD, depression, or anxiety following a man-made disaster,” said Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center and a member of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Age also affects how the symptoms of post-traumatic stress might manifest. Younger children might experience sleep disturbances, difficulty focusing, and other troubles at school, while adolescent and young adults may also withdraw from their regular activities and relationships, and engage in more risk-seeking behaviors. Untreated symptoms, Gurwitch said, can lead to a greater risk of addiction and the development of other mental and physical health issues later in life.
Martin was a senior at the time of the Columbine shooting; she and her classmates finished their last few weeks at a nearby school. She eventually went off to college, and didn’t tell people there that she was a survivor of what was then the deadliest school shooting in American history. Still, she couldn’t escape it. Once, during class, a fire alarm went off, and she started crying. Another time, a teacher asked her to write a persuasive essay on gun violence, and when she tried to explain why that might be difficult, the teacher told her she needed to write it or fail the class. She failed, and later dropped out.
“I stopped going to classes, and I started using recreational drugs,” Martin said. “I knew I wasn’t okay on a surface level, but I refused to believe it was because of Columbine.” She went to a few sessions of therapy, and tried to move on with her life. Yet the trauma kept resurfacing. She was triggered by the 9/11 terror attacks and, years later, by the mass shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 32 people. “I was horrified, I cried, I freaked out,” she said. “I felt jealous that nobody would remember Columbine.”
Later, Martin went back to college, graduated, and became a teacher. As an adult, she co-founded a group to help support other survivors of mass shootings. Looking back at it now, she thinks, “I was so desperate for people to know my story and know I wasn’t shot, but I’m struggling. It’s a horrible thing to admit and even recognize in yourself.”
Zach Cartaya, a classmate of Martin’s who hid with her that day, experienced a similar trajectory. “I suppressed it through my college years with drugs and alcohol,” he said. After graduating from college, he started a career in financial services, and he, too, found the aftershocks of the shooting creeping up in unexpected ways. His job required regular meetings in conference rooms. At first, they were fine. Yet over time, he said, “those meetings got harder and harder for me. I hated being in them. My skin started to crawl.”
One day, during a meeting, Cartaya realized he couldn’t breathe. “I got up, jumped the table, ran out the door, got in my bed, and didn’t talk to anyone for three days,” he said. He met with his doctor, who ran a battery of tests to make sure there wasn’t some underlying medical cause. When there wasn’t, the doctor sent him to therapy. Cartaya tried different treatments, including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), a form of therapy that has been proven effective for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I’ve come a long way, and managed to keep a lid on it,” he said, but not until after “things got pretty dark and scary.”
The discovery that everything was not okay, that they were still struggling with what happened, came from events large and small. The survivors of the West Paducah shooting felt it when a school 30 miles away in Marshall County, Kentucky, had a shooting in 2018. Those moments of revelation could be more subtle, too. Leam didn’t receive a PTSD diagnosis until four years ago, when a doctor he was seeing for severe back pain suggested he try seeing a therapist.
Another survivor, William Tipper Thomas, who was paralyzed in a school shooting just outside Baltimore, Maryland, in 2004, said a recent small moment — snapping at his sister during a FaceTime call — helped him realize he was still dealing with trauma-related stress. His sister found it so unusual that she drove from her home in Virginia to his place in Baltimore to confront him about it, leading to him seeking treatment. Thomas had never seen a therapist. When the shooting happened, he was an honors student weeks away from graduating and fulfilling his dream of playing college football. Suddenly, he had to orient himself to using a wheelchair. The argument with his sister, he realized, came just after doing a photo shoot on the field of his college alma mater, where he was supposed to have played.
The timing ended up being significant. In May 2021, Thomas realized he’d crossed an important threshold. He was 17 when he was shot, and he’s 35 now. “I’ve spent more time in the wheelchair than I have walking,” he said. He feels that he’s had a certain level of healing, psychologically and emotionally. Being in a wheelchair, though, makes it hard to forget. “I think about it often because I’m constantly reminded of it,” he said. “It’s hard to heal from things that you’re consistently and constantly reminded of.”
Long after Jenkins Smith was released from the hospital, and after her informal therapy group disbanded, reporters continued to reach out to her, eager to track her story of recovery. At times the interest could be overwhelming, but she also found some value in it: Here were adults who were genuinely interested in her experiences and thoughts, providing an open forum for her to discuss what happened. “I started using reporters as counselors,” she said. “It was therapeutic to me, and I really didn’t have that realization that that’s what I was doing with it until later on in life.”
Though I couldn’t exactly relate to her experience, I instinctively understood it. I’ve never found it necessary to seek treatment for what happened on the day of my school’s shooting, but it looms large in my memories. It was my first and most powerful experience with collective trauma. What has helped me process my feelings as an adult has been writing about it, again and again and again. But perhaps nothing was as helpful as talking with these adult survivors.
There was so much overlap in our experiences. To know that others felt like they weren’t impacted directly enough to need help — even some students who had been shot — was both surprising and reassuring. We were all looking back at the ways we tried, as kids, to comprehend the incomprehensible. We were all considering what life was like back then, what’s different now, and what’s stayed the same.
The survivors I spoke with come from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. They grew up in suburbs, rural areas, and cities. Their experiences with guns were mixed. Some, like me, grew up in homes and communities where lots of people owned guns, regardless of their politics. Others had never touched one before. Many, but not all, grew up to favor stricter gun control; a handful of them owned guns themselves. (Leam owns an assault rifle, the kind of weapon he was shot with, but he said he wouldn’t mind if the government banned them.) Dare decided that she doesn’t want guns in her house; Jenkins Smith, despite her initial discomfort, has allowed them because hunting is a part of the culture where she lives, and she wants her children to experience it.
They also had different feelings about how we should discuss the perpetrators of the shootings. Martin asked me not to name the shooters in my article; the media coverage of Columbine focused intensely on the psychology of the shooters, which inspired copycats. Fannie Black, who survived a shooting in 1997 when she was a teen at Bethel High School in Alaska, felt differently. It’s always bothered her that no one ever talked about her school’s shooter when discussing what happened. “No one ever talked about bullying,” she said. She knew the shooter, watched him get bullied, watched him unsuccessfully try to seek help. “This could have been prevented,” she said.
As a teen, Jenkins Smith forgave the boy who shot her. He then proceeded to mail and call her from prison, until her dad called the authorities and told them to make it stop. As an adult, she went to meet with him in prison. She wanted to see what he remembered, and if he was remorseful, though she was almost nine months pregnant at the time and wasn’t sure it was a great idea. He couldn’t remember much, she said, but he did apologize for what he’d done. “I felt like I got what I needed,” she said. “There was no reason for me to talk with him again.”
Many adult survivors have entered the life phase where they are having children. Some have decided not to. “Around the time that it would have made sense for me to have kids,” Cartaya said, “I was realizing I didn’t want to bring children into a world where this stuff was still happening.” Others, though, are now raising kids, some with fellow survivors, in the towns where they grew up. Dare and her husband both attended Santana High School, but they weren’t a couple at the time of the shooting. They didn’t talk much about what happened until it was time for their son to enter high school, and Dare’s husband told her he didn’t want his son to attend their high school, because it would mean too many trips back to a place that was still difficult to visit. “I had no idea it bothered him,” she said. “We had never talked about our experiences of that day.”
Nichole Burcal and her husband are high school sweethearts; they were both in the cafeteria of Thurston High School when their classmate opened fire. Even though they were together, they too had different experiences: Burcal was shot; her husband wasn’t. As one of the injured, she says she received offers of free counseling and scholarships. But he didn’t, she said, “even though we were [both] in the middle of it.” Later, their oldest son attended Thurston High. When it came time to sign him up for cross-country in the school’s cafeteria, she found that she couldn’t do it. “I still can’t go in the cafeteria,” she said, “even 20 years later.”
The impacts of trauma can last a lifetime, but psychologists are much better equipped to deal with young trauma survivors today than they were 20 years ago. “The field of child trauma has grown exponentially over the years, and that’s a good thing because we know more treatments are readily available now for children,” Gurwitch said. Cognitive processing therapy, in which a patient learns to reframe unhelpful thoughts about a traumatic event, and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy have been shown to help children and adolescents recover from traumatic experiences. Parent-child interaction therapy has also proven helpful for young children.
Something else has changed, too: The adult survivors with school-age children have had to process the reality of their children going through active shooter drills. (Research suggests that the drills increase stress and anxiety in students, with little evidence that they’re effective.)
Holm remembered the day his daughter came home from kindergarten and told him and his wife about a drill where they had to turn off the lights and be quiet so the bad guys couldn’t find them. It was the kind of moment, he said, in which “you step outside of yourself and you take a look at your entire life leading up to that moment. It reprioritizes everything. ... This thing that happened to me is now affecting my daughter.”
The following year, when students in Marshall County had a shooting at their school, Holm and other West Paducah survivors met with the students affected, to offer them help. He also wrote an op-ed for his local paper, and started speaking out at rallies for greater gun control. “I was silent for 20 years, and it never went away,” he said, “and these kids kept getting injured and it’s frustrating.” Doing nothing was no longer an option.
Holm wasn’t the only one who took action. After the Aurora, Colorado, shooting in 2012, Martin and another classmate decided to start a group, the Rebels Project, named after the Columbine school mascot, to lend support to and connect with other mass shooting survivors. “When we started, all we knew is that we wanted to help in ways we didn’t have access to in 1999,” Martin said. Since then, the group has met with victims to offer their help and hosts an annual meetup for survivors.
Keene focuses on helping another way. He is a social worker who does therapy with kids, including in his old school district. “Hollan is so outspoken and eloquent, he speaks at rallies, and he’s so good at that,” Keene said of his old high school friend. “The way I deal with it is I pour it into these individuals who are sitting across from me at work.”
There’s been one undeniable difference in the media landscape since the first generation of survivors grew up — young people are more able to make their voices heard about the issue. When Parkland, Florida, students seized on media attention after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to call for greater gun control, “I was extremely proud of them,” said Thomas, who now works as an engineer and started his own foundation aimed at violence prevention for young people in Baltimore.
A few years ago, Leam took his oldest son with him to an event commemorating the 29th anniversary of the Cleveland Elementary shooting. Getting diagnosed and treated for PTSD has helped Leam cope with the loud noises that used to trigger him, and with the pain of seeing his trauma repeated in countless other schools. Before treatment, “I could be driving and break down in tears, just thinking about what these kids are going through over and over again,” he said.
Still, he hasn’t talked to many of his fellow Cleveland survivors about what happened — even at the anniversary event. “I wish we did more back then to talk about it, and the repercussions from it,” Leam said. “Because I think it could have changed my life.”
Marin Cogan is a senior correspondent at Vox.
Will Staehle is an award-winning designer based in Seattle. He was named one of Print magazine’s New Visual Artists and an ADC Young Gun. He has had a solo exhibit at the Type Directors Club.