There was a shooting at my school, who will care?
Wednesday 12/8/2021 at 8 PM someone flashed a gun during a basketball game at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School. I was there, along with other staff, and a gym packed full of students excited to watch their classmates play. Ten minutes later shots rang out from the outside playground as people ran either off campus or tried to find a way back into the school to protect themselves. By the end of the night two high school girls will be in the hospital. As I type this sentence I am shaking because I know logically that I am fine, and all my students are fine but no one is okay and there is nothing we can do to make each other okay.
But I am also furious. I write this because I need people to care. I need a level of care and action that reflects the trauma that I, staff, students, and families experienced Wednesday. Our community cares,and is grieving deeply, but does anyone else care? I sit here in rage because the care that we need has yet to come from Oxford high school, from Sandy Hook, from Santa Fe, from Parkland Florida and the many other school shootings as well as countless acts of gun violence in communities across the country that have led to no significant change. As I write this the most the news has cared to write about a predominantly Black school having a dangerous shooting on its campus is a quick write-up on the local news sites. Nothing statewide, nothing nationally. If lawmakers won’t change when white suburban schools face gun violence, what hope does our school have? All I can do is try though, my students and my colleagues deserve that at least.
Below is what I experienced on Wednesday. I write this in hopes that people who have not experienced this sort of trauma see the effect that guns, as well as a lack of resources in schools, mental health, and minority communities, have done to kids who deserve a carefree childhood.
4:00 PM. School is over but seniors are staying in the media center together. We are hosting a party where the seniors prepare signs, practice their cheers, eat pizza and hang out. The game is against our rival, Hogan Prep which gives the game an edge of excitement for the students. It is the best type of high school experience, preparing for the rivalry game with your friends. Basketball players continue to enter the media center to take in the excitement. This will be the biggest crowd they have had, even before COVID. This is only our school’s fourth graduating class and their goal this year has been school spirit and being together. We have gone to the park, watched the sun rise together, and now as a senior class they were going to go to a basketball game together to cheer on their classmates who were playing their last season at Kauffman.
The buzz is already starting though. Students joke about the “mess” that could happen. There is a nervous energy that I now realize is our students always aware of the possibility that violence could occur when the outside enters our building. This is Kauffman though, we don’t have that sort of stuff happen here. The gun violence that has been plaguing our students’ lives stays off campus.
6:00 PM. We walk down as a group to the gym. The girls team will play first and the seniors want to support them as well. As we enter the gym it already has more people in it than I have ever seen at a Kauffman sports event, with more people still showing up. When the girls team takes the court the students roar and the girls are so excited they can barely make layups as they warm up. The energy is electric and nerve racking at the same time. Every staff member was having the same conversation. We were excited, but really we just wanted to get through the night without trouble.
7:30 PM. The girls game ends in a win and the crowd is ecstatic. More people are still showing up though, and the cracks are already showing. A Kauffman and Hogan student bump into each other and a fight almost starts there. Alumni are showing up and excited to be back and see their old classmates and cheer on the team. I couldn’t sit and instead pace the sideline in front of our student section, worried as the crowd grows in size. Our students step up though. We have Kauffman students pointing out if there was a charged comment made and tell us what to look out for. They want so badly for our boys to play in front of the crowd they deserve. This night isn’t about school rivalry or outside conflicts, it’s about our players and especially our seniors having a night to remember.
7:55 PM. The game starts and it is so loud. Our boys play with immense heart, throwing their bodies around the court and within three minutes of game time they are up 7–5. A teacher next to me points across the gym.
“I think there is a fight starting.”
I see it, two girls in the Hogan part of the stands yelling at each other. A kid in a white shirt and red cap stands up and purposefully walks down the sideline. He drops off a bag with another person.
In my mind I wonder if I should run across the gym. No, there’s a game on. Start moving around the court? Kauffman students’ voices start to rise as they see the kid run back towards the fighting girls.
Now I know that my students knew the kid in the white shirt and red cap. They knew he often carries a weapon, and that one of the girls fighting is his sister. They also know he protects his sister with that gun. Why? Why does he feel the need to carry a weapon that could end a life so quickly? I now, sitting here writing this, can recognize that this is one of my center points of rage. It should never make sense for a kid to believe they need a gun for protection, that the way to actually solve a problem is by showing the weapon. It shouldn’t make sense that showing a gun to protect your sister in a gym full of innocent people is the right course of action. It is easy for me, a white man from Columbia Missouri, to think that and say it makes no sense. Yet, the lived experiences of that person has made them believe that it is the right course of action. And he took it.
A staff member yells for the police at the game and tries to stand in front of him.
He raises his shirt.
Everyone runs. It is like when a flock of birds changes direction together instantly without warning. The entire crowd of the gym knew from lived experience that when a fight is happening, and someone raises their shirt, you run. You run for your life. I am stunned watching the waves of people burst outside and into the cafeteria and back towards the high school itself. In my innocent mind I think they are running to see a fight outside. I turn to a student and tell them to stop running and they look at me with complete disbelief.
“No Mr. Vizitei, it’s a gun, he has a gun, run!”
I run. I run to the atrium of our school and stand there with other students and adults. No one knows what to do. People are shouting that they should run off campus. Others are saying they should stay here. It is chaotic and numbing. I see that most students in the area are fine and there are teachers there. My body auto corrects to teacher mode. Find students and get them here where it seems safe. I turn back and run back to the gym. People are standing there, stunned over what to do. I run into the cafeteria to find a confusing mess of people. Kids are trying to fight, kids are stopping each other from fighting. Kids yell for their siblings, parents yell for their kids. I see a kid I recognize being restrained by other students. I run up to try to talk him down but his friends scream at me.
“You’re not helping! You don’t know what is happening!”
And they are right. I have no idea what to do. It is at that moment I realize I have no control, no authority. I see cops at the door to the cafeteria, yelling at people to get outside and stay outside..It was confusing, I remember being told to stay in the school. Should we go outside?
I think there is fighting outside, but I decide to head back to the atrium. At least I know most of the kids there, maybe I can help. As I enter the atrium a student screams for her brother, where is her brother? Is he outside? She told him not to do this. She runs outside. I tell two teachers to follow her, she needs to be in here. Another kid is being held down by two others. He wants to find his brother, his brother has to be outside. The others cry and beg him not to go, it’s dangerous outside, don’t go please don’t go. Kids are asking me what to do and I tell them just to stay here. I see two students run towards the gym. Should I stop them? Can I even stop them? Kids are crying, kids are calling their friends and siblings begging them to answer. adults are trying to tell students to not leave, the police will get things under control.
Is that gun shots? It can’t be. I know a gun was shown, but would someone shoot outside where everyone was? The teachers I sent outside run back in and scream. There is shooting, get upstairs, get in a classroom and hide. Kids run, I yell, I can’t believe it. I sent teachers outside to get shot, what type of person am I? Kids run upstairs. Adults try to stay with groups. Is this really happening? Here? Really?
A student moves towards the gym. Her sister is in the cafeteria. I tell her no. No she can’t protect her sister, not she can’t go into danger. We see a group of students banging at the front door, screaming to be let in. At that moment I have to actually think “are these kids dangerous? I don’t know these kids, they might be dangerous”
As I type this, I am enraged. I had to stand there and ask myself if the kids outside were dangerous because I don’t know them. They aren’t “my kids” so they might have a gun. That’s the society our leaders have created for us. I have to decide rather to let students in from danger, or keep them outside because they might be the danger. The innocence of a child must be sacrificed for guns, guns that kids might have to protect themselves. I hate myself for having to pause and consider the safety of my students over the safety of the kids outside, I know it would have been dangerous if I hadn’t considered it.
“We have to let them in.” says the student with me and that’s what we do.
“There is a person with a gun on the field” they say and I tell them to go upstairs. I run back to the cafeteria to look for my student’s sister. She’s in the bathroom, an adult stands against the door to protect them. I leave them, there are police in the cafeteria, it has to be safe right?
I head back to the atrium and go to the second floor. My students, who just thirty minutes ago were the most excited I have ever seen them cheer their classmates on, now sit on the yellow stairs that dominate the middle of our space up to the third floor. Some are crying, some are laughing, most sit blank-faced.
Then they comfort me. They ask if I am okay, I look sad, am I hurt? I stand there stunned and realize they know. This is my first traumatic experience like this, that what they have experienced in their community has come here and now I know what it is like. They comfort me, and check on me and I am furious. This is the reality, an innocent white teacher comforted by his Black students who face a much different lived experience.
I turn and see a high school student talking to a middle school student.
“You saw that gun and ran didn’t you?”
“Nuh uh! I just stood there”
“Nah you ran so fast, I bet you were crying.”
“NO! I only left because I was stuck in the crowd. I ain’t scared of a gun”
I wanted to scream hearing that. I wanted to scream at them for mocking a kid who was just as scared as me. I wanted to scream at our country for forcing young Black children to toughen up and be strong in the face of gun violence, and feel the need to toughen up younger kids for an experience that will happen again.
Instead, I went numb, and walked over to a few seniors and just listened.
“There were a lot of bags at the game. You see all those bags? That’s trouble.”
“We told y’all this was gonna happen”
“Why did y’all think what happens out there won’t happen here?”
“Other schools use metal detectors and bag checks for games, why don’t we?”
I had no answer for them. I now realize I truly believed it wouldn’t happen at Kauffman, that we had somehow built a magic barrier that blocked out the gun violence that exists in our community. We wanted one place where kids did not have to worry about it, and could just be kids. Wednesday night ruined that feeling.
The police soon declared it safe enough for parents to pick up their kids. It is at that point we braced to hear the worse. I don’t know what I would have done if I heard of one of my students being hurt that night. I don’t even want to think about it, but for a time as we got kids to parents and walked kids to their cars, it was the last thing I was waiting for to make the night as terrible as possible.
We learn that two girls were shot. Rumors say one dies, but the next day we learn that isn’t the case. We are relieved to hear it wasn’t a Kauffman student, then feel awful for thinking in those terms. We walk kids out to police surrounding the school and a helicopter flying overhead. I can’t believe it. I hug kids, tell them to be safe. I tell them I love them. I tell them I’m sorry.
Finally, during the car ride home I sob. I realize how close people came to dying. How helpless I felt. How much indirect rage and guilt I held. I got home, saw my wife, and cried again. I barely slept and woke up to texts from kids asking if I was okay. I wasn’t, no one was. I told them I was because they are kids, they shouldn’t worry about me.
We canceled school Thursday and Friday. On Friday Kauffman teachers came together to process and I sat in a room with every teacher who was at the game and heard their own personal experiences and cried again. We aren’t ever going to forget what happened, and on Monday we will bring kids back to try to rebuild the safety and security of our school together as a community.
But the anger still sits with me, and will sit for a long time because I hate feeling helpless. I hate that no one outside of my community cares what happened on Wednesday. I hate this will happen again in schools across the country with only the ones with high kill counts and white faces making national news. I hate that for my students it is normal to fear a stray bullet ending their life. I hate that my students continually face the trauma of loved ones gone too soon and feel the eyes of a country that blames them for that trauma. I hate that our education system, the one true federally funded system that can provide kids with safety, learning, community, and healing is underfunded, under attack, and facing a monumental teaching shortage because we have refused to offer teachers the wage, schools the funding, and communities the resources to be successful. I want to fight, but right now I don’t know how.
So for now, here’s my story. On Monday I will welcome my students back with open arms, love, and tears. I will tell them we will be okay, and try my best to make it so. But the anger still sits in my, and I can only hope it sits within others as well. No one should have to go through this experience to decide it should never happen again.
It has to stop. I fear it won’t. I’ll be angry until enough people care.