‘I Couldn’t Stop Crying’: Georgia Parents, Teachers Cope with Texas School Shooting

Jun 02, 2022
Key Points
  • Georgia since 2014 has been struck by 137 mass shootings involving at least four victims that have left 530 people injured and 149 dead.
  • Many parents are angry over how easy it is to buy semi-automatic rifles like the Georgia-made weapon used in last week’s Texas attack.
  • Others say it’s time to make sure every Georgia community has rapid access to mental-health services on a regular basis.

State Rep. Rebecca Mitchell, a Georgia mother of four, remembers the breakfast table on the day after 19 students and two teachers were murdered at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

She was about to send her 8-year-old son to his last day of first grade at his Gwinnett County school last Wednesday, just as photos of the young victims in Texas began blanketing news programs and social media. They all looked like her son.

I couldn't stop crying," said Mitchell, an infectious-disease scientist and outgoing Democratic representative from Snellville. "I had to leave the table because I couldn't tell him on his last day of school what had happened — and then just go drop him off."

Students in Atlanta protest gun violence after the Parkland shooting in 2018. (Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC via AP)

In Georgia, thousands of families — not unlike those across the country — are enduring yet another mass shooting in the U.S. Many are angry over how easy it is to buy semi-automatic rifles like the Georgia-made weapon used in last week’s Texas attack. Others say it’s time to make sure every Georgia community has rapid access to school counselors, therapists and mental-health treatment facilities on a regular basis and during times of crisis.

And some like April Marshall, a mother of two and longtime math teacher at Rabun County High School in North Georgia, sense a troubling shrug of resignation among students after reports of mass shootings after shootings over the years — from Sandy Hook in 2012 to Parkland in 2018; the Atlanta spa shootings in 2021; the Buffalo, N.Y. grocery store shootings two weeks ago; a shooting at a medical building in Tulsa, Okla. on Wednesday; and Uvalde last week.

Georgia has seen 137 mass shootings since 2014. This box shows how many people were killed and injured. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

On the day after the Texas school massacre, hardly any of Marshall’s students were talking about it, she said. And her 9-year-old son only had one question: Was this another one?

“Here’s my 9-year-old asking if there’s another school shooting like it’s an everyday occurrence almost,” Marshall said. “Then he just kind of went about his playing. I don’t think the anxiety is there as much as it used to be, and that’s sad.”

Some parents trace the disconnect to the fact that last week’s shooting happened in a small South Texas town nearly 1,000 miles away from the Georgia state line. The idea is mass school shootings like that just don’t happen in Georgia.

But that’s not true.

‘It Could Happen Anywhere’

In 1999, a sophomore at Heritage High School in Rockdale County opened fire with a rifle in the school’s indoor common area as students were arriving for class, wounding six high schoolers — all of whom survived. The Georgia shooting happened exactly one month after two students in Colorado shot dead 12 schoolmates and a teacher at Columbine High School. 

More than two decades later, Alisha Sanders, whose 13-year-old daughter is set to enroll as a freshman at Heritage High School in the fall,  said she’s hardly ever heard anyone in the Rockdale County school system talk about the shooting at Heritage 23 years ago – until last week’s shooting in Texas.

Students form Heritage High School comfort each other outside Rockdale Hospital after a shooting at the school which injured six students in Conyers on May 20, 1999. (Credit: Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images)

With talk about the Heritage shooting resurfacing, Sanders decided to tell her daughter and some of her daughter’s friends about it on their way back from vacation in Florida on Tuesday. She could see “a little bit of fear in their eyes” as Sanders relayed the history of their future school over the background noise of the car’s radio, broadcasting reports about the alleged failure of police to confront the Uvalde gunman.

“I said, ‘This happened at Heritage, it could happen anywhere,’ ” said Sanders, a regional property manager and president of the Rockdale Parent Teacher Association Council. Then the questions came.

“The main thing they asked was, ‘What do we do? How do we protect ourselves?’ ” Sanders said. “That’s a question I can’t answer for them. I don’t think anybody can answer that question.”

Gun Control or Mental Health

Since 2014, Georgia has been struck by 137 mass shootings involving at least four victims that have left 530 people injured and 149 dead, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. Atlanta drew national attention in March 2021 when a gunman targeted several spas and killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent.

Many parents blame school and other mass shootings on what they consider loose gun laws. State law allows Georgians with clean criminal records to possess a handgun or rifle starting at age 18 and buy them once they turn 21. Georgia is also home to the Savannah-based weapons maker Daniel Defense that produced the AR-15 rifles used in Uvalde.

In April, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill into law allowing Georgia gun owners to carry concealed weapons in public without a permit. Roughly half of Georgia’s households own a firearm, according to a 2020 study from the Rand Corporation.

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks with an employee at Gable Sporting Goods in Douglasville before signing the permitless concealed weapons bill on April 13, 2022. (Credit: Office of Gov. Brian Kemp)

Kemp’s permitless, concealed carry law was a bridge too far for Tareion Fluker, an Atlanta resident who wonders if her 9-year-old cousin is safe enough at his local elementary school amid such easy access to guns in Georgia.

“It makes for a horrible situation that’s primed to happen in Georgia,” Fluker said. “Those are the conversations we’re all having about that bill.”

For many in Georgia, guns aren’t the problem. Several top officials from Kemp to Republican members of Congress to state legislative leaders have stressed the need for expanding access to local mental-health services, rather than limiting gun sales.

State Sen. Brian Strickland, a father of two toddler sons and a Republican representing McDonough, called for lawmakers to build on new mental-health laws passed this year by increasing the number of mental-health providers and treatment centers across the state.

“I don’t believe you solve issues like this with new laws,” Strickland said. “These guns exist [and] the bad guys are going to continue to get guns. We have to make sure people like [the Texas shooter] are taken care of at an early age before something like this develops.”

‘Subtle Signs of Distress’

Meanwhile, summer break kicked off this week for Georgia’s roughly 2 million school students, complicating local school counselors’ efforts to help children cope with what happened in Texas.

Erin Bundrige, the school counselor at Woodland Middle School in Henry County, said the final days of school saw few students show up at her office to talk about the Texas shooting. Mostly, it was fellow teachers who came to share fears about their own kids’ safety.

Now, school counselors and teachers need to focus on helping students identify when a friend has dark thoughts or posts a frightening message on social media, and what they need to do to get that friend some help from adults, said Bundrige, who has a 5-year-old daughter set for kindergarten in the fall.

Click the photo above to read State Affairs' story about what's next for mental-health services in Georgia after a key bill's passage earlier this year. (Credit: Jeff Breedlove)

How to provide children in summer months with counseling services they normally have at school is a longstanding challenge in Georgia, said Erica Fener-Sitkoff, executive director of the nonprofit Voices for Georgia’s Children and the mother of an 8-year-old son.

Fener-Sitkoff urged parents to watch for “subtle signs of distress” in their kids, be proactive in talking about what they’re going through, and avoid letting them feel as if school shootings have become a fact of life.

“Even if this becomes a so-called ‘new normal,’ [children] certainly feel it and it changes what they go through every day,” said Fener-Sitkoff, the nonprofit’s director. “For us as caregivers … we need to remind them that we are doing everything we can to continue to keep them safe.”

Still, for some current and former Georgia residents, the trauma of gun violence has already taken root.

Dominic Smith, now a Los Angeles resident, was an elementary student at DeKalb Alternative School when a high schooler shot and killed a teacher there in 1996. He remembers terrifying moments of running down a hall away from the gunfire and being pulled to safety by another teacher.

Since last week, the fear and stress of his childhood brush with a school shooting have come rushing back,” he said. “The situation that happened in Texas brought back a whiplash. “It’s very, very emotional,” Smith added, before reflecting on the victims in Uvalde. “I looked at it as if I was them.”

Resources for Parents and Teachers

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