They were children.
Innocent and enjoying the trappings of youth as fourth-graders at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, with full lives ahead of them. Until an 18-year-old high school dropout took their lives in the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history since a gunman killed 20 students and six teachers on Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
“I was riding down the highway when the news popped up on my phone as breaking news from WRAL and CNN,” says Marvin Connelly Jr., superintendent of Cumberland County Schools. “My heart ached, and my spirit was saddened to hear of this tragedy. I remain speechless that we must face this again in our country. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families and the entire school community in Texas.”
Tuesday was a dark day for the small town known for its magnificent oak trees and honey bees. And now known as the town about 80 miles west of San Antonio, east of the U.S-Mexican border, and where 19 students and two teachers died at the hands of a teenager with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle and mass murder on his mind. Seventeen others, according to news reports, were injured. The gunman, according to published reports, was killed by law enforcement agents.
The shootings resonate with every school superintendent, teacher, student and community from coast to coast and beyond.
‘My heart sank’
“I got home from work and saw a post pop up on my phone,” says Greg West, chairman of the Cumberland County Board of Education. “My heart sank thinking those babies and adults won’t go home tonight. That’s our greatest responsibility as a school system, to do our best to make sure everyone stays safe and goes home each night. Our prayers go out to the Uvalde community.”
Carrie Sutton, a board member who represents the Terry Sanford and Westover school districts, was beside herself.
“I had just turned on the TV (CNN) and heard the breaking news,” she says. “I immediately began to pray for the situation, asking God to have mercy and to be with the families of the children as well as the adults killed. My heart hurts.”
Donna Vann is a school board member who represents the Douglas Byrd and Seventy-First school districts.
“I was actually on my way home from the Gray's Creek's FFA banquet at Paradise Acres talking on the phone to Dr. Connelly,” she says. “He's the one who told me about it. I think I said something like, ‘Oh no.’ We were talking about the school being small like some of ours and that he killed about 10% of the children. Can you imagine the effect on that community? The more we talked the more I felt like crying. It is so tragic. I just could not imagine.”
Susan Williams represents the Pine Forest and Cape Fear school districts on the board. She struggled to believe what she was seeing on the news
“I was here at the house when I heard about the shootings and couldn't believe it was true,” she says. “It just does not make sense. I've always felt that our schools are a safe haven for those children who might be experiencing issues at home and need a place to be safe and secure.
“This act negates that. I cannot imagine the devastation the parents and that school community are going through.
“I went to bed with a heavy heart and my mind swirling about so many things,” Williams says. “How can we stop this senseless violence? What do we have to do to protect our children? My heart is just broken for that school community. We have to do better.”
‘This must stop’
Judy Musgrave is an at-large board member for county schools and agrees with Williams that something must be done to end these school shootings, which include Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where on Valentine’s Day of 2018, 14 students and three staff members lost their lives to a 19-year-old former student at the school. Nor let us forget Columbine High School in Colorado, where on April 20, 1999, two students killed 12 students and a teacher.
“I was at home when I heard about this senseless, cold-blooded and horrendous shooting in Robb Elementary School in Texas,” Musgrave says. “I felt very helpless, sad and with a devasting feeling for so many parents.
“The toll on these parents will last forever.
“Personally, I reflected back on the time when my now-adult daughter was in elementary school and how truly devasting it would have been for us to have something like this happen,” Musgrave says. “Together, mental health officials, law-making politicians, gun control officials, police officials, voters and the nation, in general, must come together and ask ourselves, ‘Who are we?’ then say, ‘This must stop.’”
The deaths of those 19 students and two teachers Tuesday are not lost on our school system leaders or the superintendent.
“Cumberland County Schools counselors are available to talk with any student who needs support dealing with this tragedy,” Connelly says. “Realizing that the traditional calendar schools have already released students for the school year, we will also be sharing information soon on our website and via other electronic means for parents to utilize when talking to their children about this sad day in our country. This is indeed not only a time for action, but truly a time for prayer. Our country needs healing in many ways and from many things.”
Connelly also said additional law officers have been assigned to four year-round schools – E.E. Miller Elementary, Anne Chesnutt Middle School and Reid Ross Classical middle and high schools – that remain in session through June 3.
I was at Alma Easom Elementary School talking with a retiring teacher Tuesday as she cleared out her classroom for her final year. You could see the joy in her face and hear the jubilation of her words as she spoke of her “little angels” over her more than 40 classroom years. Across the way, I peered into my old first-grade classroom back in 1954-55, where Margaret Gehrke was our teacher and treated us like children of her own.
It brought back fond memories of those days of innocence when no one ever thought of a school shooting. When Marie, the crossing guard, met us at the end of Sutton Street and got us safely across Morganton Road, and me to my childhood home along nearby Ruth Street.
Those 19 students in Uvalde, Texas, will be mourned, remembered and buried in the days to come. They will not be coming home for a summer break with fathers and mothers, grandparents, siblings and neighborhood playmates.
They were children.
Innocent victims of a tragic day of bloodshed and carnage in another U.S. school.
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-624-1961.