WFDD's Radio 101 has chosen to use only the first name of the student in the following story due to the sensitive subject matter and to protect the student's privacy.
For Ben, and every other student at Mount Tabor High School, September 1 started like any other school day.
“I was at the career center first. So I had a couple of those tests out of the way. And then I went to Tabor, and I was just going to eat lunch like a normal day,” said Ben.
But just after noon, things quickly took a turn. What started as a fight quickly escalated and a student pulled out a gun and shot William Miller Jr.
“Everybody was getting up, and kind of going to go move towards it to watch it,” said Ben. “The administrator screamed that he had a gun. And so that's when everyone started running. And then I was like, 'oh,' and so then I was like, it took me a while to process it. But as soon as I knew what was going on, I instantly ran with them.”
This was the second time in a month that a gun had been fired at a school in North Carolina since the beginning of the school year. But this time, the gunshot was fatal.
Ben and his classmates were escorted out of the school by a S.W.A.T. team. They were reunited with their parents after what was probably one of the most traumatic days of their lives. A week later, they went back to school. And this is where this story really begins.
“We know that after a mass casualty event, whether it's one person or many, there are basically five elements that are impacted, but also, you can leverage for long-term recovery,” said Dr. Douglas Walker, chief program director at Mercy Family Center in St. Louis. “The first is the sense of safety. Without a safe environment, which we consider schools still to be, individuals cannot learn.”
The second element mentioned by Dr. Walker is a sense of calmness. This basically means being able to put your mind at ease. In other words, to turn off or dial down your flight-or-fight response. After a traumatic event like this, the brain becomes really sensitive to sounds or sights that can trigger memories of the event.
The third element is connectedness. “And that can be difficult in terms of shooting events because there are a lot of sides that can immediately be taken,” said Dr. Walker. “There are stories that would never, probably ever be told. The backstories of a lot of individuals who are involved. So coming together as a community may not be as easy as people believe.”
Self-efficacy is the fourth element that Dr. Walker explained. The American Psychological Association defines self-efficacy as our ability to behave in ways that would bring about a specific outcome. In other words, it's this idea that if you are going to school to learn, you should not have to worry about being caught in a crossfire, because the only outcome of that behavior should be learning.
“And finally, the fifth element that we always look for, comes in various ways, is this idea of hope,” said Dr. Walker. "That we can become bigger than ourselves, and that we can attach ourselves to good in this world and move forward.”
Moving forward after an event like this can be tough. But according to many experts, the first step in that direction is to acknowledge the feelings that you might be having. Acknowledge that something happened. This can come in the form of a ritual or a ceremony, or even just a group meeting.
“So, oftentimes the conversation is around when do we end remembering or recovering, begin getting back to our normal or new normal in learning again,” said Dr. Walker. “That is probably the most difficult question or conversation that I have with the school administration. Because that grieving process is going to be different for everyone. When do you begin asking students to do homework, to do tests? When do we move forward, but also look back and remember, you know what's happened.”
Ben has not forgotten what happened. He probably never will. But he's trying to make something out of the pain. “A lot of people at Tabor are a lot closer now,” said Ben. “Because there's people in my classes that I have literally never talked to, but they checked up on me and I checked up on them also. And it's just like, everybody around me has reached out to me and made sure I was okay. It is just, it feels amazing that people care that much about you.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that the suspect in the Mount Tabor shooting was apprehended a couple of days after the incident. He was actually apprehended on the same day.