They survived a school shooting; 30 years later, they relive trauma

Each time a new mass school shooting is reported, survivors of the Oakland Elementary School shooting close their eyes and are transported back in time, hiding in a closet, scrambling out of a window — they’re small again, and afraid.

Lashonda Burt-Reeder looked down and thought she spilled ketchup on her sister’s shirt — the 6-year-old didn’t know it yet, but a bullet had torn through her shoulder and out the back of her neck.

A few hours before Jamie Wilson unloaded his grandfather’s .22-caliber revolver at Oakland Elementary School on Sept. 26, 1988, Lashonda was begging her sister to let her borrow the shirt.

Braids bouncing, she walked in the cafeteria just before 11 a.m., where the rest of the first-graders were gathering to eat hamburgers for lunch, and sat next to her friend Greg.

A few minutes later, shots rang through the building — a bullet ripped through Greg’s arm, leaving a gaping wound Lashonda can still picture when she closes her eyes.

When her own shoulder was shot, she briefly blacked out. Lashonda woke up to chaos — teachers and staff were rushing everyone out of the building and to the edge of the woods past where the school had recess.

A teacher pulled her into the cafeteria’s freezer to hide before they escaped to the tree line.

“My cousin was across from me, and she was telling me that I had blood on my shirt,” Lashonda said.

But she doesn’t remember feeling anything — she just remembers looking down and thinking she spilled ketchup on her sister’s shirt. When Lashonda realized she had been shot, she blacked out again.

Lashonda was rushed to Self Memorial Hospital where doctors treated her and released her hours later, but she was sent back after a couple of days because her wounds got infected.

A few tables over from Lashonda was her teacher, Ellie Hodge.

Hodge, who was eating with her class, was young and only one month into her teaching career.

“This was my first year teaching, and I was still trying to get my feet under me,” Hodge said.

When Wilson walked in, Hodge smiled at him before he lifted his revolver and rapidly fired off two shots — one bullet shattered part of her left hand, another went into her right shoulder and through her back. Investigators with the State Law Enforcement Division later found the bullet that hit her hand in her cafeteria chair — her metacarpal bones stopped it from going through her hand and into her chest.

Then a first-grader, Shannon Hill remembers a microsecond of shock passing over the lunchroom before screaming.

“We just all sat there for it seemed like forever, but it wasn’t,” Shannon said. “Once she stood up after she was shot the first time, everybody kind of knew, and it was chaos. Everybody trying to get out. I went under the table. I don’t know who grabbed me, but somebody grabbed me. I wish I could remember who did.”

Wilson fired nine shots — hitting three students and one teacher — before he left the cafeteria and went into a girl’s restroom to reload. Kat Finkbeiner, a physical education teacher, followed him to the bathroom and tried to stop him before he shot her in the hand and mouth.

Wilson then strode into a third-grade classroom a couple of doors down and fired nine more shots. One hit third-grader Shequila Bradley. Shequila was a larger than life little girl who loved to help others — if a student in her class didn’t have lunch to eat, she’d give hers away. She died on the spot.

Another of Wilson’s bullets struck a major artery in third-grader Tequila Thomas’ neck. Her teacher and classmates knew her as the quietest, sweetest girl in any room she walked in. She died after surgery three days later.

A bullet traveled between third-grader Randee Gregory and their teacher, Palsy Higginbotham, who were sitting together at a reading table, before slamming into the chalkboard behind them. Dust flying, Randee and a classmate fled past Wilson and into the hall, which seemed eerily silent.

In all, six students in the class were shot. The third-grade class was a little ways from the cafeteria and hadn’t heard the commotion — most of the students in the building had escaped through classroom windows or were hiding in various closets and offices.

“Ms. Foster, I think she heard us running, and she slung open the door to the vice principal’s office, and I remember that being the only office that didn’t have windows. And the door slung open, I remember me and Josh literally having to slam on the brakes before we hit the door, and she jerked us into the room and slammed the door shut behind us,” Randee said.

Inside, teachers and students were huddled around a third-grader who had been shot in the arm and were applying pressure to the wound.

“I remember Ms. Foster getting on the phone and I remember saying to her, ‘If you call my mom, she has paramedic training, she can help her.’ Of course I was naïve in third grade, didn’t know better,” Randee said. “She was mom. She could fix everything.”

Down another hall, an administrator ran into Katie Parkman’s second-grade class and told them to rush out the windows, but Katie didn’t know why. She didn’t realize until after she was outside with the sirens and blood and chaos that something was terribly wrong — even then, she wasn’t sure what.

Alan Maxwell, Katie’s dad, heard about the shooting on the radio before speeding to the school. When he got there, panicked parents were being held back by police and didn’t know yet who had been injured.

“We were kind of laughing and playing like second-graders would, and the next thing I remember is seeing my mom and my dad, and my mom is like, squawling, and just running toward me and grabbing me and holding me,” Katie said. “And I guess I really didn’t know what happened until I saw the news.”

But the students quickly found out one of their classmates had died in the fray, and within a week, they learned another was dead as well.

Randee’s third-grade class attended both funerals as escorts and flower bearers, which is her most poignant memory of that time.

She remembers seeing the family’s raw grief. In her mind, she can still see one of the mothers throwing herself at the casket, trying desperately to carry her daughter out of it before family steps in to console her.

A few months after the Oakland shooting there was another one in Stockton, California where a gunman with a semiautomatic rifle killed five children on a playground and wounded 32 others before killing himself.

School shootings have become nearly commonplace over the past 30 years — since the start of 2018, there have already been 23 school shootings resulting in death or injury in the United States, two of which rank among the deadliest in the nation’s history.

But many of the children and teachers at Oakland still haven’t gotten over what happened.

Amanda Gonzalez was in first grade, along with her brother, when the shooting happened. When she found her brother among the scattered classes outside the school immediately after the violence, she latched on to him for comfort. She said they never spoke about it after that day.

“I sat as close to my brother as I could without being in his lap. It’s weird — we haven’t ever really talked about it,” Amanda said. “He has never said a word about anything.”

Until recently, many of the survivors haven’t spoken about it, except for the few who went to counseling after it happened.

It’s unclear why they’ve stayed silent — Randee said anytime a school shooting happened, she never offered up to her colleagues that she had once been in one.

Rochelle Hanson is the director of the Child and Family Program at the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center in the MUSC’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. She has not treated any of the Oakland victims, but she has studied the lasting effects childhood trauma can have on an adult.

Hanson said various factors could contribute to a victim’s silence about an experience — their specific coping mechanisms, their young age at the time, the lack of social media and online presence, and the time period itself.

“We know that being able to talk about it with a supportive caregiver is certainly something that is ameliorative — it does help, it does reduce the likelihood of problems down the line,” Hanson said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if seeing what’s going on now could kind of trigger some of that early feeling or memory, or bring it back up.”

Although they haven’t spoken much about the day, Shannon said it’s on her mind a lot.

“We say we didn’t really think about it, didn’t talk about it, but any time there was a school shooting or something, I remember being different than other people I was friends with that weren’t there, being glued in front of the TV, and being upset about it, your heart drops. It affected you in different ways, but just like anything else, after a certain period of time, you just push it down. You push those thoughts away and you move on,” Shannon said.

But what happened that day changed each of their lives in different ways.

Hodge quit teaching a few years later. She struggled to remember what happened — her biggest fear was that she had fled the school and left the children. Years later in hypnotherapy, she discovered she had stayed with the kids.

Lashonda, who has children of her own in school now, jumps any time she gets a call from the district in the middle of the day. She’s on edge until she knows her children are OK.

When Shannon’s children started public school, she started contacting administrators and advocating for more safety measures. She’s attended nearly every board meeting in the past several months and sparked increased security at the schools — the district just started a safety committee for parents and students to have more discussion about it.

After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Katie pulled her kids out and started homeschooling.

“We started out, we sent our kids to public school. But like, 1999 Columbine happened, and I was a senior in high school. So that hit me really hard. By the time Virginia Tech happened, I had children so I could think about it as a parent,” Katie said. “And then when New Jersey, when Newtown happened that was it. We had already talked about homeschooling. That was it. We pulled our kids out in January of 2013. I said, ‘I cannot — can not — do it.’ Seeing my kids walk into that school every day, letting them go into someone else’s hands, I could not do it anymore.”

Hanson said research suggests early exposure to trauma can impact periods of neurodevelopment in young children, which can then impact their attachment, emotion regulation, impulse control and socialization.

But the impact such trauma has on a child’s life depends on the circumstances — a child with past trauma or a rough home life is more likely to be impacted than a child living in a positive environment with no history of trauma. Other factors also come into play when it comes to trauma connected with school shootings — the proximity a child was to the shooter, if the child was injured or knew someone who was injured or killed as well as if the child was old enough to have a basic understanding of death and loss.

“Younger kids, they might not have completely understood what was going on,” Hanson said.

Younger children will often to look to adults around them in how they respond to trauma, while teenagers often look to their peers, Hanson said.

Different age groups and different people also have various ways they cope with traumas — Hanson said there is no one answer in how a victim of trauma should cope. For many of the teenagers who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in March, they’ve dealt with the tragedy by becoming activists for more gun control.

“For some of them, that’s exactly what they need to be doing, and that’s important, it’s their cause — it has passion and meaning and it’s a healthy way for them to cope with what happened, but not every kid is out there in the spotlight wanting to do that,” Hanson said.

Not everyone comes away from traumatic events with post-traumatic stress disorder, but Hanson said it’s common for people to experience acute stress afterward or during something that triggers memory of that trauma — such as hearing about another school shooting.

In the last few months, Shannon has created a Facebook page for anyone who was at the school when the shooting happened, called “Oakland Elementary School, 1988 — Support.”

Now, they’ve started to talk to each other about the anxiety they had when their own children started school, the familiar feeling they get when they hear about another school shooting in the news and the nightmares they still have of that day.

“It doesn’t go away,” Shannon said. “You can push those thoughts down as deep as you want to, but it doesn’t go away.”

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