Skylar Mancil dreamed for years about graduating from high school. When the day of her ceremony finally arrived, it was a living nightmare.
“Everyone was still trying to be happy, but I personally just felt out of place,” said Mancil, 19, a graduate of Santa Fe High School in Texas. “I don’t know how they could have been happy after knowing 10 kids passed away.”
Saturday marks a year since a student walked into an art class on a spring morning and used his father’s guns to kill eight students and two teachers.
Mancil fled her floral design class during the shooting. Just two weeks later, she walked across the school football field in her cap and gown.
“We didn’t have a proper ending,” Mancil said.
During graduation, a slideshow of the 10 victims played. Seeing their faces — Mancil, was close friends with the older sister of Chris Stone, a junior who died — left her crying so hard that her classmates gathered around to put their hands on her in support. “It was just so fresh,” she said.
Classmate Kennedy Rodriguez, 19, also struggled with a “really sad, hard, and weird” graduation.
“It was no longer about us or us graduating or the class of 2018,” said Rodriguez, who has since moved three and a half hours away to a University of Texas dorm in Austin. “It was about all of the kids who aren’t ever going to graduate now — their parents won’t ever see them graduate.”
While some might think the first class to graduate after a school shooting would be in the best position to move on from the scenes of such horrors, BuzzFeed News has learned it’s these students who may be most in danger as they leave the built-in support of the school community.
Six students who were seniors during four mass school shootings — Santa Fe, in Texas (2018); Aztec High School, in New Mexico (2017); Marysville Pilchuck High School, in Washington (2014); and Virginia Tech (2007) — told BuzzFeed News that the trauma lingered long after graduation and had fundamentally reshaped their lives.
Though they were somewhat grateful to have left so soon after the attacks — relieved to not have to return to classrooms where they’d sheltered in place, or walk past buildings in which their friends were killed — the experience and lack of support impacted them in real ways.
It influenced where they lived, what they studied, what careers they pursued — and cut into the very nature of how they viewed the world and how they acted in it.
This has been an issue for decades. The principal of Colorado’s Columbine High School during the 1999 massacre, Frank DeAngelis, told BuzzFeed News “the class that I worried the most about was the class of ’99.”
After the shooting, seniors never had to return to class, he said. Graduation took place just a few weeks later. Within a few months, most of the graduates had started full-time work or moved away for college. Several of them later struggled with relationships, focusing on their studies, or with addiction, DeAngelis said.
“It wasn’t that it was easy for the class of 2000, 2001, 2002 and the staff that returned — but we had each other,” said DeAngelis. “And the class of ’99 did not.”
“Three months before the anniversary, I couldn’t sleep at night,” said Sierra Sanders, who graduated in 2018 from Aztec High School in New Mexico just months after a former student started shooting in her school hallway, killing two people. “I was trying to deal with it but I went into protective mode. … That year was the worst year of my life.”
Sanders, like many of the graduates BuzzFeed News spoke with, has continued to struggle mentally in the months and years after the shooting and her graduation. Having left the embrace of the school community, she had to work to forge a new one — trying to combine new friends with those who already understand why she flinches when fire alarms go off.
The 19-year-old had long planned to attend her “dream school” of Colorado Christian University near Denver, but changed her mind after the shooting. Instead, she’s a freshman at New Mexico State in Las Cruces. Her sister already attended, and many of her Aztec classmates also studied there, giving her an automatic built-in support system. After graduation, she plans to return to Aztec or the surrounding area so she has some of these people nearby.
In contrast, Mancil, who is also 19, is researching cities — preferably somewhere with lots of beautiful nature and activities to keep her busy — so she can move far away from Santa Fe.
“Over the years, as I’ve aged and matured, it’s become more upsetting. I’ve started to really realize how badly it affected me. The more I talk about it over the years, the more upset I feel.”
But she knows some fears will continue to plague her life in profound ways. The shooting has even left her doubting whether she wants to have kids of her own. “Do I really want to raise my child in this world?” Mancil asked. “It’s just crazy. Where shouId I go? Where is the safest place? When you think about it, nowhere is really safe, anywhere.”
Angel Black graduated from Washington’s Marysville Pilchuck High School in 2015, less than eight months after a junior walked into the school cafeteria and fatally shot four students, before killing himself. Nearly five years after the shooting, her fear of crowds remains. “I don’t find comfort being anywhere,” she said. Black, 22, once loved attending concerts, but now she says she’s hyperaware in any crowded public space and spends her time figuring out the quickest exit.
Black started seeing a therapist in the last six months, after she noticed her anxiety had become so bad in the years since the shooting that she was struggling to function. “I realized I couldn’t leave my house without feeling scared. I started not being able to go places by myself,” she said. “Over the years, as I’ve aged and matured, it’s become more upsetting. I’ve started to really realize how badly it affected me. The more I talk about it over the years, the more upset I feel.”
Every time a new mass shooting occurs, at a school or a crowded bar or a music festival, Black says all the memories return, like a scab being constantly picked at. “It starts to heal slowly over time,” she said, “but continues to bleed.”
There’s currently no available research or studies focused specifically on graduating seniors, trauma experts told BuzzFeed News. But those who study mass shootings say they suspect these students may experience a unique set of problems.
“The biggest concern I would have for them is the disconnect from people who have gone through similar things,” said Laura Wilson, a psychology professor at Virginia’s University of Mary Washington and editor of The Wiley Handbook of the Psychology of Mass Shootings.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re at greater risk of depression, sleep problems, maybe substance abuse.”
Each shooting and each person is different, but in the first month after a school shooting, post-traumatic symptoms — such as feeling anxious or angry, being overcome with grief, struggling to sleep, having disturbing dreams or flashbacks, worrying about security and struggling to concentrate — are “a natural and normal response to a very significant event,” said David Valentiner, a professor of clinical psychology at Northern Illinois University (NIU).
“The people having problems are those pushing away the thoughts and feelings,” Valentiner said. “The grief catches up with them at some point.”
Most people are resilient, and will recover within a month or so. However, post-traumatic stress disorder rates are drastically higher in survivors of mass shootings — around 28% — than other types of trauma, such as a car accident, according to data from the National Center for PTSD, part of the Department of Veteran Affairs. Women are especially vulnerable.
“The people having problems are those pushing away the thoughts and feelings,” Valentiner said. “The grief catches up with them at some point.”
Shortly after the one-year anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland, Florida, two students killed themselves. One of them, Sydney Aiello, had graduated in the class of 2018. Her mother told local media that Aiello, who was close friends with one of the shooting victims, had struggled with PTSD and survivor’s guilt since leaving school.
Andrew J. Smith, a clinical psychologist and the director of the Occupational Trauma Program at the University of Utah, compared graduates leaving the school community after a shooting — speaking generally and not specifically about Parkland — to veterans returning from combat, separated from their unit and having to integrate back into civilian life. “We know that creates risk for being sort of alone in your experience,” he said, “and for being misunderstood by the people around you.”
Because a school can give people a sense of belonging, a school shooting can feel like an attack on the whole community. But this school community also enables survivors to come together to mourn collectively, with school colors, sports teams, and songs and chants that can play an important role in healing. “The community becomes a central mechanism for recovery,” Wilson said.
After the 2007 shooting that killed 32 people at her alma mater, Virginia Tech, Wilson returned to complete her postgraduate studies. “When I tell people I graduated from Virginia Tech, the very first thing they ask me is, ‘Were you there when the shooting happened?’” she said. “They don’t want to know what I majored in.”
Wilson, whose doctorate studies examined how her college community coped with trauma, said Virginia Tech’s intensely strong “Hokie spirit” helped with people’s recovery. “The solidarity and the belongingness in a community — that is a really important protective factor,” she said.
“When I tell people I graduated from Virginia Tech, the very first thing they ask me is, ‘Were you there when the shooting happened?’”
Kate Stone, who graduated in the class of 2007 from Virginia Tech, less than four weeks after the shooting, can still recall the student-created memorials, the chants of “We are Virginia Tech,” and the maroon and orange ribbons her friends made. She still wears them on each anniversary.
“There was a very strong feeling of closeness with everybody,” said Stone, now 33. “Everybody was in it together, watching out for each other, they had each other’s back.”
Originally from Connecticut, Stone continues to live in Blacksburg, Virginia, with her husband, who also graduated in Virginia Tech’s class of 2007. She suspects survivor’s guilt is “a big piece” of why she and her husband opted to remain. Stone described it as “feeling like some people have to stay here, to guard it. The people who remember stuff have to be around.”
“To think there are whole classes of kids who don’t know, weren’t here, it’s not on their minds, really probably ever?” asked Stone. “I think it would be hard for me to leave.”
Not every graduate feels connected to the community or is compelled to stay. The tribal nature of “MSD Strong” or “Santa Fe Strong” hashtags can ring false or feel exclusionary if someone is not feeling very emotionally “strong,” Smith, the psychologist, said. “I think that works for a portion of people, probably the majority of people, but it isolates the people who are still struggling,” she said. “You’re either ‘Boston Strong’ or you’re out.”
Several of the graduates BuzzFeed News spoke with said they felt disconnected from their community since the shooting at their schools, either desperate to leave and never return, or glad that they no longer live there.
Rodriguez, one of the few Santa Fe class of 2018 students supportive of the March for Our Lives movement and now a cofounder of the anti–gun violence group Orange Generation, feels that her beliefs pulled her away from her conservative community over time. She felt guilty about moving to Austin for school, but relieved to leave Santa Fe behind.
“Not that anyone specifically made me feel a certain way,” she said. “My political opinions are completely different, and knowing that I was a black sheep, it made me assume there was a disconnect.”
Her classmate, Mancil, actively cut herself off from most people in Santa Fe, and avoids hanging out in town. Instead, she tried to keep herself constantly busy with courses at a local community college and working 30 to 40 hours a week at Target. “I don’t go to events or do anything with the community,” she said. “I kind of strayed away from everyone.”
Her family is now planning to put their house on the market, which thrills her. “I don’t like being here anymore,” she said.
Graduating straight after a school shooting can also mean losing the anonymity and fresh start that comes with being a college freshman, said Taylor Spady-Hobson, another 2015 grad from Marysville Pilchuck High in Washington state. “I would wear my high school gear and everybody looks at you and they know,” said Spady-Hobson, 22. “It’s Washington; everybody watches the news.”
The summer after graduation, Spady-Hobson started at Washington State University. During student orientation, she was wearing her high school gear when a person in the elevator leaned over to ask if she’d been there during the shooting. “How do you just ask that question considering what that person is going to feel and think?” said Spady-Hobson.
When her mother got a job in Arizona the following summer, she gladly followed. “I got to move. I got to put it in the back of my mind, and focus on something else, because I didn’t have to go back,” said Spady-Hobson, who now works at an animal rescue in Phoenix.
Although she’s placed distance between herself and Washington, she can’t completely escape. A few months ago, a bachelorette party set off a party popper near her in a bar. The sound resembled the gunshots she’d heard during the shooting and Spady-Hobson found herself under a table, fighting off a panic attack. “I should go see a therapist,” she said. “[I] should sift through everything that happened and get out what I’m feeling.”
She believes many from her class struggle with the same problems. “Underneath all the makeup, we’re kind of broken. We don’t interact with people the same way anymore,” she said. “We don’t seem ‘normal.’”
Trauma affects how people look at the world and their place in it, reinforcing some tightly held views or changing them completely. For a teen about to graduate, a school shooting may shape their mind about their career, studies, or their place in the world. “Some people grow, some people become demoralized,” said Valentiner, the NIU professor.
Valentiner also speaks from personal experience. He was working on campus when a graduate student opened fire there in 2008, killing five people and injuring 17. “My two daughters were two buildings over, in the daycare, aged 3 and 4,” he said.
The shooting made him focus on studying anxiety after trauma, he said, and made “some aspects of the work I do more salient and real.” He was already a college professor but the shooting made him confront some larger, more existential questions: “What am I like as a father? As a professional? Why do I do the work I do?”
Wilson calls this “post-traumatic growth.” A survivor may end up taking a totally different path than they’d previously thought they would, but it can prove healthy. “I think of the Parkland students, amazing young people who have turned into incredible activists,” Wilson said. “They’re taking their grief and sadness and turning it into positive change and communicating what they think is important.”
For Rodriguez, her political activism against gun violence became even more important after the Santa Fe shooting. Her views didn’t dramatically change — she’d already attended the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, DC, in March 2018, then organized the Santa Fe high school walkout against gun violence just one month before the shooting — but it did solidify them.
“All of it has sparked something in me,” said Rodriguez, who is now studying communications and leadership and hopes to work in the not-for-profit sector. “After I found my major and figured out I could make a living out of helping people and trying to make the world a better place, it was like, Yes, this is what I’m going to do.”
After Stone graduated from Virginia Tech in 2007, she took a job as a special education assistant in a pre-school. The Virginia Tech motto “Ut prosim” (Latin for “That I may serve”) rang in her ears. “I felt like I had to do something meaningful with my life after that,” she said.
Working in a classroom after surviving a school shooting remains a challenge for her, even 12 years later. At first, the lockdown drills that have become part of American school life were overwhelming. “I would try really hard not to cry in front of the kids, or look too upset,” said Stone. “Doing the drills now is easier as long as I don’t think too much about it.”
Every time another school shooting happens, her mother asks her how she can go back in the classroom. “You almost don’t have a choice to think about it, because if you do, you’ll go crazy,” said Stone, her voice wavering. “If every time I had to walk in and really consider watching these kids get killed, you couldn’t do it.”
The tragedy at Virginia Tech remains the turning point in her life. “Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on it when you’re in your own life, but when you get to take a step back, it’s — Oh, that’s why I am that way,” she said.
The Aztec shooting gave Sanders a similar clarity. When she evacuated her classroom, a barricade of police officers stood blocking the students from viewing the shooter’s body. She recognized one officer from her church, and he locked eyes and said hello.
“When I saw him, I knew I was OK,” she said. “I thought, I’m safe, I’m OK, I’m going to get through this, I can take my guard down.”
She now wants to give others that same feeling. In March 2018, she texted the officer she knew asking if she could do a ride-along. He connected her with other patrol officers, and since then she’s joined them more than half a dozen times, and hopes to work in law enforcement. Last summer Sanders switched her college major to criminal justice. “Now so much of my life is based off of a shooting,” she said.
“I don’t know if cynical is the right word — I’ve always been a pretty positive person, and now I’m just like, If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,’” she said. “If I could get shot going to school, why not try and do something to protect others?”
Last week, Kendrick Castillo was shot and killed while trying to do just that. A student opened fire in his British literature class at the STEM School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Castillo, who loved robotics and technology, lunged at the shooter, allowing others to escape.
The 18-year-old died three days before his last high school class. He would have graduated next Monday. ●
The year of the Virginia Tech shooting was misstated in a photo caption in a previous version of this post.