Remembering Santa Fe

It was an early Friday morning on May 18, 2018, most students already in their first-period class, when a student walked into Santa Fe High School wearing a trench coat and carrying two guns.

 

He walked into an art classroom and began shooting, killing 10 people—both students and teachers—and wounding 13 others, casting this small Texas town into the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

 

The first calls to police were made at 7:32 that morning. It wasn’t until 30 minutes later, just after 8, that police had the shooter in custody. But it wasn’t just the shooter that police had to worry about. There were explosives, including pipe bombs, found inside the school.

 

As word of the shooting spread throughout the small town an hour southwest of Houston, police cars and ambulances sped to the school. Officers equipped with bulletproof vests and rifles approached carefully, police helicopters flew overhead.

 

Students, meanwhile, ran from the campus to nearby businesses across the street or down the highway. Parents rushed to the school, unsure if their sons or daughters were still alive.

 

When Dakota Shrader heard gunshots from her history classroom, she ran out of the school into nearby woods before her mom found her at a gas station.

 

“I shouldn’t be going through this—this is my school,” Shrader tearfully told reporters at the gas station. “This is my life. I shouldn’t have to feel like that. And I feel scared to even have to go back.”

 

Paige Curry was near the art classroom and ran behind a stage with her friends and classmates when they heard gunshots.

 

“I was very, very scared. I had to have someone to keep me calm,” Curry said. When asked if she thought this would ever happen at her school, Curry candidly told a reporter, “No, there wasn’t.”

 

“It’s been happening everywhere,” she said. “I’ve always kind of felt like, eventually, it was going to happen here.”

 

As day turned to night, a crowd gathered in an open field four miles from the high school to remember the victims. Students embraced one another, some who hadn’t seen each other all day. Some, like Branden Auzston, still worried for their friends who they hadn’t heard from.

 

There was a prayer tent set up. Volunteers handed out candles. A row of food trucks offered free food in exchange for those affected. A table was covered with red, white, and pink roses next to 10 candles, one for each victim killed. At a podium, speakers shared stories and offered uplifting words about how the community will overcome the tragedy.

“This will be a healing process. It will take days, months, even years, but we will get through this together,” a speaker told the crowd. “Our community is strong, we will all come and heal together, because we are Santa Fe Strong.”

Remebering the 10 victims of the Santa Fe High School shooting. (Photos: Provided by family members)

With the help of my former KHOU 11 colleague Grace White, I returned to Santa Fe a year after the shooting. What we found were heartbroken families still frustrated by the lack of transparency into the shooting investigation and at politicians, who, some say, aren't following through on promises to make schools safer.

“(It) feels like we’re kids from some little farm county in Texas where everybody had guns anyway, so it was just bound to happen,” Rhonda Hart, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed in the shooting, told me.

Flo Rice, a substitute teacher who was shot in both legs, said there's only a small window after a tragedy like this where people are listening.

"So we just need to take this opportunity and talk to many people as we can that will listen and something will get done," Rice said.

 

In the series Santa Fe: Life After the Shooting, we shared these families’ stories of heartache and how those 30 minutes on that May morning changed their lives forever. With the help of KHOU 11 investigative reporter Cheryl Mercedes, we question the politicians who, on the day of the shooting, promised changes to better protect students.

 

We didn't name the shooter or addressing his motives; instead, we're focused on the families and survivors, the lasting effects of the shooting, and the long road ahead as they adjust to their new normal.

These are their stories.

'He died fighting'

Chris Stone found himself in an art room closet with the shooter trying to get in.

His family said he fought to protect his classmates in his final moments

Under a gray sky spitting misty rain, Christopher Stone tended to his smoker at the Galveston County Fair. He’s a tall man with tattoos on his arms and a graying mustache. He wore a black shirt with green-and-white lettering that read Bonez & Stones Cookers, the name of his cookoff team.

 

His smoker was filled with food—pork butts, sausage, and bacon—some of which he’d later enter into the Fair’s barbecue contest. He was surrounded by his family—his two daughters, Mercedez and Angelica—and close friends. But he was missing an important person: his teenage son, his namesake, Chris Stone.

“You know, the Fair, that’s where my son would be. This is where he would be every damn year,” the senior Chris said.

The younger Chris was killed in the school shooting at Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018, when a gunman walked into his art classroom and began shooting. He was 17.

As his family gathers at the fairgrounds, the memories are still too fresh, the pain still too real as they reminisce about their loved one. Angelica, Chris’ older sister, tears up when she talks about her brother.

 

“Chris was a very down-to-earth person that all he wanted to help,” she said. “And it’s important for people to know him as that and hopefully be inspired by who he was.”

 

Mercedez was babysitting when she got a call about the shooting. She didn’t have a lot of information, but she immediately felt uneasy; she knew her younger brother was at the school. She tried to keep her composure as the children played.

 

“You’re trying to act fine, trying to act cool, but you’re not. You’re freaking out,” she said. “And instantly, I don’t know why, I just knew something happened to Chris.”

 

Mercedez called her dad. He was already on his way to the high school, but she convinced him to turn around and pick her up. As they made their way to the school, they saw an ambulance speeding away from campus. Rather than turning to go to the school, they chose to follow the flashing lights.

 

At the hospital, they watched paramedics wheel a boy out on a stretcher and take him inside. The older Chris swore it was his son. They walked into the emergency room lobby with other Santa Fe families already inside, joining them for the long waiting game for any updates on their loved ones. An employee walked out and began reading names one by one.

 

“They get everybody’s name called,” Mercedez said, “and just me and my dad were left in that room by ourselves and left looking at each other like, ‘What do we do?’”

 

By noon, Mercedez and her dad had gone to several different hospitals looking for Chris. He wasn’t at any of them. Back in Santa Fe, her mom and sister were at a staging area for parents and families, watching as some reunited with their children, watching as busloads of students arrived from the high school. There was no sign of Chris there, either.

 

“I didn’t bring up that Chris was probably a deceased until that lost hospital,” Mercedez said. “And we walked in and on the TV, ‘eight confirmed deceased.’ And I was like, ‘If there’s eight confirmed deceased and Chris has not called us.’”

Months before the shooting, Chris’ mom, Rosie, asked him what he would do if a shooter ever entered his school. She brought it up because of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people died on Valentine’s Day.

Chris said something like he’d try to fight back. Rosie eventually dismissed the idea and told him that the worst thing that would happen in Santa Fe is he might get run over by a cow. They all laughed.

 

But then it happened. Chris found himself in the art room closet holding the door shut while other students tried to move an oven in front of the door. The shooter was standing outside. Chris was shot in the stomach. Mercedez said he died in the closet, fighting to protect the people, just like he said he would.

 

Sometime after the shooting, the family took a tour of the art classroom. They wanted to know exactly what happened to Chris in his final moments. As they walked through, Mercedez noticed tiny bullet holes from the numerous shotgun blasts that peppered cabinet doors, the tile floor, and the ceiling.

 

They approached the closet where Chris died. More shotgun blasts pierced the walls. Tiles were missing from the floor where Chris’ body once lay.

 

“A lot of emotions were running then,” Mercedez said. “I was still in the process of I want to understand. I want to know how this happened—who was first. I need a timeline in my head to make sense of this.”

Back at the Galveston County Fair a year later, the Stone family is still trying to make sense of it all. The senior Chris was still checking the temperature of the meats in his smoker.

 

As he closed the lid, I noticed a tattoo on his right arm that stretched from his elbow to his wrist.

In black cursive lettering, it reads, “Son, forgive me that I live and you are gone. There’s a grief that can’t be spoken, and there’s a pain goes on and on.”

Remembering Grammy

Cynthia Tisdale was a substitute teacher at Santa Fe High School

Recie Tisdale still struggles to speak about his mom—the pain and heartache still too much to bear.

 

But his wife, Jennifer, says what his words can’t.

“Grammy lived and breathed helping people,” Jennifer said. “If you called her … ‘I need something in five minutes,’ she was at your house with no strings attached. No gripe. She was going to show up. That’s just how she was.”

 

Cynthia Tisdale, known as Grammy to her family, was one of the 10 people killed at Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018. A gunman entered the school carrying a shotgun and pistol and entered the art class that she was substituting.

On warm April evening at Recie’s home, his family gathered around an island in his kitchen with a golden sunset filling the living room. On the island sat a picture of his two daughters smiling next to Grammy’s white cross, her name written in black letters.

Next to the picture was a framed handwritten note Grammy left for her husband the morning of the shooting. It read, “Had to go meet a teacher. I love you. Hope you feel better today. Left you breakfast. Love mom.”

On the Tisdale's kitchen island is a photo of Bailey and Kayla next to their grandmother's cross and a letter Cynthia Tisdale left her husband the morning of the shooting. (Photo: Matt Keyser)

It’s been a year since the shooting, and the Tisdale family is still learning to live without their Grammy.

 

“We have days that are horrible. We have days that are good,” Jennifer said. “There’s not a day that goes by that we all don’t think about that day.”

 

Recie was off work the day of the shooting. He’s a detective with the League City Police Department, and on his off days, he builds custom homes. That’s likely what he would have done that Friday had it not been for a friend who called him and asked where his daughter was. Bailey was a junior at the high school. Recie told him probably at school, but he found her in her bedroom that morning.

 

Dad, she told him, there was a shooting at the school.

 

Recie grabbed his police gear and made the three-mile drive to the school. At the time, he didn’t give any thought that his mom was teaching that day. Recie secured a back door with another officer.

As word of the shooting spread, the Tisdales found it odd they hadn’t heard from Grammy. She was typically so responsive and would be the first to let them know she was okay. But their text messages and phone calls went unanswered.

Autumn, Recie’s sister, was working with their dad that day. As the hours passed, she grew more concerned, but her dad wouldn’t give any thought that his wife might be dead. He wanted to continue working—to keep his mind off it all—but Autumn decided to call it a day.

 

Dad, she told him, we’re going home.

 

“My dad didn’t want to admit that she was gone,” Autumn said. “I just knew. She wasn’t responding and she always made sure that we knew. … And so to have not heard from her 30 minutes in, I knew—deep down.”

William Recie Tisdale, Sr., known as Poppy to his family, and Grammy were married for nearly 47 years. For much of their marriage, he worked as a minister while she stayed home and raised their three kids. A year before the shooting, Poppy was diagnosed with incurable lung disease and given 12-18 months to live.

Grammy became his full-time caretaker. But despite his diagnosis, he continued to work. So she accepted a job as a substitute teacher at Santa Fe High School.

Bailey has a picture of Grammy on her phone weeks before the shooting. Grammy was substituting Bailey’s English class and was dressed infamous scrub pants and glasses—an outfit that Bailey said made her.

 

Grammy was buried on May 25—a week after the shooting—on her 64th birthday.

The family didn’t get time to mourn her death. They immediately focused on taking care of Poppy: who’s making his meals, who’s cleaning the house, who’s taking him to doctor appointments?

William Recie Tisdale Sr. died five months after his wife, Cynthia, was killed in the school shooting at Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018. (Photo: Courtesy of Tisdale family)

Bailey has a picture of Grammy on her phone weeks before the shooting. Grammy was substituting Bailey’s English class and was dressed infamous scrub pants and glasses—an outfit that Bailey said made her.

 

Grammy was buried on May 25—a week after the shooting—on her 64th birthday.

The family didn’t get time to mourn her death. They immediately focused on taking care of Poppy: who’s making his meals, who’s cleaning the house, who’s taking him to doctor appointments?

His condition quickly worsened. Although doctors gave him 12-18 months to live, he died five months after the shooting. Recie said his dad lost the will to live.

 

“So that day killed him, as well,” Recie said. “It was pretty much a death sentence for him.”

 

They’re all coping in their own way.

 

Autumn still has conversations with her dad while she’s driving for work, or she’ll play out conversations with her mom when she needs advice.

 

Jennifer still looks for Grammy’s car that once sat parked out in front of the high school every morning.

 

Bailey, now a senior, walks past the classrooms where Grammy once taught.

 

“The world needs more Grammys,” she said. “You can never have enough Grammys.”

Brothers in Arms

John Barnes and Gary Forward were the only officers on campus that morning. Barnes nearly died trying to protect hundreds of students

At first, John Barnes heard a fire alarm.

Then, he smelled gunpowder.

 

It was a Friday, May 18, 2018, and first period had just begun. Barnes, a police officer at Santa Fe High School, made his way down an art hallway at the back of the school. He had his pistol drawn. Students filled the hallway—hooping and hollering, Barnes said—as they made their way out of the school.

 

Barnes was confused. He’d spent more than 20 years with the Houston Police Department before retiring and joining Santa Fe, and often when he smelled gunpowder there was a shooting. But students in the hallway were acting like there was nothing wrong.

 

That’s when he saw two substitute teachers get shot.

 

Barnes ducked behind a corner, shattered glass strewn across the tile floor. He still hadn’t seen the shooter. As he leaned out of the corner, a shotgun blast caught his right elbow, shattering his bone and severing an artery. Barnes fell to the ground.

 

He grabbed his radio, “Officer down.”

 

Gary Forward was steps behind Barnes. Forward is the assistant police chief for the Santa Fe Independent School District. Like Barnes, Forward had spent decades as a police officer; he came from upstate New York before moving to Texas to retire. He and Barnes were the only officers on campus at the time.

 

Forward ran to Barnes, blood streaming onto the tile, and quickly wrapped a tourniquet around his arm.

 

“In all my years on the job and all the injuries I’ve seen, I’ve never seen anything like that,” Forward said, who’s been a police officer for over 30 years. “I’ve never seen a catastrophic blood loss to that magnitude ever.”

Barnes said he was in shock, but still aware of the situation: the shooter hadn’t been stopped.

 

“Then that kicks in and then you start worrying that they weren’t going to get to me in time,” he said.

 

Barnes was carried out of the school and onto a stretcher. He was flown by medical helicopter to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. He said he died for three or four minutes on the flight.

 

“I was just thinking about staying alive,” Barnes said. “I was just telling myself, ‘Just breathe. As long as you’re breathing, you’re living.’”

 

He was rushed into emergency surgery as doctors tried to repair the damage to his arm.

At a news conference in Santa Fe that day, Gov. Greg Abbott praised both Barnes and Forward for confronting the shooter. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn credited Barnes with helping stop the shooter.

“Sometimes it takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun,” Cornyn said at a news conference. “That’s why it’s important to have armed law enforcement officers present.”

 

Barnes woke up at the hospital that evening groggy and still trying to grasp what happened. He wanted to know if Forward was okay. Forward visited him in the hospital that night.

 

“It was hard to go down and see him like that,” Forward said. “I knew he was a tough son of a gun, but I didn’t know how tough until now.”

 

Barnes said doctors told him he lost enough blood that his organs should have shut down, but they didn’t. He said he suffered an acute brain injury because of the blood loss and for a time he slurred his words, but that eventually went away.

 

Barnes spent 33 days in the hospital. In the year since the shooting, he’s had more surgeries, undergone physical therapy and admits he has emotional scars from the shooting. He wears a blue sleeve that covers his right arm to prevent infection. He needs another surgery on his arm because of a previous infection.

 

But he said he’s getting his mobility back, though his strength isn’t what it once was.

 

He’s seeing a psychologist now, as well, and he attended a three-day program for people who have gone through traumatic experiences. He’d like to see more police officers do the same. Barnes doesn’t feel enough attention is placed on officers’ mental health.

 

Both Barnes and Forward are thankful for the support they’ve received from their fellow officers—from lining up outside the hospital, being outside the school when students returned to class, and attending Barnes daughter’s softball games when he couldn’t be there.

 

“I’ve seen that my whole career, but to be on the receiving end, that’s quite a different story,” Barnes said.

Though Barnes has spent much of the past year recovering, he’s picked a fight to help keep the shooter behind bars for the rest of his life. It’s one fight that all the victims’ families and survivors can agree on.

 

Earlier this year, the Department of Justice declined to press federal charges against the shooter.

 

Under current law, because the shooter was 17 at the time of the attack, he isn’t subjected to the death penalty and would be eligible for parole in 40 years.

 

The families were outraged at the news. In addition to their calls to lawmakers, Barnes used his channels in law enforcement to help convince the federal government to press charges. Because with a federal conviction, the shooter won’t be eligible for parole for 100 years.

 

Despite the fight, it was a victory for everyone affected by the shooting.

 

“It tells you our system does work whenever there’s enough outcry,” Barnes said.

 

Sitting in his home today, Barnes is thankful to still be alive—a fact he credits Forward.

"If it wasn't for Gary and the other officers who dragged me out of there," he said, "I wouldn't be sitting here."

Emotional wounds

Some students still wrestle with PTSD, anxiety attacks, and survivor's guilt—

their grief still too raw, their pain still too real

On a muggy Thursday night, Trenton Beazley took the baseball field with his 16 teammates. It was a big night for the Santa Fe Indian baseball team. The Indians were coming off a regular season in which they won the district title, and now it was time for playoffs.

 

It’s what the team had been waiting for all season: make the playoffs, string a few wins together and go all the way to state—the ultimate championship in high school sports.

Trenton had on a white jersey with Indians written in gold on the front and a No. 14 on the back. He’s played baseball since he was 5 years old, rising from the ranks of Little League to starting catcher for the Santa Fe varsity baseball team.

But since the shooting at Santa Fe High School a year ago, baseball has meant even more to him. Trenton, then a sophomore, was in an art room closet as the shooter fired in the closet.

 

Trenton saw two students die. He helped save a girl who was badly bleeding. A bullet ricocheted and grazed the side of his chest. He still has scars to this day.

Trenton Beazley (second from left) stands with his teammates on a baseball field before the Santa Fe Indians' playoff game the night after the shooting at Santa Fe High School. (Photo: David J. Phillips)

“It’s hard going through something like this. It’s tough. I have my bad days, my bad weeks,” said Trenton, now 16.

So often, Trenton’s thoughts are filled with what happened that day and what he saw. But when he’s on the baseball field, his mind clears and for a time—however brief—he can forget.

 

“When I go out there on the field—if I’m having a bad day at school—when I go out there on the field, everything clears,” he said. “I have fun, I let up, have fun, let loose.”

It’s been a year since the shooting. Heartbroken families are still coping and learning to live with a new normal. Students still struggle with returning to the school where so much destruction happened.

 

The art hallway where the shooting occurred is now blocked off. But those barriers are a daily reminder of the lives lost, the students no longer there, the shooting that changed so much of their young lives.

 

Wade Jordan is a sophomore at Santa Fe and said school doesn’t feel the same.

 

“It doesn’t feel like high school anymore; it doesn’t feel like it did last year,” he said. “It’s kind of rough to go back into school every day and try to act like everything is fine and get through classes.”

 

Wade wasn’t at the school the day of the shooting, but he struggles with survivor’s guilt. Had he been at the school, he said he would have been in the classroom across the hall from the art class. He can’t help but wonder if there’s something he could have done to stop the shooter, to prevent his classmates from dying?

 

Instead of going to school that day, Wade planned to do what high school students sometimes do: rebel and skip class. His mom was at work and he planned to spend some time with his girlfriend.

 

But on her way over, Wade got a text about a shooting at the school. He watched people’s Snapchat videos of students running from the campus. He tried texting and calling his friends—only for those texts and calls to go unanswered.

 

“I was very, very worried about my friends because they were in the class right next to it,” Wade said. “There were some people I couldn’t even call because they didn’t have their phones because they had to leave it in their classes.”

Wade called his mom, Mandy, who rushed home from work. They spent the rest of the day watching the news unfold, feeling helpless.

 

As word spread that the shooter entered the art classroom, Wade felt sick. If he was at school that day, would he have died?

 

He couldn’t shake the thought. As the weeks passed, Mandy watched as her son cried often. He stopped eating. Couldn’t sleep. Stopped hanging out with friends. He hardly ever left the couch.

 

“I stayed away from everybody,” Wade said. “It was bad. It was a horrible place for me to be.”

 

He was consumed by the what ifs of that day. Had he gone to school, he said, he likely would have walked in about the same time as the shooter. What if he could have ran and tackled the shooter? What if he had been one of the students shot? What if his death could have prevented more deaths?

 

Mandy realized he needed more help than she could give.

 

“I was like, ‘This is more than I know what to do. I’m your mom, I can love you, I can hug you, I’m not a mental health expert. I can’t help you the way I think you need it,’” she said.

She took him to the Santa Fe Resiliency Center, a spot in town where anyone affected by the shooting can get help. Wade was assessed and it was determined he needed specialized treatment to address his survivor’s guilt and bring him out of his depression.

Wade, who recently turned 16, still continues that treatment through a program with Texas Children’s Hospital that focuses on kids who have gone through intense trauma. He said that help has helped in his recovery.

 

He still has his struggles today. Some days he said he can’t get out of bed, some nights he doesn’t fall asleep until it’s time to get up. He’s missed his share of school and has fallen behind in some classes. He’s altered his schedule to arrive later. But he said he’s in a better place than months ago.

 

“I really pushed people away at first and it was the worst thing I ever did, when in reality I should have opened up and got help like I did,” Wade said. “I don’t know when I stopped feeling so down. I’ve been a lot better now and it was random for me, but dealing with it every morning and going into that school realizing that I could have done something, that I could have been there or I could have been on that list, it’s just kind of worrying.

 

“It’s not good to think like that because all that does is put you further and further down into a hole that you won’t be able to get out of, but with help you can.”

 

Mandy is trying to adjust to their new normal, too.

 

She and her husband are now separated. She’s had to find a new job that offers a more flexible schedule so she can get her son to school or to his appointments.

 

“It’s like another wave hits you almost every day,” she said. “It’s like every day it’s just another challenge, another wall you hit, and you’re trying to find another way around it. It’s emotionally exhausting.”

But she tries to keep a positive outlook. Every day she’ll ask Wade, “What made today great?” They celebrate the little victories, like getting out of bed when they may not feel like it or making it through a day without a panic attack.

 

“I didn’t realize how traumatic this is for parents, as well, to watch your child suffer and not be able to help them as much as you want,” she said.

 

Through it all, there’s one important thing she learned.

 

“I’m realizing it’s okay to not be okay," she said. "It’s okay to have a bad day. It’s okay to tell people I just can’t today."

Julie Kaplow is a doctor with Texas Children’s Hospital who leads the hospital’s trauma and grief center. She’s been in Santa Fe since the day after the shooting and watched how the tragedy affected the tight-knit community.

“Having something like that happen in your community is obviously very distressing,” Kaplow said. “I think also in that initial phase there’s a lot of shock and disbelief.”

 

She noted that initially after the shooting a lot of people were hesitant about seeking help, but as time has passed, more families and students are coming into the Resiliency Center.

 

Now as the one-year mark since the shooting approaches, Kaplow worries for people who aren’t seeking help and the emotions that may arise. Kaplow said there are warnings parents and families should lookout for: refusal to go to school, not doing homework, distance from family and friends or doing drugs.

 

“We’re really trying to make sure that kids have enough support around the one-year mark and are not socially isolated and feel like they have the support they need,” she said.

 

In the early months after the shooting, Trenton Beazley thought he could get through on his own. He didn’t think he needed help, thought he could process it all himself and be fine. But his mom, Shirley, had seen how he changed. He’d lose his temper over the smallest things. The sound of a twig snapping or a book falling to the floor would send his mind back to that art room closet. Some nights, he’d wake up in the middle of the night screaming and crying.

 

“And that’s when I realized I needed to get help,” Trenton said. “I was a big pride person. Like, ‘Oh no, I’m going to get over this myself. I can do this, I can do this, I’m strong.’ But if you’re in that situation, you have to talk, you have to let it out, because it’s going to catch up to you eventually.”

 

Shirley said her son is a different person since the shooting.

 

“As a parent, it’s real hard to see your son go through something like this. I see his struggles and it’s hard because sometimes you’re not the one who he really wants at that moment,” she said.

Trenton leaned heavily on baseball and one of his coaches. They’d spend hours on the phone at night reading scriptures from the Bible and talking about everything he’s gone through.

Trenton is still seeing a psychologist, who’s helped him manage his feelings and taught him to control his emotions when it feels like they’ll get the better of him. But he worries for the students who aren’t seeking help.

“A lot of kids aren’t seeking help. That’s the one thing I tell them and I tell others, ‘Even if you weren’t affected or in that room and it’s bothering you, you need to talk,’” he said. “It’s just something that’s going to catch up with you. And it caught up to me.”

 

Part of his healing came during a baseball trip to Florida over the summer, where he found the most unlikely of friends.

 

At the end of their trip, Trenton asked how far Parkland was. Three months before Santa Fe, a gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and killed 17 people on Valentine’s Day.

 

Parkland was close enough that the family decided to stop. Trenton bought a baseball and signed it. He included his Instagram handle. He hoped to meet the baseball coach, but the coach wasn’t there, so Trenton left the baseball on his desk. Days later, the coach called and they developed a friendship off a love for baseball and similar tragedy.

 

The two still keep in touch. They’ll often text each other asking how their seasons are going, how they’re coping through it all.

Trenton sent the coach a box filled with Santa Fe shirts and bracelets. The coach responded by sending Trenton a red shirt that red Stoneman Douglas Eagles Baseball.

Trenton wore it on Feb. 14, the one-year mark since the shooting at Stoneman Douglas.

One year later,
are students any safer?

The day of the shooting, politicians said change is needed.

So, what's been done to protect our most vulnerable?

It’s been a whirlwind of a year for Rhonda Hart.

Her daughter, Kimberly Vaughan, was killed in the shooting at Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018. Rhonda has since moved from Santa Fe—wanting to get away from the posters and t-shirts that carried her daughter’s name and the hashtag the community has rallied around: #SantaFeStrong.

She quit her job as a bus driver for the district—frustrated by the fact she was trusted to protect students while, she feels, district leaders couldn’t protect her daughter.

 

She’s angry at politicians who flooded the town the day of the shooting and promised changes were coming. Those changes and promises, she said, haven’t been kept, and she believes little has been done to protect students and make schools safer.

 

“I think at the federal level we’ve made baby steps; at the state level, not so much,” she said. “It just feels like nobody cares. I mean, you can’t really keep a school shooting in the news cycle in Texas for more than 24-48 hours.”

Hart has made it a point to memorize local politicians phone numbers and call them to voice her opinion or there’s an important vote. She made national headlines in September 2018 when she confronted U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) at a campaign rally.

Video from that night shows Hart standing on a chair and shouting at Cruz: “Mr. Cruz, you will not meet with any of those families, but one, the Stone family, as the larger part of the collective group that was there that day. You ignore my phone calls. … And you still have not introduced common sense reform that would save kids’ lives.”

Cruz responded, “I will point out that I have called you and my office has called you at least four times. I’m more than happy to meet with you at any time.”

Hart is the most outspoken of the families, but she’s not the only one who’s seeking changes.

Flo Rice was a substitute teacher in the gym the day of the shooting. She was shot in both legs, breaking her femur in one and suffering nerve damage in the other. She’s undergone multiple surgeries and months of physical therapy since the shooting.

Rice always worried about a school shooting. She said every time she subbed she would look throughout the classroom for furniture to barricade the door and students to help move that furniture.

Rice has taken her fight to Austin. She and her husband have testified before lawmakers and worked with them to craft bills they believe would make a difference, especially those that would protect substitutes.

 

Those include House bill 17 and Senate bill 11 that would require schools to give substitute teachers access to classroom phones so they can reach school leaders or police during an emergency.

 

“You’ve only got a small window of opportunity where people are listening after this event,” Rice said. “We just need to take this opportunity and talk to as many people as we can who will listen and hopefully something will get done.”

The day of the shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said at a news conference, “We need to do more than just pray for the victims and their families. It’s time in Texas that we take action, to step up and make sure this tragedy is never repeated ever again in the history of the state.”

Cruz said, “There have been too damn many of these.”

When asked what could be done to make schools safer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said, “We’re going to have to get creative, we’re going have to think outside the box.”

 

So, what’s been done in the year since the shooting to make schools safer?

 

Abbott held a series of roundtable discussions with victims’ families, survivors, law enforcement and school officials across the state. He released a 40-page report that addresses adding more mental health professionals in schools, as well as training and arming teachers to identify potentially dangerous students. (KHOU 11 Investigates requested an interview with Abbott, but he declined, citing a busy schedule with the Legislature.)

Texas lawmakers are considering bills focused on school safety. Senate bill 10 would designate $100 million towards creating more training in mental health services. Senate bill 11, known as the School Safety bill, covers many of the proposals in Abbott’s report.

Patrick said there’s money available for schools to improve safety—whether it be retrofitting entrances and exits or adding metal detectors—but the districts have to request the money.

“The money can flow pretty quickly,” Patrick said. “It’s really up to the school boards and the parents.”

 

At a federal level, Cruz announced today that he's introduced the School Security Enhancement Act, which would allow for local communities to receive grants for evidence-based school safety technology and infrastructure.

 

Congress has authorized nearly $1 billion for school safety—money that includes adding metal detectors and more police officers. That money will be dispersed in $100 million increments over the next 10 years. Cruz admits it, though, could take years before improvements are made.

 

“That is going to happen district by district as they apply for these funds,” Cruz said. “There is simply a reality that the giant machinery that is government does not move as fast as we would like.”

How long could it take: five years, 10 years?

 

“It should be much faster than that,” Cruz said.

The waiting can feel like an eternity for some parents who feel it’s only a matter of time before the next shooting.

For the families in Santa Fe, their fights will continue. They don’t want to feel their loved ones died for nothing.

 

For Rhonda Hart, that means continuing to pester politicians and make her voice heard—all in the name of her daughter and keeping her memory alive.

 

Hart still relishes in the memories she has with Kimberly—her years as a Girl Scout and her love for Harry Potter. Hart often thinks back to a trip they took a month before the shooting. She pulled her son and Kimberly out of school for a week to go to Orlando.

“We did Magic Kingdom, Harry Potter, took a day off, Harry Potter, Animal Kingdom. So four park in five days,” Hart said. “I was so tired.”

 

But it’s a trip she doesn’t regret for a minute.

Podcast: Santa Fe: Life After the Shooting

Subscribe and listen to Santa Fe: Life After the Shooting on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode 1: The Day Everything Changed

A student gunman entered Santa Fe High School on May 18, 2018. He killed 10 people and wounded 13 others, casting this small Texas town into the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons. 

Episode 2: The First Two

Officers John Barnes and Gary Forward were the first two officers to confront the shooter. John nearly died trying to protect hundreds of students. 

Episode 3: Grammy

So little do we hear about the long-lasting effects on the victims’ families after a school shooting. This is the window into one family’s grief who is still learning to live without the woman they knew as Grammy.

Episode 4: Survivor's Guilt

For some students who have had to return to Santa Fe High School, going back hasn’t been easy. Walking through the doors of the school serves as a constant reminder of the lives lost, their friends and classmates no longer there.

Episode 5: The Long Road Ahead

Unfortunately, there are people out there who know what these Santa Fe families are going through. The principal of Columbine, two moms from Sandy Hook and the father who lost his daughter in a school shooting in Colorado share their experiences of how they continue to remember their loved ones.

Episode 6: Frustration Fuels Change

For some of these Santa Fe families, they’re frustrated and angry. They want more transparency into the shooting investigation, more accountability from politicians. And they’ve had to fight in hopes of keeping the shooter in prison for the rest of his life.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matt Keyser is an award-winning reporter whose narrative non-fiction work largely focuses on the Texas criminal justice system. In 2017, Keyser was part of an investigative team that won the prestigious Alfred I duPont-Columbia University Award for “TRANSPARENCY,” an investigation into the failures of the Houston Police Department’s body camera program. His work has appeared in publications across the country, including USA TODAY, The Dallas Morning News, and KHOU.com. Keyser lives in Houston with his wife, daughter, and their two dogs.