Event honors those who made a difference during Dec. 7 shooting at school

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AZTEC — Aztec High School students and staff members welcomed first responders back to the school with standing ovations at the Lily White Gym on Friday.

The school dedicated a majority of its annual winter assembly, which recognizes sports teams and student groups at the beginning of the spring semester, to people who made large and small differences in the aftermath of the Dec. 7 shooting at the high school that left two AHS students and the 21-year-old shooter dead.

The more than hour-long assembly had students and staff members on their feet as student body leaders presented several dozen members of local, regional and state law enforcement and emergency response officers with certificates of appreciation. The school recognized police officers, law enforcement agents, firefighters, EMTs, 911 dispatchers, American Red Cross volunteers, school and district staff, and victims Fransisco “Paco” Fernandez and Casey Jordan at the assembly.

MORE: Several recognized for actions during Aztec High School shooting

Students also honored — by popular demand — AHS janitor Thomas “Emery” Hill and AHS substitute teacher Katie Potter for their heroics on Dec. 7. As the ceremony seemed to be wrapping up, students drowned out the master of ceremonies chanting Hill’s and Potter’s names before they came on stage to accept thanks. Potter said she was speechless, and Hill said the students and staff are his family.

San Juan County Fire Chief Craig Daugherty presented Hill, who has been a volunteer firefighter for 20 years, with a medal of valor for prompting a lockdown after the shooting began.

Aztec Municipal School District Superintendent Kirk Carpenter said the assembly was an opportunity for the school not only to thank first responders, but also to invite them back to the school “to let our kids see them in a different light.”

“The day (students) saw them was a day that we were taking them out of classrooms and not in a normal way,” Carpenter said. “I think for first responders, it was healthy, as well, because we needed to bring us back together and say, 'We’re here with you,' and that’s what we got.”

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The support went both ways — every group recognized received a standing ovation from the student body, and many of those recognized thanked the students and staff for their response, which San Juan County Undersheriff Shane Ferrari said made the job of first responders easier.

The students made clear their support for each other and for their community. One student took to the microphone during the ceremony — unplanned — to let her peers know that she is available if anyone needs a friend. Another student from the crowd shouted his support to Daugherty, who became emotional while recognizing Hill.

“It’s OK,” the student yelled from the audience while Daugherty paused to collect himself. “You got this.”

Ferrari said the assembly was just as healing for the first responders as it was for the students.

MORE: Investigation into Aztec High School shooting could take months

“This was probably one of the worst things that the sheriff’s office has ever had to respond to,” Ferrari told the crowd. “As first responders, this is the boogeyman — this is the thing that we fear the most, and the last time a lot of us were here, there was that fear and confusion. With you inviting us back here today, it brings closure for us. To see you smile and laugh and support one another again brings peace to us.”

Megan Petersen covers business and education for The Daily Times. Reach her at 505-564-4621 or mpetersen@daily-times.com.

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