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'Our new normal': Aztec grappling with high school shooting aftermath four months later
Residents say healing process is far from over
FARMINGTON — Aztec resident Robin Collins had the happy task of ordering a corsage from the Lil Aztec Flower Shop for her daughter on Wednesday in advance of Aztec High School’s prom on Saturday.
However, that milestone, like many to come, bears a reminder of a tragedy for many families in the community.
“Prom is a happy time for parents, but there are two (Aztec families) that don’t get to do this, and same with graduation, and I’m sure it will be hard next year, too,” Collins said.
Many Aztec residents are still recovering from a Dec. 7 school shooting that left two 17-year-old students and the 21-year-old shooter dead. Though locals say the community and school have worked hard to define a new normal in the four months since the incident, many say the healing process is far from over.
“Of course, it’s been traumatic and hard, and school is sad,” said Collins, who is a reading teacher at Lydia Rippey Elementary School. “It’s still sad, but time is hopefully going to help heal.”
An initial and enduring result of the tragedy has been an increase in compassion and empathy for each other, Aztec Public Library director Kate Skinner said.
“Has it changed us? Yes,” Skinner said. “I think it’s given us this heightened awareness that human beings are fragile, and that community and society is fragile. This is my personal point of view, but I’m seeing this in a social organization … that people are being incredibly kind and careful with one another.”
The community has faced challenges in the recovery process, though, particularly when other shootings across the nation have triggered feelings of fear and anxiety in people living with post-traumatic stress, according to Aztec Church of Christ minister Johnathan Dobbs.
“Four months out, we would have been in a much better place if it hadn’t been for Kentucky and if it hadn’t been for Florida,” Dobbs said, speaking of deadly school shootings in Benton, Kentucky, in January and Parkland, Florida, in February. “… By the time (the Parkland shooting) happened, it was like, ‘Really? Are we going to have one every month now?’”
The Aztec Municipal School District has continued to offer students and staff members emotional support as needed since the shooting, something that AHS Principal Warman Hall said likely will need to continue over the long term in order to continue healing.
“We’re at an interesting place where we really understood that for quite a while now, and even coming in the future, we’re going to need emotional support providers, probably at least therapists on call or nearby,” Hall said.
Hall also emphasized the importance of increased security on campus. Three unarmed security guards have been patrolling the school since students returned in January, and Aztec Police Department officers stop by the school often, including an additional dedicated school resource officer. On Thursday afternoon, the three security officers and two APD officers were still on campus more than 30 minutes after classes ended.
“It took some time for the kids to hit their stride with the presence of more security personnel on campus, but they have, I think, come to know that it’s just a thing that we’re going to have to do. It’s going to be a part of our new normal,” Hall said, adding that the continuing mental health support and security presence “are going to be the stresses for us as leadership in the district and school and town. How do we look at addressing a need for increased security personnel and ongoing emotional support for kids and staff as we move forward?”
Victor Snover, who leads the JROTC program at AHS and who was recently elected Aztec’s mayor by the City Commission, said that while the city’s budgeting process has not begun, he anticipates that funding requests for emotional and security resources at local schools will be part of the fiscal year 2019 conversation.
“From a city standpoint, I know that there’s going to be some issues coming up,” Snover said. “We’re going into budget time, and I imagine that there will be requests for increased funding for student resource officers and that kind of thing. We haven’t settled on anything — we’re in the very preliminary phases of budget right now … so I don’t want to speak out of (turn) until I can sit down with finance folks and go over the budget.”
Aztec Municipal School District Superintendent Kirk Carpenter said funding for the mental health and security support over the past four months has come from $120,000 in emergency funds supplied by the New Mexico Public Education Department.
Carpenter said the emergency funding will run out eventually — likely by the end of the semester — and the district will pick up the rest of costs for additional mental health and security resources in the coming academic year.
“As we go into budget season, we’re putting in the security (and mental health funds) that we’re going to need. That’s just what we’re going to have to do,” Carpenter said. “That’s obviously going to have an effect on how we do other things in the district moving forward, but that’s just what we’re going to have to do, and we’re just going to have to try to manage that in some way. We’re still trying to figure that out as we go.”
In the meantime, students are dealing with the pressures of normal life in addition to coping with the tragedy. Aztec Boys & Girls Clubs CEO Mike Patch and Hall both said children and teens have a higher stress level after spring break when state testing is happening and as schools begin wrapping up the academic year.
“In spring time, you have fifth-graders who are suddenly discovering that they have hormones, and you’ve got the stress around state testing and spring break and everything else, so it’s normal for the kids in general to be a little bit more on edge,” Patch said. “But we’re really seeing more behavior problems than we have in the past and we’re seeing it across the board, so we’re trying to assess and we’re still talking to (a Grief Center of Southwest Colorado) counselor with the idea of, ‘Is the community still in shock? It’s not one or two kids that we need to deal with — it’s a broader sense. How do we address that?’”
Patch said for him, “somehow things are different” in Aztec, saying “things feel a little more brittle.”
“I can only speak to my experiences. I’m sure there are some that will tell you that everything is a positive,” Patch said. “For me, everything’s still a question mark. It’s not that I’m saying the community hasn’t been wonderful in the response to this — they have. It’s that I’m saying we still need to watch and be vigilant, because we don’t want anyone to miss out on the healing.”
Megan Petersen covers business and education for The Daily Times. Reach her at 505-564-4621 or firstname.lastname@example.org.