From Columbine to Parkland, how school shootings continue to shape parenting in 2018

Starting left, clockwise: Marques Storr Sr., 6-year-old Marques Jr., 8-year-old Naila, LaToi Storr, and 4-year-old Noelle, gather for prayer in their home prior to school. Latoi Storr and her husband started a new ritual after the Sandy Hook shooting: a huddle with the family to pray for safety throughout the day before they send the kids off to school.

After Naila counted her Girl Scout cookies, Marques informed his dad that Tuesday was the 103rd day of school, and Noelle put down the Kindle on which she was watching cartoons, the Storr family held hands in a tight circle in their living room in the Eastwick section of Southwest Philadelphia.

“Please,” Marques Storr Sr. prayed out loud over his family, “make sure that we all get home safe.”

Amid the chaos of getting three kids younger than 9 to take their medicine, eat their Apple Jacks, and get ready for school, Marques and LaToi Storr make sure to stop every morning for the daily prayer ritual they started not long after Adam Lanza gunned down 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. It’s what they’ve done every school day since — even if they’re running late — through Charleston and San Bernardino and Orlando and Las Vegas and Parkland.

“We started to cut our mornings back to make sure we hold them,” LaToi said. “We pray that they come home.”

For some, this is parenting in 2018. It’s holding the kids extra tight before sending them off into the world, praying that they return. It’s deciding when is the right time to talk to children about what to do if a person with a gun comes to their school. It’s crying at the thought of a child trembling in a closet while a killer roams the halls. And it’s the combination some parents say they feel of anxiety and numbness that’s haunted them since Columbine in 1999.

The feelings are amplified in the days and weeks after a mass shooting like the one on Valentine’s Day that left 17 people dead in Parkland, Fla. Since then, schools around the region — as often happens in the aftermath of a school shooting — have dealt with threats of violence, the cycle of anxiety for parents starting anew.

The Educator’s School Safety Network, an Ohio-based nonprofit made up of school safety experts, counted about 550 threats of violence against American schools since the shooting in Parkland, about six times what the group normally tallies in the same time frame. Of those 550 threats, a gun was found 21 times, according to the network.

In Pennsylvania, there have been roughly 75 threats of violence against schools since the Parkland shooting, according to state police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski. While the number of threats against schools tends to spike following a school shooting, “what’s happened this time is definitely more than the usual spike,” he said. A number of school districts in New Jersey have also fielded threats since Parkland, though law enforcement officials there didn’t have an estimate of how many.

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Eastern Regional High School students raise their hands during a Voorhees school safety forum. A panel of elected and educational officials and Voorhees police met with parents and students following the Parkland shootings and a recent threat at Eastern.

Those statistics represent a small number of schools. And Jennifer Lombardo, a mother of four from Mount Royal, said she understands all schools are trying to improve safety measures.

“But it’s not enough nowadays,” she said, “if someone’s got an AR-15.”

Parental anxiety over sending kids to school isn’t new to the active-shooter-trained generation. Boomers grew up hiding under their desks in case of a nuclear bomb. Millennials learned of 9/11 in their classrooms as their parents worried about radical terrorism. The possibility of terrorism is still there.

Today, it’s the guy with a gun whom some parents fear the most.

“Students being afraid of one another is very different than being afraid of this nameless, faceless communist scare,” said Susan B. Sorenson, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Though, she added, students in school now grew up post-Columbine with the “reality of mass shootings in school,” so parents may be more anxious about school shootings than their children.

Lombardo felt that last week. She was jolted Thursday night around 11:30 when she saw a tweet from Gloucester County Institute of Technology that addressed rumors that someone had threatened to shoot up the school, where son Nick is a senior.

It was decision time, and the choice wasn’t hard. Nick stayed home from school Friday. GCIT posted an update that day indicating law enforcement was “dealing with the individual” responsible. Lombardo said she was relieved police identified the alleged perpetrator. But the anxiety is exhausting. And she said it can seem like it’s never going to end.

“You can say, ‘Oh, when my kids graduate, they’ll be OK,’ but no, you worry about college campuses,” she said. “Now you have to worry about it in work environments. And concerts. And traveling. So it’s just this complete, utter loss of control over providing safety for your kids.”

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Dawn Geller, a Voorhees parent of two middle schoolers and a high school student, addresses her concerns before a panel of Voorhees police, elected and educational officials in the wake of a recent threat at Eastern Regional High School.

On Monday night, about 300 parents and community members questioned school leaders, police and elected officials at a school safety forum at Voorhees Middle School. On Feb. 15, a day after the Parkland shooting, Voorhees police arrested an 18-year-old on charges of threatening to “shoot up” Eastern Regional High School.

Jennifer Henry, a mother of two whose daughter is a senior at Eastern, asked school leaders why all the doors at the high school are left open in the morning and told them, “That needs to change now.” Another mother in the district, Anita Machhar Paleyanda, recommended that the school station someone outside to check in visitors. Other parents like Sharon Goodfellow asked for a guarantee that more active shooter drills would take place, and Michele Geiger questioned whether there were enough counseling resources for students like her daughter who have anxiety about a shooting.

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Voorhees parent Donna DeCicco said she wonders how to talk to her 13-year-old about school shootings.

Donna DeCicco, whose son is in eighth grade in Voorhees, wondered whether metal detectors might be a viable deterrent. She said she knows, though, that there’s no foolproof solution. Meanwhile, she’s trying to figure out the best way to talk to her 13-year-old about the possibility of a school shooting.

“I’m trying to balance,” DeCicco said. “How much do you talk about it and not instill fear?”

Athena Gil, who lives in Easton, Pa., has spent the two weeks since the Parkland shooting “nauseated” and driving daughter Kaylee Schmidt to school when she can instead of putting her on the bus. It’s so she can spend every available second with her 13-year-old. Gil said she remembers crying at work when she heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook and since then has started to be numb to news of school shootings.

“It feels like,” she said, “it’s almost expected to happen now.”