Survivors of past school shootings share messages of hope for students in Parkland, Florida
Living through such a tragic event comes with many emotional challenges, they say
Cell phones in the room started beeping and buzzing in unison. Breathless gasps and soft cries filled the air as people checked their devices. Some tears of sorrow fell to the floor.
Patrick Korellis’ heart suddenly felt heavy.
Korellis and other survivors of the 2008 Northern Illinois University mass shooting were gathered at the university’s Cole Hall on the afternoon of February 14 when news broke that a gunman had opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
At that same moment, it was the 10th anniversary of the NIU shooting. Korellis, the other survivors and their families were preparing to place wreaths on the stone memorials for the five victims who died in the gunfire, to commemorate the lives that were lost.
“It just weighed so heavily on us that there was a shooting on the anniversary of a shooting,” said Korellis, now a 32-year-old Chicago resident who works as a project manager in the corporate office of Walgreens.
He added that it was exactly 10 years to the day, and almost to the hour, that some of the students in Parkland joined him as members of a club that no one wants to be a part of – a club of school shooting survivors.
Other members include Lisa Hamp, 31, who survived the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting; Austin Eubanks, 36, who survived the 1999 Columbine High School shooting; and Kayte Terry, 40, who survived the 1992 Bard College at Simon’s Rock shooting.
“What’s really sad is, there’s so many of us now,” Terry said.
Here’s a look at each survivor’s personal story and the messages that they now have for the students who survived the Parkland tragedy.
‘I don’t want that to be the new normal for anyone’
Terry, an artist based in Philadelphia, describes the campus of Simon’s Rock as idyllic.
The college for young gifted students, where the majority enter after finishing 10th or 11th grade, sits among the snow-capped mountains of Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
The campus was mostly peaceful and quiet, Terry said, but that changed one frightful night in December 1992, the end of Terry’s first semester. About 10:30 p.m., shots rang out.
“I was in my dorm room, and everyone could hear the shooting,” Terry said, adding that she remembers getting a call for everyone in their dorms to get on the floor.
Not too far away, the gunman, who at the time was a sophomore at the college, was spraying bullets through the campus library before moving to a dormitory. He killed two people.
Now, more than 25 years later, Terry said, memories from that night still haunt her. As for most school shooting survivors, coping with those memories becomes a new normal.
Terry started seeing a therapist after the Simon’s Rock shooting and continues therapy sessions now as an adult.
The sessions are helpful for moments when she hears about a school shooting in the news, such as the recent Parkland massacre, which can spur waves of panic, she said.
Or “sometimes, I will be walking around in a mall, and I’ll see someone who looks really weird, and I think, ‘He’s going to shoot everyone,’ ” she said. “I don’t want that to be the new normal for anyone. I don’t think anyone should have to walk around and think that.”
Many of Terry’s fellow classmates also faced feelings of survivor’s guilt and isolated themselves in the weeks after the shooting, she said.
“It was pre-Twitter. It was before this was something that everybody talked about all the time. So people felt really isolated,” she said.
For the students in Parkland, Terry said, she hopes they talk to a therapist when needed and lean on each other for support. It seems like some already have, as they have started to advocate for gun control, she added.
“They seem to be banding together, which is so important,” Terry said. “I’m so beyond proud and impressed.”
Eubanks, who was injured in the Columbine shooting – seven years after Simon’s Rock – agreed that building a support system for survivors remains beneficial.
The dangers of self-medicating
Eubanks isolated himself after the Columbine High School tragedy, which played a major role in his subsequent struggle with addiction, he said. He now serves as chief operations officer for the Foundry Treatment Center, a substance abuse center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Eubanks was in the library with his friends, trying to decide whether they were going to go fishing or play golf after school, when they heard the sound of gunshots.
“A teacher ran through the same doors that we just entered into the library, yelling at everybody to get under the tables, that somebody had a gun, and I remember just being in shock,” Eubanks said.
Eubanks, his best friend and a couple of other students hid under the same table. About 10 minutes later, the shooters entered the library and methodically fired under each table, Eubanks said. He was shot in the hand and knee. His best friend was killed instantly.
“Obviously, after that, my life took a pretty big detour,” Eubanks said.
“As a result of my injuries, I was pretty significantly medicated about 45 minutes after being shot. I remember immediately being drawn to that feeling, because it took the emotion away,” he said of the pain medication.
Within a matter of weeks, he said, he developed an active opioid addiction.
Eubanks continued to struggle with addiction in his 20s, he said. Then, after multiple attempts at residential treatment, he found long-term recovery and decided to devote his time to speaking out about addiction recovery.
Though he had physical scars from the Columbine shooting, Eubanks turned to substance abuse as a way to medicate his emotional scars and avoid his grief.
“Specifically after a tragedy of this magnitude, you can medicate in a thousand different ways. You can medicate with relationships that allow you to not feel present. You can medicate with obviously substances, with television, with pornography. There’s a thousand different ways,” Eubanks said.
“One of the things that I think is so inspiring and so different about the aftermath of the Parkland tragedy is the activism that I’m seeing in the student body, and I think that that’s wonderful,” he said. “What I’m fearful of is that if they get so laser-focused on trying to impact societal change, they’re going to detach from their own healing, and that is a form of medicating.”
Eubanks added that his message is not to say the students shouldn’t continue to advocate for change. Rather, he hopes they continue “their own process of healing, because they’re going to have to go through those stages of grief,” he said.
It’s healthy to grieve
Hamp, who survived the Virginia Tech shooting, said she struggled with going through the stages of grief that involve denial, anger, depression and then acceptance.
“I hung out in denial for a really long time. I did not think the shooting impacted me at all, because I didn’t have any physical wounds or scars to show for it,” said Hamp, who is now an advocate for school and public safety in Sterling, Virginia.
“Eventually, years later, I made my way to counseling and finished out the stages of the grief process: being angry about it, being sad about it and then just accepting that this is my new normal,” she said.
Hamp was in computer science class at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, when the sound of gunshots echoed through the hallways outside the classroom.
The teaching assistant and a student walked into the hallway to find the source of the ruckus, Hamp said, and they saw the shooter. He fired at them but missed.
That following year, Hamp found it difficult to return to school, which can be the case for most school shooting survivors.
Hamp hated when books would drop and make a loud noise. She often picked her seat in class strategically near the exits so she had an “escape plan” in case of emergency.
Hamp didn’t realize, until she had counseling, that even though she was not physically injured in the shooting, the event left her with emotional trauma.
So for the students in Parkland, Hamp stressed that counseling can help them cope with similar scars that might not be visible.
Korellis, who survived the Northern Illinois University shooting, carries both physical pain and emotional scars from the incident.
‘When it gets cold outside I get reminded’
Korellis was in an Intro to Geology class when a gunman kicked open the door to the auditorium where the class was held and opened fire. As Korellis fled the auditorium, he was shot in the back of the head and the arm.
“I still have shotgun pellets still lodged in my neck that were really deep, and they’re toward my nerve endings. So when it gets really cold outside – and in Chicago, it gets cold – I always have to wear a hat. Otherwise, I feel a sharp pain in my neck,” Korellis said.
“To me, it’s part of the new norm. When it gets cold outside, I get reminded,” he said, adding that sometimes he still has nightmares or will jump at the sound of loud noises.
Korellis said that although it might take days, weeks, months or even years, he wants the students in Florida to know that they “will get through this” and will overcome fears.
“You’ll be able to watch a movie again. Loud noises won’t affect you as much,” he said.
“Counseling is what helped me the most and just having my friends and family support me,” he said. “They still do today, and they understand that 10 years isn’t enough time to get through something like this, especially as it’s happening too often and so frequently.”
Korellis also participates in a chat group online with other school shooting survivors, which has been helpful for his recovery and theirs, he said. He has already seen some students from Florida join the group, seeking support.
Join the conversation
One of the Florida students shared in a comment to the group that she has been having nightmares, Korellis said, and suddenly she received a wave of responses.
“Someone from Virginia Tech commented. I commented. Someone from Columbine commented. Someone from the Jonesboro middle school shooting, that was in Arkansas a long time ago, commented. Someone from the Aurora movie theater shooting commented. A Sandy Hook parent commented,” Korellis said.
“She wrote back and she said, ‘Wow I can’t believe all these different mass shootings that all of you went through and ours is so fresh in our mind. Thank you for comforting me,’ ” he said. “We told her it will be a difficult next few weeks, but if you ever need to come back into this group, we’re here. Just come talk to us.”