The Seattle Times published a shorter version of this post: An anguishing wait to reunite with my son after Ingraham shooting
This is not a post about the Middle East. Not a post about Israel, nor Palestine.
Though I often speak here of my personal views and sometimes of my life experience, I try not to make this blog personal. I don’t talk much about my family, and deliberately so. But tonight’s post is very personal. And certainly not what I intended to write until 10am this morning.
This morning, there was a shooting at Seattle’s Ingraham High School. I have lived in Seattle for nearly 25 years. I cannot recall another high school shooting here. If so, we have the dubious distinction of this being our first.
My son (I’m deliberately not using his name) texted us saying that his school was locked down and there had been gunshots in the hall near them. As you know by now, he attends Ingraham, where he is a senior.
My wife called me frightened out of her wits, asking if I’d heard the news. Since my kids joke that I never look at my texts (their preferred way of communicating), I hadn’t seen his text. She was the one who told me about the shooting.
No one knew much at the time. There was a shooter, he wasn’t in the school. One student was injured. We breathed a sigh of relief that there was only one. We were heartened when we heard the word “injured.” That gave us hope (at the time).
A Life and Death Ride
I had just dropped my son at school at 8:50. The shooting happened a little over an hour later (approximately). So by 10:30, I was back in the car to return to the school. Can you imagine driving amidst hundreds of cars going about their usual business, when I’m on a life-and-death ride to my son’s school? It was surreal.
Before I left the house, I’d talked through with my wife the route I would take and how I would get as close to the school as possible, presuming most of the area would be a traffic mess and under police cordon. Luckily, I’d discovered a shortcut to get from the freeway to the school, avoiding a few bottlenecks that happened on a normal school day. This would be far worse, so I feared.
But luckily, I was wrong. I was able to park fairly close to the school. Right at the edge of the cordon. I walked the two blocks into the parking lot, where they’d told parents to gather. There were several hundred and the number swelled as they learned what had happened. As is typical for the Seattle School District, though the police had directed parents to gather in this parking lot, the District sent out a text telling “family” not to gather at the school. Where did they expect them to gather? I texted my wife: “are they out of their mind?” There were already hundreds of us there.
Through frenzied texting back and forth (including my son who was sheltering in place in his classroom) we gradually learned more. He heard the shots which were near (too near) his classroom. He said he heard five shots.
Then we learned that the shooter was no longer in the building. That was a relief. They said he had gone in the direction of the nearby community center and police were searching for him. A helicopter flew overhead scanning the area.
At first, the police were saying the victim was injured. Then a news report said “life-threatening injuries.” Then I heard a student who was sitting in the parking lot surrounded by stuffies and an animal blanket. I heard her say, talking with someone on the phone: “passed away.” That was ominous.
They eventually caught the suspect. Apparently, he had boarded a Metro bus (how else would a 14-year-old travel?) on Aurora Avenue, a major thoroughfare two blocks from the school, and was apprehended on it. The news showed a picture of the bus parked at a bus stop.
The endless wait in freezing cold
We parents waited; and waited; and waited some more. In 35-degree cold. Eventually, they released students from their classrooms and brought them to the auditorium. They said they would begin releasing students at 12 noon. They didn’t. More on this later.
Information came out in dribs and drabs. My wife initially said there had been a fight in the cafeteria between one student and another. That turned out to be mostly wrong. Then either my wife or son (can’t remember which, because it’s a bit of a blur) said that the shooter was a 14-year-old freshman who shot a 17-year-old senior with a Glock pistol. The first thing I thought to myself was: what in God’s name is a 14-year-old doing with a Glock pistol?
Two hours after I arrived, they released the first student from the auditorium. We were all hopeful. After 20 minutes they released the second. I could tell with hundreds of students it was going to be a long wait. Meantime, I had run out of the house not realizing how cold it was. I was in sandals and hadn’t thought to bring gloves. It was cold. And standing for hours in it, jumping from foot to foot, was excruciating. Between the cold and not knowing what was happening inside the school, made me crazy.
For over an hour the students came out by dribs and drabs. My son texted they were letting students out by row. I asked if they were near his row. No, he answered. He said some kids were “cutting” in line. I told him to tell them to go sit down or he had my permission to kill them. Situations like this elicit dark humor. I sent my son so many texts that I realized I better stop, since it wasn’t moving things along on my end, and it was possibly annoying him on his.
In one of his texts, he told me he was sorry it was taking so long. Imagine, your son is at the scene of a school shooting and apologizes to you for keeping you waiting.
Hope dashed, a boy is dead
At some point during this, I searched the web and discovered a report saying the victim, who was flown by helicopter to Harborview, the city trauma center, had died. Later, my wife told me that the shooter had gone to the school to kill the victim. And later we learned that he had been shot in the back, likely trying to flee. This was no random attack; no student mad at the world, who wanted to make the school pay. It was cold-blooded murder.
But how can a 14-year-old even understand what murder is, what it means? His brain is barely formed. There is hardly any emotional intelligence. There is impulse and raging emotion. But no control. And most of all, no ability to see a broader perspective. My brother told me, if that is true, then how can we let a 14-year-old own a gun? I responded: there are hundreds of ways in this country a 14-year-old can get a gun. That’s the shame of it for the victims and the nation as a whole.
The trauma of a child school-shooting survivor
But there was a flip side of this I didn’t realize. The reason he could apologize to me about the wait, is that he couldn’t process the emotion of what had happened. Though he objectively knew, emotionally he didn’t. It’s not that he was suppressing his emotions, at least not knowingly. He simply said nothing was wrong. He was fine. And that was that.
But that wasn’t the case with me. I was a wreck. And I couldn’t really talk to my son because he wasn’t willing or able. So I was left to my own emotions, which were swirling uncontrollably. It was truly hellish.
They called his name
Finally, 4 1/2 hours later, they called his name. I was momentarily astonished that the thing I’d been waiting for for so long had finally happened. I saw him leaving the auditorium. That confirmed it was really him. I rushed over to the check-out table to meet him. We walked hurriedly to the car. I blessedly turned on the heat as my hand shivered to press the ignition button.
Then we drove home. We talked a little about it. He told me about his teacher who, after the shots were fired, ran to the door to lock it. But forgot her keys and called a student to bring them from her desk. Which raises a critical question: if we believe in school safety for students and teachers, why would you have any doors that can only be locked from outside it? Why put a teacher in danger during a mass shooting by putting him/her in jeopardy? And what if that teacher leaving the classroom enables a shooter to access the room itself filled with students. Today, a day after this horror show, my son added that the teacher told the class that she had spoken directly to the school administrators about this and was told “we’re working on it.”
My wife queried a school board director who said that a capital levy passed by voters provided funding to improve school security, and that changing door sets so they could be locked form the inside was included as of 2020. But why hasn’t in been done, as my wife said, “yesterday?” And considering this tragedy why wasn’t it done today? Further, it is a lie for Superintendant Brent Jones to talk about putting the safety of our kids first, when he’s neglected critical matters like this.
Returning to classroom events, my son’s teacher went out in the hall to lock it and came back saying that she smelled gunsmoke. He also told me a student had suggested they break a window because he wanted to escape. The teacher told him that was not a good idea. And that was the end of that.
We called my wife on the way home. She was at the airport of all places because she had to catch a flight for a court hearing in Oregon the next day. Imagine going through this hell and your wife, who desperately wanted to be there with us, had to leave town so she didn’t miss a hearing before a judge. I prompted my son to tell her the accounts he’d told me, so she would know everything we did.
I’ve tried to give you the outline of events above (though it’s all a blur and perhaps I mixed up things a bit). But I haven’t said much about how this affected me personally. In the midst of waiting in the parking lot, I didn’t want to interact with any of the other parents. Not that I was sour or off-putting. I just needed to be by myself. Though some parents clearly knew each other and were chatting, most of us just waited by ourselves.
We could not process what was happening. And felt you couldn’t go up to a stranger in such a confused state of mind. What would you say? How could you make sense of anything? And even if you did talk, you didn’t know what they were going through and how it made them feel. Perhaps a more outgoing, gregarious person could overcome that feeling and engage with fellow parents. But I couldn’t muster that sort of engagement.
Then everything changed (for the worse) when I read the news report that the boy had died. I became angry. I muttered under my breath, hoping no one would see my lips moving intensely, but I hoped quietly. I could barely conceal my rage.
That’s when I thought of an image that helped me make some sense of this: Imagine you are in a children’s hospital. Not in a cozy waiting room. But outside in the frigid air. They take your son in for examination and treatment. You know he isn’t in danger of death. But you know nothing short of that. And no one comes out to tell you anything. You wait and wait. One hour, two, then three. In the meantime, there are scores of other parents waiting as well. And a gurney comes out and there is one dead child. That is something like how maddening this was.
They could do better
Of course, the most critical planning around school shootings is neutralizing the shooter and ensuring security of the building. But there are other important considerations for what happens after that. And they seem to get short shrift, when they shouldn’t.
On the way home, my son told me the school personnel had handled the student checkout badly. First, they had different teachers dismissing different rows. But that went so badly they switched to having a single teacher dismissing the rows. But they only dismissed rows full of students. If you were a shy student or one who wasn’t sitting in a full row, you stayed there. My son waited in that auditorium for over two hours. Finally, he did get up and said to a teacher he wanted to leave with the row ahead of him. The teacher told him to go back to his seat. He waited till the teacher turned his back and left.
Of course, I am grateful to the teachers and staff for everything they did. But this part of the procedure was very poorly planned and executed. They prepared students for the lockdown process. But didn’t give enough thought to what came after. How do you get the students out of the school to their parents? Yes, there are 1,500 students in the school. But still, there has to be a better way.
The longer you force a child survivor to wait in a purgatory of doubt and trauma the greater his/her anxiety. During such a mass tragedy it’s critical that students be reunited with family as soon as possible. They need security. They need safety. The warm embrace of family provides that. But this didn’t happen here. There is a lesson to be learned here, but I’m not sure District administrators are listening.
I thought of calling this blog post after the African-American work song, Another Man Done Gone. Though it’s been recorded by many including Johnny Cash, Hot Tuna (where I first heard it), Odetta and Wilco, I thought using Southern Black dialect might sound like cultural appropriation. So I’ll just dedicate this song–first recorded by Vera Hall (or if you have Spotify) in 1940–to the 17-year-old boy (my son says his first name was “Ebeneezer,” but we don’t know for sure) who began his day today not knowing it would be his last.
Here are some of its powerful lyrics:
Another man done gone
Another man done gone
Another man done gone from the county farm
Another man done gone
I didn’t know his name
I didn’t know his name
I didn’t know his name, didn’t know his name
Didn’t know his name
He had a long chain on
He had a long chain on
He had a long chain on, had a long chain on
Had a long chain on
They killed another man
They killed another man
They killed another man, killed another man
Killed another man
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.