The shootings in Lewiston on Wednesday, Oct. 25, took a noticeable toll on students and teachers at Baxter Academy in Portland. Fear clouds our hallways and our minds. But as a school we try to work together to keep a supportive community.
Continuous exposure to news of gun violence can cause extreme anxiety and other mental health issues, especially among teens. Students can worry about their safety at school and have trouble focusing.
Baxter Academy teachers and administration worked hard to create a mental health day after the events of last week. Finding a balance between keeping academics on track and giving space for students to process what happened, they came up with a flexible schedule.
When we returned to school on Monday the 30th, we had the choice to be in class, go to a quiet space, talk with a counselor or work on taking action in other ways. There were rooms where students could create posters, make cards for Lewiston families or write letters to legislators.
These resources were highlighted in an email from our principal, Cicy Po: “Throughout the day on Monday, for those students who need greater counseling support, small group care will be offered in the Great Room by our care team. For those students who would like to send well wishes to Lewiston and its surrounding communities, there will be banner stations in the foyer and materials for students to contribute their words of strength and support.”
With 20 percent of Baxter families coming from the Lewiston-Auburn area, many students were directly affected by the tragedy. I interviewed two of them (who would prefer to remain anonymous), asking what their experiences were.
One Baxter student lives in Lisbon and witnessed a great deal of the search for the gunman, Robert Card. He heard helicopters above his neighborhood and recalled his mother telling him about the shooting, and that they all had to be quiet and not turn on any lights. He recalled seeing police filling the woods behind his house, especially the SWAT teams.
“There were FBI and ATF agents in my backyard with machine guns. We were told to shelter in place for what ended up being almost two days,” the student said.
I also talked to a student who had a direct connection to Just-In-Time Recreation, the bowling alley where 7 of the 18 people were killed that night. “The kids in our family partially grew up there . . . I was part of the youth league, my siblings are all in the youth league. Bob Violette was our bowling coach,” the student said, referring to one of the victims.
This student said their little brother was supposed to go to the bowling alley that night but their mom said no. “Kids my brother bowled with were killed and hurt that night.”
The student also said the anxiety he sees in his siblings is one of the worst parts of this whole thing. “The biggest impact is, it is never going to leave my sibling’s minds; helicopters and sirens scare them now. Neither of my parents can leave without my siblings knowing exactly where they are going and when they’ll be back.”
Nowadays, kids are more aware of current events than ever. Exposure is higher and starts younger, mostly due to social media. Although many students are informed, an incident of this size happening so close to home is another story.
“I like to think I’m informed and aware of violence in other places, but something happening so close to home made it so scarily real for me,” said one student, who lives a short drive from one of the shooting sites.
The United States has experienced 565 mass shootings this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The Lewiston shooting has already been ranked the 10th-worst in U.S. history, based on the number of deaths and injuries.
Gun violence directly affects everyone.
Most U.S. schools are required to practice lockdown drills every year; Baxter must have two per year. The drills require students and teachers to simulate what we would do in the event of a violent intruder. Lights go off, windows and doors are locked, and we sit huddled on the floor in complete silence.
Most kids are accustomed to the drills by now, but the anxiety they can produce is still very real. Students should feel safe in their homes, communities and schools.
As gun violence continues to affect our lives, many students say there are few places they feel completely safe anymore. One told me: “Do I worry about homework or getting shot? I just feel like it could happen anyplace anytime.”