SINCE THE COLUMBINE school shooting in 1999, more than 292,000 students have faced gun violence in their schools. As of April 2022, there have been 23 school shootings in the U.S. this year, according to Education Week’s school shooting tracker.
With the recent introduction of California bills such as SB 906, requiring parents to disclose their possession of firearms at home, debates about whether states and schools are doing enough to keep their students and staff safe have only intensified. As California leads the nation in the number of mass shootings in the past 40 years, students, teachers and parents are seeking ways to ensure safety in schools.
We asked students who have survived a school shooting or shooting threats about how those experiences have impacted them.
A few weeks before the end of her junior year, Julia Raven sat in the basement of UCLA’s Haines Hall and drafted an email to her family. She began her message with, “I’m sorry to be sending you a similar email two times in the same year.”
For the second time in less than seven months, Raven was confronted with gun violence. The first incident occurred in fall 2015 when she was studying abroad in Paris and 19 people were killed in a cafe near her apartment. The second was almost seven months later at UCLA.
On June 1, 2016, Mainak Sarkar, 38, a former UCLA graduate, shot and killed William Klug, a 39-year-old professor who had formerly worked with Sarkar. After the shooting, Sarkar shot and killed himself. Klug taught mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCLA from 2003 until his death. Police called it a murder-suicide.
For Raven, that morning began as a typical Wednesday. Soon after arriving at her 10 a.m. class, she and her classmates were alerted that the campus was on lockdown. Unsure of what was happening outside, Raven said she and her peers turned off the classroom lights and sat on the floor to avoid being exposed through the classroom windows facing the campus.
Although the shooting was limited to an engineering building, Raven said she and her friends at the time believed that there were four shooters because of inaccurate early reports from fellow students.
As Raven and her classmates remained in the locked classroom, some of her friends were in lecture halls with doors that could not be locked or barricaded from the inside. In a panic, some students chose to run from their lecture halls to find more secure hiding spots, she added.
“We were getting texts from our friends saying, ‘We’re running for it,’” Raven said.
Police helicopters hovered above, and a SWAT team filled the campus in response. Raven added that when students began seeing photos from news outlets of their peers coming out of the engineering building and being patted down by the police, many believed there were still active shooters on campus.
However, even as police swarmed the campus, UCLA provided little information on the situation and failed to let students know that the shooting was an isolated incident, Raven said. Thus, students continued to believe they were in immediate danger as the morning continued, she added.
“The lack of communication from UCLA, with all the rumors going around, was deeply upsetting,” Raven said. “UCLA definitely increased the fear of that day and induced a lot of the panic that was happening.”
Six years later, Raven said that she still has difficulty sitting in a classroom today as a doctoral candidate in political science at UC Berkeley. Sometimes, she said, when someone enters a lecture hall, her mind immediately begins to race and conjures thoughts of a possible shooting threat — rather than assuming that a student overslept and merely walked in late.
Raven said that as a teaching assistant, she has a duty to help other students learn about various courses. However, she worries that they may instead leave their classes traumatized and fearing for their lives should they face a shooter.
“It’s incredibly sad because what safe spaces do people have left?” Raven asked herself. “The college campus is one that has historically been a safe space for students.”
On Jan. 31, UCLA experienced another threat. This time, a former professor named Matthew Harris, who taught philosophy until last year, sent emails implying a mass shooting would be unleashed on the campus. These kinds of threats only affirm that violence has almost become an expectation in students’ lives, Raven said.
However, rather than accepting gun violence as a norm, society should consider the root causes of school shootings and address them accordingly, she says.
“An entire generation of students is afraid to attend the learning institutions that are supposed to be the safest for them,” Raven said. “I think this recent era is showing us that kids are growing up a lot faster than they ever had to before.”
— Megan Tagami
Presley Shum survived two gun threats and two bomb threats before turning 21.
One gun threat and one bomb threat occurred when she was a student at Dublin High School in the East Bay. She was a junior the first time in 2017 and a senior in 2018 when the pre-graduation bomb threat was made.
“Honestly, at this point, I’m not surprised,” Shum said. “I mean, maybe a couple of years ago, I would have been surprised [by my experiences with shooting threats and bomb threats] but now, just given the political climate and how things are, I’m not surprised.”
“ATTENTION SFPD HAVE BEEN NOTIFIED OF A MASS SHOOTING THREAT. UPDATES WILL BE SENT OUT THAT INVOLVE YOUR SAFETY,” a notification from the San Francisco States Instagram meme account, @sfsuroom on Sept. 28, 2021, popped up on Shum’s phone. The private account is not affiliated with SFSU.
Another message from @sfsuroom popped up seconds later that read, “This is not a joke. This is currently under investigation. We just called SFPD. They are sending a unit. Please add in your caption to avoid spreading rumors. This is a matter of great safety.”
Shum watched the shooting threat unfold as she sat in her living room in the East Bay with her phone in hand as she watched her Instagram and Twitter feed blow up.
“I tried to downplay it in my head. I would think, ‘He’s not serious about it, he’s just a dumbass who’s fragile.’ ” Shum said. “I find that is my reasoning when it comes to struggles with stressful situations, especially with violence in school.”
Shum recalls checking the San Francisco State meme account that day, which has since been made private, and noticed that in the comments a man commented on the account. He wrote: “I’m shooting up the school,” and filmed himself walking onto campus. Chillingly, he posted everything live on Instagram. The meme account took a screenshot of the video and posted it on their account, which is what Shum and other students came across.
Later, the would-be shooter was arrested. Police said the incident was related to a domestic dispute.
The first time Shum experienced a violent threat was on Nov. 2, 2017, at her high school, Dublin High.
“It was after lunch,” Shum said. “I think we had to stay in our classrooms for a certain amount of time. We all knew something was wrong, and it was also spirit week.” The school was in lockdown, and Shum and her classmates stayed in their classroom for longer than she anticipated. Soon the loudspeakers warned everyone to evacuate campus immediately.
“Of course, mental health plays a part in it,” Shum said. She sighed deeply as she continued, “I felt like it should be acknowledged as part of the problem. It’s never really cared for, which then brings people to these breaking points.”
— Lauren Berny
For Andrea Stewart, a California State University, San Bernardino communications graduate, leaving campus late had become a normal routine when she was still in school.
She had signed up for night classes her final semester. But on the evening of Jan. 10, 2018, she was walking out of the campus library when a police helicopter hovering above announced on a loudspeaker that the campus was under assault by a shooter.
Survival instincts kicked in and Stewart decided frantically to hide in the nearby Visual Arts building. She had no idea at the time that a window in the building had been shot, kicking off the incident.
Stewart suddenly wished she had never signed up for those night classes.
“As a student taking night classes, you are always aware of your surroundings,” Stewart said. “I was on my way to the parking lot. It was around 8 p.m. and I was ready to get home and eat dinner.” But she never made it to the parking lot, she said, and she never made it to dinner because as she was exiting the library she saw a police helicopter flying above her.
“It was flying very low, and they suddenly announced there was an active shooter and that everyone should take shelter,” she said. “It was very scary.”
Stewart said that this incident made her realize how many of the campus structures were not set up to provide safe and adequate shelter in the event of a threat. For instance, many of the buildings were not as accessible and easy to get into as she thought, and she quickly realized some buildings were closed off and could not be accessed in an emergency and some buildings had doors that could not be locked from the inside. She has nightmares about not being able to find safety in an active shooter incident.
She finally ran inside the first floor of the arts building, where she found many students and staff. They all decided to turn off the lights to be more secure.
“Being in shelter with other people made me feel better,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on. None of us did. We were just scared.”
Stewart said the university was unable to provide information early on. She resorted to checking social media to communicate with other students, get a live account of what was happening and find information from outside news sources. “I knew at that moment that everything we live-tweeted would be part of this history.”
She tweeted: “I’m currently hiding in a conference room on campus. The police helicopter made the announcement on a speaker.”
The CSUSB campus was on lockdown for about four hours. During that time, Stewart was texting her husband and her mother. “I just wanted to get home to my family, I wanted to do what I had to do to be safe. If I had to stay inside for more hours, I would have done it.”
Her husband told her to stay calm and assured her that no suspect had been found.
The gun threat left her with mental scars that remain, Stewart said.
“I stay very vigilant. If anything feels off, I leave right away,” she said. According to Stewart, ever since that night she began carrying a full water bottle and snacks, in case she would ever experience another lockdown.
For their safety and protection, Stewart decided to homeschool her two children. Stewart currently resides in a small community in Riverside County.
“It’s a rural area,” she said, “where schools are small and have less resources.” She believes those schools are less prepared for active shooting threats.
“Imagine what could happen in these small schools,” she said. “Especially if they do not have gun safety protocols.”
— Brenda Fernanda Verano
Leesa Hogan, a 44-year-old returning student at Merritt College says she loves her hometown of Oakland but is acutely aware of the rampant gun violence that takes place in some parts of the city. She says that growing up near such violence has left her somewhat desensitized.
“I can’t live being scared to be a part of my community,” Hogan said. “It’s not a good or a bad thing, it’s my reality. It’s not just my reality, it’s the reality of a lot of people where I come from.’
In 2021, Oakland police investigated 134 homicides and reported a 21 percent increase in shooting incidents over the previous year.
In November 2019, Hogan witnessed a police shootout near the elementary school where she was volunteering. She had just arrived at the school when she heard gunshots and police sirens nearby. Hogan immediately knew a police pursuit was happening.
There were young students playing outside on the school playground when the gunshots were fired. Hogan helped get them into their classrooms.
Hogan said she remembers the sounds of chaos inside the school: doors slamming, children crying and teachers begging their students to sit down and keep quiet.
Amid the commotion, Hogan said her mind immediately went to her family who lived down the street from the elementary school.
“I prayed to God that the police pursuit wasn’t going in the direction of my family,” she said. “My sister, her fiancé and her kids were at home at the time.”
Police exchanged gunfire with the shooter before officers caught him.
Once the police shootout ended, Hogan said some of the first graders immediately opened up to her emotionally. Some students said it was not the first time they had heard or seen shootings. One of Hogan’s first grade students openly said to her that their uncle “shoots all the time.”
Hogan said that hearing the reactions from the children made her feel sad for the future.
Hogan said that the gun violence she witnessed has greatly affected her personal life and performance in school.
“It takes longer for me to process information because of PTSD,” Hogan said. “I’m worried all the time, not just about school but the safety of my family. These things never leave my mind. It makes it harder to concentrate in general.”
Since the 2019 incident, Hogan has resorted to taking online classes as much as possible, which has not only been convenient for her, but has made her feel safer as well.
“With the economy being the way that it is and with Covid, everybody is having to do other things to survive,” she said. “It’s scary because people who go to school at night have become targets. Being online is a personal choice, but I have a better mindset knowing that I wouldn’t have to worry about potentially being assaulted or attacked.”
— Raya Torres
On Sept. 18, 2019, Katsu Stibich was working in the College of Engineering building at San Jose State University when a fellow student assistant rushed to him and warned that police officers had caught a 17-year-old student who had brought a handgun with ammunition on campus. By the time Stibich learned about what happened, the 17-year-old student had already been taken into custody.
The freshman student, according to police, threatened a Homestead High School student on social media. Officers were informed of the threats by an employee of Homestead High School and immediately arrested the student at the SJSU campus. The student suspect allegedly was caught with a loaded handgun, ammunition and a knife. No one was harmed in the incident.
Stibich, who graduated from San Jose State in the fall of 2020 with a degree in industrial technology, says he appreciates how university police dealt with the situation quickly and safely.
“I felt good knowing the problem had been dealt with appropriately,” Stibich said. “My educational experience was not particularly affected. I felt as safe as before the incident.”
Although a student managed to sneak a gun onto campus, Stibich said that because he felt confident his college and local police would respond quickly and effectively, his sense of safety remains high.
“I think SJSU had a good system in place to deal with these problems proactively rather than reactively,” he said.
Stibich said that while he was attending SJSU, he received weekly emails from the campus about ongoing crimes.
He said most of the crimes involved individuals from outside of the school arriving on campus, and this criminal activity had made him feel more unsafe than the possibility of witnessing a school shooting.
“They gave me a lot of peace of mind, knowing that the college was making efforts to be transparent about their police activity,” Stibich said. “It proved they were actively working to address safety on campus.”
— Raya Torres
When Luka/Isa Gidwani learned that former University of California, Los Angeles philosophy professor Matthew Harris had threatened the campus with a mass shooting, he was not surprised. Gidwani, who is today a fourth-year philosophy major, was a former student of Harris.
“In my head, I was just like, ‘Of course, this is happening, I’m not surprised,’ ” Gidwani said. “But I was also like, ‘Not again.’ ”
On Jan. 31, Gidwani was one of 36 recipients of Harris’ email that ultimately required UCLA to shut down its campus the following day. The email implied that a mass shooting could occur near or at UCLA’s philosophy department and included an 800-page manifesto that threatened different campus groups and individuals.
Gidwani’s name was on that list.
The email also included a link to Harris’ YouTube account, which included pornographic videos. Gidwani said he continued to receive emails from Harris several hours leading up to the professor’s arrest by Colorado police officers on Feb. 1, 2022.
Gidwani took Harris’ philosophy class in the winter of 2021. About a week after the course’s conclusion, Gidwani said they received an initial email from Harris with a YouTube link leading to a pornographic video.
Harris had already exhibited concerning behavior during his professorship. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Harris had discussed potentially gunning down a particular professor at the University of California, Irvine in an email Harris sent to his mother in January 2021.
In late February 2021, a special assistant for the Title IX office offered Gidwani a restraining order against Harris. At the time, Gidwani said they did not know about Harris’ threats against the UCI professor or that he had recently been involuntarily hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to a criminal complaint from the U.S. District Court for Colorado. Gidwani declined the restraining order, adding that he was worried that listing his name and neighborhood on the form would be dangerous.
“They weren’t telling us exactly why they were offering a restraining order,” Gidwani said. “Just very broadly, like, ‘Oh, for your safety.’ ”
After receiving another email from Harris on Jan. 31, 2022, Gidwani learned that some of his peers who received the same email notified the UC Police Department.
“My classmates went to UCPD the moment they got the threat, and (the UCPD) were like, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s always gonna be weirdos,’” Gidwani said. “UCPD downplays the severity of the situation and the trauma caused by the situation to the students who went to try to tell them what’s going on.”
Gidwani said they personally were triggered upon receiving Harris’ email, adding that they began crying soon after they received a notification with Harris’ name on their phone. The emotional distress of the situation prevented Gidwani from attending class the entire week of Jan. 31 as they struggled with their classmates to process the situation.
“We can’t concentrate on anything, because this is what’s taking up a lot of our time for the past year,” Gidwani said. “It’s not something we can just be at peace with, and that’s because UCLA also doesn’t help us be at peace from it.”
Gidwani added that he is disappointed with the way UCLA disseminated information to the entire study body. While Gidwani and other members of the philosophy department received Harris’ email around 2 p.m., most students learned about the potential shooting threat through word of mouth around 8 p.m., they said. However, Gidwani also believes that UCLA should have suspended classes in the philosophy building right away.
Instead, UCLA did not announce its decision to move classes online until a few minutes before midnight on Jan. 31.
“There’s a lot to criticize about how UCLA reacted,” Gidwani said. “I was going to say it was slow and delayed, but UCLA barely reacted.”
At the state level, while gun reform is important, there should be a greater focus on preventive measures, Gidwani said. They added that, once people attain gun ownership, the law may do little to protect others.
“At the end of the day, if someone does get their hands on a gun, the law isn’t gonna protect me,” Gidwani said. “Legally, I do have protection. But if I’m shot and killed, that’s not gonna matter.”
— Megan Tagami
Both happened at San Francisco State University, where they studied biochemistry and molecular biology as an undergrad. Today they are pursuing a master’s degree in bioengineering at the University of California Berkeley.
Both scary incidents happened when Velazquez was studying inside the main campus library.
“The second one, that was the scariest,” Velazquez, 23, said.
It was 9 p.m. on Sept. 28, 2021, when the school shooting threat occurred. They were sitting with other classmates, studying for midterms that were to be given the next morning.
“We were with the professor,” Velazquez said. “Then out of nowhere, we heard the sirens inside of the library go off.”
University officials suddenly locked the library doors and Velazquez was trapped inside with their classmates. The only information Velazquez had access to at the time came from their cellphone as the university sent out voice recordings and texts. The library was filled with the sounds of other students’ phones ringing and pinging like some kind of movie scene, they said.
The message offered details and simply warned students to stay indoors and not go outside.
“The only reason we found out that there was a school shooting threat was because of the Citizen app.” The Citizen app costs $20 and is designed to send alerts to subscribers whenever an incident occurs near them.
“The part that was kind of scary was that the entire library is made of windows,” Velazquez said. One side of the library faced the campus while the opposite side faced student housing.
“So if there was an actual active shooter shooting at the library, then that would have been a potential hazard,” Velazquez said. “There’s no way not to be next to a window unless you were in a secluded part of the library.”
Fortunately Velazquez, their classmates and a professor were on the other side of campus when the shooting took place.
Velazquez said they were scared but didn’t feel as afraid as other classmates.
“I’ve definitely seen more people with guns than the average person,” Velazquez said.
Velazquez grew up in Hayward, CA, and says that gun violence was commonplace.
“After that experience at San Francisco State, I never stayed in the library past 9 p.m.,” Valezquez said. “If I needed to do any studying after that it was from home.”
— Lauren Berny
On Sept. 2, 2021, at about 1:30 p.m, students at Santee High School, located in South Central Los Angeles, were having lunch when two students started a fight.
While some students were encouraging the scuffle, one of the student combatants pulled out a pistol and shot the other student in the leg.
Bryant Lopez remembers hearing other students yell out “Fight! Fight!” Lopez reacted by immediately running toward the fight. He had no clue anyone would be armed on campus.
In the end, one student was injured and rushed to the hospital but survived. Within minutes of the shots, police officers swarmed the locked-down campus.
“I was shocked,” Lopez said. “We all ran as far from the fight as possible.”
During the incident, Lopez said that students and staff were rushed to the cafeteria and remained on lockdown until the police released them. Some students were texting and calling their parents to let them know they were safe.
Lopez grew up in South Los Angeles, a neighborhood where mysterious gunshots are often fired.
“Yes, I am aware of gun shootings that occur in many schools, and I believe that students go through personal issues,” Bryant said. “But I think this wasn’t the case this time, I believe this was gang-related.”
Even with campus security guards and teachers around, nobody could move fast enough to prevent the fight.
“It happened too quickly,” Lopez said, adding that he now feels unsafe at school. However, there is a part of him that is becoming numb to all of it. “My neighborhood is already unsafe, so this feeling is somewhat similar,” he said. “I just go about my day.”
Still, even with his experience living in a tough neighborhood, Lopez said he was shocked to learn that a fellow student was armed and willing to gun down another kid. “My parents are worried,” he said. “But I don’t worry much.”
After the shooting, Lopez and many of his friends, who were also freshmen at the time, were afraid to return to school but had no option. One thing that Bryant does today to make himself feel better is walking his girlfriend home from school. He feels a sense of control by being her protector.
Bryant said that he believes it is pointless having security guards on high school or college campuses. Committed violent offenders will find a way to access a school no matter what, he said.
“Our school fences are high, but anyone can climb it since the school is so big,” Lopez said. “Before, schools would teach students how to react when there was an earthquake or fire. Today, teachers now give lessons on how students can seek help or survive a shooting.”
— Efren Gutierrez
Shortly after 8 p.m. on Jan. 31, Masooma Bukhari received a phone call at work from her best friend warning that a professor had threatened to shoot up UCLA.
Bukhari immediately began locking the doors of her workplace located near UCLA’s campus after learning that Matthew Harris, a former UCLA postdoctoral philosophy fellow, had allegedly made mass shooting threats against the university earlier in the day.
“It was still that sense of fear and this feeling of descending frenzy that, ‘Oh my god, there’s all this stuff going on,” Bukhari said. “And we don’t know where this person is.”
Bukhari, a third-year philosophy and political science student at UCLA, was one of many students left shaken after community members received threatening emails from Harris, which included implied threats against the philosophy department, including a linked YouTube video named “UCLA Philosophy (Mass Shooting).”
People began learning about Harris’ emails and history of inappropriate teaching behavior, such as sending students YouTube links to pornographic videos, via word of mouth as early as the afternoon of Jan. 31. However, the university did not announce its decision to move classes online for the following day until close to midnight.
Bukhari said the university’s decision did not come swiftly enough, adding that UCLA should not have expected students to come to campus when Harris’ whereabouts were still unknown. Bukhari added that students were already overwhelmed with returning to in-person instruction after the omicron variant shut down campus for the first four weeks of the quarter and did not need the additional fear of gun violence occurring on campus.
“It’s shocking that everyone at school was just still questioning the very next day and the days after, like, ‘What’s going on? Are we still safe?,’” Bukhari said. “I’m honestly disappointed in the university because I feel like it’s such a very sensitive time and challenging time.”
As a hijabi Muslim American, Bukhari felt especially targeted by Harris’ manifesto, which she said included xenophobic and violent statements targeting Muslims and their faith. Bukhari added that, upon returning to campus the morning of Feb. 2, she did not regain a sense of normalcy and felt unsettled while walking on campus.
Despite the fact that Harris had been taken into police custody in Colorado the previous day, some students did not return to their in-person classes right away, Bukhari added.
“It wasn’t a normal morning,” Bukhari said. “Personally, I didn’t feel relaxed. I didn’t feel like I was welcomed and understood by faculties.”
Bukhari said the first step in addressing school shooting threats is recognizing the deadliness of guns. She added that safety reforms could allow students and faculty members to track the proximity of violent weapons to their respective campuses.
“We should be able to pinpoint and know exactly where those carrying weapons are surrounding the campus,” Bukhari said.
Bukhari said that as mass shootings have become an epidemic in the United States, action at the national, state and local level is needed. Rather than reacting to incidents of gun violence or threats, people should instead take proactive steps to reduce threats of violence, Bukhari added.
“We shouldn’t approach such situations with fear,” Bukhari said. “We should have hope and aspirations for a safe future.”
— Megan Tagami
When learning about the January mass shooting threat made by a UCLA professor against the campus, Aizehi Nomo, a 2016 alumna, recalled memories of bomb threats and shooting alerts that she experienced throughout her undergraduate career.
Nomo, who graduated from UCLA with a degree in ethnomusicology, said that she attended college constantly concerned that violence could happen at any moment on campus. Making matters worse, a murder-suicide occurred during the last week of her undergraduate studies. In that incident, a former graduate named Mainak Sarkar shot and killed an engineering professor from UCLA named William Klug.
Nomo was also a student at Santa Monica College in 2013, when John Zawahri initiated a shooting spree that left six people dead, including himself, on and off the university’s campus.
“My academic career, especially on the collegiate level, has been colored by just feeling at any given point that there could be acts of violence,” Nomo said. “Unfortunately, there’s definitely a culture of the potential for violence on campus.”
As she also faced recurring bomb threats during final exams week while in community college, Nomo navigated her college career wondering what dangers were real and what information she could trust from social media and fellow students.
“It was a common thing that there would always be bomb threats whenever, like, finals would happen. And then you’d always have to wonder, ‘Oh, does someone just not want to take their final? Or, are we actually in danger?,’” Nomo said. “You’re always doing that dance.”
Nomo said she believes UCLA handled the 2016 murder-suicide well. When arriving on campus on the morning of the shooting, alerts from the university as well as warnings from other students notified her to turn around and head home safely.
“I don’t think that anyone’s ever going to be prepared for an incident of random violence,” Nomo said. “I do think that there has to be some balance in our critique, just because in situations such as that, there’s a lot of unpredictability.”
However, Nomo added, effective communication is not always possible in a crisis. In the case of the Santa Monica College shooting, Nomo was among the first to alert her fellow transfer students after learning about the unfolding situation on Twitter. Nomo said that she noted that in the January incident at UCLA, students relied on one another for information and much of it was faulty. They were forced to wait for greater direction from the university.
Nomo said that there is no good reason that explains the ongoing school shootings on American campuses. Political disagreements, mental health struggles and arguments among students and staff may all contribute to gun violence – and these factors are often out of others’ control, Nomo said.
“I think that living is hard,” Nomo said. “People are going through a lot of different things, and they tend to spill over into these institutions.”
— Megan Tagami
At about 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 6, 2019, LiliArlen Gomez was in her theater class at Seaside High School when she heard an announcement over the school’s public address system warning that a gunman may be on school grounds.
Police would later report that the gunman fired off rounds at the school after shouting at three students from Seaside High. The shooter, a student at a different school, escaped but eventually turned himself in.
“I was thinking about how I could call my mom or how I could get out of the situation,” Gomez said. “I’m usually not claustrophobic. But that time, since the lights were off and the doors and windows were closed, I started feeling like it.”
Gomez and her classmates had to hide in the classroom for three hours, she said, until police could clear the area and escort students to safety.
“My parents were making sure that I was OK,” she said, “making sure that I was calming myself down. And they were trying to relax me. After, I couldn’t even go out to get the mail without remembering the moment or wondering whether I was safe. I was a little too tense.”
The residual trauma followed Gomez, she said, when she transferred to California State University, Monterey Bay, where she is now a third-year student studying film.
“I do still fear, mostly because I live on campus,” Gomez said. “There’s been a lot of situations here that make us really look into our surroundings. There was a guy who was reported to have a rifle in his dorm room, and they found [parts of an AR-15] rifle. And he had a lot of Confederate decorations. Makes me think a lot about my safety here on campus.”
Gomez, who describes herself as Latinx, said she feels unsafe on campus due to her ethnicity. She said those fears were reinforced when she saw a photo on Instagram showing a Monterey Bay campus officer using a hand gesture that is known to be a symbol of white power.
“Even though we have a police department right next door, it’s like there’s a lot of fear and tension,” Gomez said. “Are we really protected or are they going to take sides?”
— Nova Blanco-Rico
In the last five years, Lucas Kim has survived two shooting threats and a bomb threat in high school and college. Kim, a 20-year-old biomedical engineering major from California State University, Long Beach, says that growing up hearing about school shootings and witnessing threats has left him desensitized.
“It sucks,” Kim said. “Students should just be focusing on school but thinking about potentially being in a school shooting is now, sadly, part of the lifestyle of growing up in America.”
Kim was a junior in high school when he witnessed his first shooting threat. During an after-school sports event, two students talked about wanting to “shoot up” the school and create an attack “bigger than Columbine.” The person who overheard the students talking immediately reported it to the school administration and local police were contacted. The following day, police arrested the students and found the students were planning an attack. Police also found in the students’ cellphone histories that they researched firearms and other school shootings, including the Colorado Columbine shooting in 1999, where 13 people were killed and 24 were injured.
The arrested students were from Kim’s grade.
During Kim’s senior year of high school, there was a bomb threat. Around lunchtime one day, a fire drill was announced over the school’s PA system. Kim said that teachers told the students it was a normal fire drill, but he started being skeptical once the drill took longer than normal.
“We were all just standing around for a while,” Kim said. “We were outside for about 45 minutes. When the teachers said we could go back to our classes, a phone and email blast came out to all students and parents saying that there was a bomb threat, but it got de-escalated.”
In Kim’s freshman year at CSULB, he was in a lab class at the Hall of Sciences building when the campus went into lockdown from a potential active shooter threat. Kim said he heard that a person was spotted on campus with a firearm by the “Go Beach” sign.
Once the lockdown began, Kim and his classmates were instructed to crouch near the back of the classroom. Kim saw helicopters circling the campus, but he did not feel threatened by what was happening.
“In my mind, the chances of the person coming to my classroom were very unlikely,” Kim said. “There were at least five to six buildings between where I was and where they said the suspect was. By this time, we had University Police actively patrolling our campus so they would be able to respond. I didn’t really feel panicked because the odds were very slim.”
Kim said he remembers that some of his classmates panicked because some doors in his lab classroom have no locks.
“I was trying to calm the other students down and explain my thought process,” Kim said. “It helped some people, but I understand that some people have gone through worse stuff. I think I’ve just been desensitized by everything, so I didn’t really react during the situation.”
Kim said that he often watched and read the news growing up, which has mainly caused his desensitization. The first school shooting case he heard about was the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 when he was 11 years old.
“It seemed like there was a time when there was a major mass shooting at a school once a month,” Kim said. “Hearing all the stories, it is scary, but there’s nothing you can do, and I’ve accepted that. Of course, I’m going to try to not let it happen or try not to be a victim, but I know I can’t control that.”
Kim says that his previous experiences have also changed him for the better. He tries to look out for the people around him and be there to support them.
“I do understand that a simple gesture of kindness can change things, so that’s what I try to do.” Kim said. “My little contribution is if I see someone going through it, I’ll go up to them, talk to them, see how they’re doing. Any small type of gesture like that could potentially change things.”
— Raya Torres
Zachary Rosenblatt, a 2014 graduate from the UC Santa Barbara, lived a block away from campus in a neighborhood called Isla Vista. The area was filled with student renters that year when a man named Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree that left seven people dead and 14 injured.
Rodger was previously enrolled at Santa Barbara City College but dropped out in 2012, although he still lived in the area.
Initially, “I remember hearing sirens,” Rosenblatt said.
He said it was normal to hear fireworks and sirens in the neighborhood, but this time felt different. He took to Facebook, posting a status asking his community why so many sirens were going off.
After Rosenblatt made the post, a friend jokingly commented on it, saying “just another night in I.V.’ or something along those lines,” Rosenblatt said.
When Rodger drove around shooting at people in Isla Vista, “No one was able to discern the gunshots from a typical night with fireworks being blown off,” Rosenblatt said. “It was putting people at risk. People could have heard that and known it was time to take cover, but instead, they didn’t.”
A couple of moments after the initial comment, another friend replied to Rosenblatt’s Facebook post; this time revealing the true state of the situation.
Upon figuring out what was happening nearby, Rosenblatt locked his doors and texted his girlfriend, who was out of town but had already heard about what happened. Shortly after, Rosenblatt left his home to be with some family who lived nearby.
“I ended up driving to my aunt’s house” in downtown Santa Barbara, Rosenblatt said. “I kind of feel like I just bolted. I remember this feeling of driving and not knowing if it was particularly safe and just wanting to get out of there,” he said. “I just felt like escaping.”
He stayed with his family for the weekend but came back to Isla Vista the next week. A few months later, he finished the semester and graduated.
Rosenblatt credits UCSB for keeping the academic quarter moving along as normally as possible after the shooting.
“I think right after it happened, school didn’t really shut down for more than a day, or a couple days maybe,” he said. “They didn’t cancel the quarter, you know? So I think that really helped me and probably the entire community from getting traumatized.”
Mental health and communal support were a critical parts of processing the UCSB shooting incident for Rosenblatt.
“Something like that has you really considering how important it is to check on the people around you,” he said. “I think that was a huge conversation that came out of it when you were in Santa Barbara.”
Rosenblatt currently works for a mental health company called Corporate Counseling Associates and said this is something he’s become passionate about since the UCSB shooting incident.
“I don’t think mental health issues are always just physiological or chemical imbalances,” he said. “That might be the case sometimes, but I think oftentimes people just aren’t connected enough and they feel hopeless. I don’t know if conversations about gun access are sufficient without having conversations about broader social support.”
After UCSB, Rosenblatt took four years off of school, but he eventually headed to New York City to attend Columbia University for graduate school.
Even as he moved to a new city, Rosenblatt said his experiences at UCSB lingered with him.
“When I was at Columbia, there was an uptick in antisemitism throughout New York,” Rosenblatt said. “A synagogue was vandalized and burned in the city, but at Columbia there was a Jewish professor’s office that was broken into and spray-painted with swastikas.”
In October 2018, a man entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people in an antisemitic terrorist attack.
These incidents all happened while Rosenblatt was living at Columbia’s only Jewish housing complex.
“There were some tenants who were like, ‘We don’t have to do anything, we’re fine,’” Rosenblatt said. “I definitely resonated more on the other end of the spectrum, saying ‘I think we’re in danger.”
Rosenblatt said he brought up his experience at UCSB to his housemates on more than one occasion, pointing out that someone could find their address as being the only exclusively Jewish housing complex at Columbia, thereby putting them in danger.
His experience with violence during his final semester at UCSB traveled with him across the country.
“I have been through a shooting where it affected the community that I was a part of, “where I heard gunshots outside of my room. Now I’m living amongst a community who’s being discriminated against and targeted,” Rosenblatt said. “I think my experience at Santa Barbara made that possibility very, very real to me.”
— Erik Adams
About the authors
Raya Torres, Megan Tagami, Lauren Berny, Efren Gutierrez, Brenda Verano, Nova Blanco-Rico and Erik Adams are members of California Student Journalism Corps, EdSource’s journalism mentoring and support initiative. It is building a network of student journalists to report on education in California and helping promising student journalists earn real-life professional experience by contributing to EdSource, which operates the largest newsroom of education reporters in the state.