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'I Don't Want To Leave My House': Santa Fe's Invisible Wounds

If this were a normal Monday morning, students at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, would be heading back to class. Instead, school is closed, its classrooms still a crime scene. The big question for investigators: How did a gunman walk into school Friday morning, killing 10 people and wounding 13?

But Katelyn "Kayte" Alford and her 1,400 classmates struggle with a different question: How do we move on from this?

Friday morning, Kayte (pronounced Katie), 18, thought her school was on fire. She was in her floral design class, on the second floor, when the alarm sounded. She dropped everything and ran — outside and across the road. There, one of her friends pulled up in a truck, ghostly pale.

"I got shot, I got shot!" her friend cried.

Kayte felt confused. "I was like, 'Shot? It doesn't make any sense. What is going on?' And I look down, and she has a bullet hole in her leg."

Kayte's telling this story a day after the shooting — from the safety of her grandmother's house, where she lives. But even here, there's uncertainty. The rambling brick two-story had to be renovated after the ravages of Hurricane Harvey last year.

Kayte sits at a small island in the kitchen. She is slight with long hair past her waist. Her fingernails match the thick, dark frames of her glasses. Her grandmother, Lisa Clemons, and her mother, Danell Reed, stand around her, for comfort. All three attended Santa Fe High.

In that moment Friday, along the roadside, Kayte says she had a panic attack. But the worst was yet to come. She learned later that a boy she'd grown up with, Chris Stone, had been killed. She wants people outside of Santa Fe to know that his smile brightened every room, and that he was loved by everyone. But as she says this, Kayte's face darkens. The panic hasn't gone.

"I don't want to go anywhere," she says. "I don't want to leave my house. I don't want to be alone. I can't even get up and go to the bathroom without having my mom come with me because I'm constantly looking over my shoulder. I was trying to sit in the backyard, and I was scared that somebody was going to jump over the fence and shoot me."

Earlier in the day, when authorities bused students back to Santa Fe High to pick up their cars, Kayte simply couldn't do it. She's a senior, so close to graduation, but says she can't imagine going back there. Her mother feels the same.

"I don't want my kid going back to school," Reed says, her voice frayed by grief and fury. "I'd rather her not walk across that stage and then just mail the diploma."

Kayte talks of trying to find a new normal after the shooting. She used to love volleyball and track and says she'd been accepted to a two-year college — with hopes of transferring to Sam Houston State University. But now she's not sure of her future. She feels ... upended. So does Clemons, Kayte's grandmother.

"Honestly, when we saw her, I hugged her so tight. And I thank God that she's OK. But then I see the other families that lost a child. I don't know how I would have coped with that. Honestly," Clemons says, her breath quickening through tears. "I don't know if we'd lost her what we would have done. I don't see how those families — how do you move past that? You're not supposed to outlive your children. You're just not."

Kayte feels this too, this guilt. In fact, at the end of our conversation, the last thing she says is that she wishes she could apologize to the students and teachers who died.

"Because I was lucky enough to make it out," Kayte says. "They weren't. And I'm going to live with that for the rest of my life — because it could have easily been me. But it wasn't."

Kayte is getting help. She says she's going to see a therapist this week. And she has her family. Research shows that supportive caregivers are vital to mitigating the effects of childhood trauma.

"You can't let people like [the gunman] take your life from you," Clemons tells Kayte. "He was able to take theirs, but you can't let him take yours. You have to move forward. You just have to."

Later that night, Kayte does take a small step forward.

She goes to a cookout, behind the town bank, for fellow students and family. A rapid-response team of chaplains, all wearing blue shirts, ease their way around the teens who sit in small clusters at long, white tables, talking quietly, many crying.

Kayte walks past the lavish spread of Texas brisket, sandwiches and chocolate cake and finds a friend. Together, they disappear into the crowd.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
Bridget De Chagas
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