Curse of Newtown: How We Cope With School Shootings

Two years after the one that was supposed to be a call to action, only inaction.

ByREPORTER'S NOTEBOOK By MIKE GUDGELL
November 08, 2014, 7:43 PM

— -- You could tell from a mile away. The brisk walk -- the straight ahead stare. As I pulled my car alongside her I could see her face, flushed red and eyes locked on a phone -- waiting for a ring.

She was in a place in time when reality falls away and every minute brings you closer to that second that could change your life forever.

She was a parent of a student at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, where there had been a shooting earlier in the day. I opened my passenger door and offered her a ride.

"I'll take you to the church," I started, and then, out of habit, introduced myself as a member of the media. The students were being bussed to a nearby church where parents could find them and take them home.

I didn't tell her this was the fourth or fifth school shooting I had covered. I may have mentioned I had a daughter in high school in a city not too far away.

She said nothing -- still red-faced and looking at the phone.

"He called, my son called, he's OK, but we don't know about the others," she said finally.

I felt her pain and anguish. It was written in her face, her hunched shoulders -- in her eyes. It filled the car.

We followed a long line of cars with anxious drivers until we could move no more. I parked and she bolted out of the passenger side and once again started the walk. Head up, phone in hand and a determined double-time pace.

PHOTO: People embrace in front of school buses at a church, where students were taken to be reunited with parents, following a shooting at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Wash. on Oct. 24, 2014.
People embrace in front of school buses at a church, where students were taken to be reunited with parents, following a shooting at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Wash. on Oct. 24, 2014.
Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

Soon we came upon others, a few at a time, and then a parking lot full of parents in a panic, students crying. Everyone, it seemed, was trying to find someone. She darted in and out of the crowd focused on one and only one thing -- finding her child. Suddenly, she cried out and appeared on the other side of the parking lot.

Michelle Alskog held her son and began to cry. His girlfriend, in her cheerleader uniform, joined them. The tears had only just begun. Friends came by, parents too. Alskog, it seems, is a bit of a den mother. We all know them. All of the high school students were hers, as it should be.

I walked away and looked around. All across the parking lot, in and around cars and stretching down the street toward the school were hundreds of Michelle Alskogs -- parents caught in that unreal world, waiting for their moment.

Hours later, the numbers were in. Six parents had that moment. Life would never be the same. Officials struggled to explain it all, yet another school shooting.

"It's time to stop talking and time to act," the Marysville police chief said, but it was the one and only call to action.

I had joined my colleagues at a press conference. Many I had not seen in years -- all veterans of school shooting stories. I had four or five. ABC News correspondent Neal Karlinsky had that many just this year.

Depending how you define "school shooting," there have been as few as 35 or as many as 75 shootings at schools since the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., just a few weeks short of two years ago.

PHOTO: Parents and students move under police tape at a church, where students were taken following a shooting at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Wash. on Oct. 24, 2014.
Parents and students move under police tape at a church, where students were taken following a shooting at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Wash. on Oct. 24, 2014.
Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

That was the one that was supposed to make a difference. It wasn't a high school. The victims were 20 first graders, 6-year-olds, along with six staff members. But the numbers indicate nothing much has changed. Sandy Hook turned out to be not a call to action, but a gruesome standard from which all inaction can be judged.

"If someone can go in and shoot up a kindergarten with an automatic weapon and nothing happens, don't hold your breath here," one of my more experienced colleagues said in response to the police chief's call for action.

The next day the inevitable shrine appeared -- on a fence near the school, cameras quickly followed. Behind the fence, in the distance, was the high school football field. It looked familiar.

More than 40 years ago I had one of my worst days as a starting guard for the Orcas Island Vikings on the Marysville High School football field. It would have never occurred to any of us to take our disappointments, heartbreak or teen angst and turn them into murder.

PHOTO: A woman waits on a curb at a church, where students were taken following a shooting at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Wash. on Oct. 24, 2014.
A woman waits on a curb at a church, where students were taken following a shooting at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Wash. on Oct. 24, 2014.
Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

As I drove home the following night, tired and spent from talking with parents like me, I tried to find words for my daughter. My wife met me at the door. I asked her how our child was doing, and whether she had any questions.

"No, not really," she said.

I wondered why. My wife explained that she had talked to another parent whose son had dismissed the shooting, because, "Not that many people died."

That, on its own, is another school shooting tragedy.

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