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‘Still a Lot of Pain’: Four Years After Mass Shooting, Texas Community Grapples With Fallout

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If you or someone you know is in a crisis, dial “988” for 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or SMS HOME to Crisis Text Line on 741741. (The previous phone number, 800-273-8255, will continue to work indefinitely. )

SANTA FE, Texas — In May 2018, after a high school shooting that killed 10 people, the Santa Fe Detention Center opened in a church. Each resident can see a counselor, attend a support group, and take part in a healing mandala coloring class, music therapy, or workshop on emotional first aid — all for free.

Today the center is located in a strip mall sandwiched between a seafood restaurant and an empty storefront. One recent evening, instead of patients filling the waiting room, counselors watched clients via video from their office. The center looks empty but, according to the therapist, the need is still there.

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“There’s still a lot of pain,” says Jacquelyn Poteet, the chatty therapist who runs the center. About 186 people see counselors every month, but he says far more people may need services in the city of nearly 13,000 people. “A lot of people don’t even realize they have a trauma.”

Recently, he said, a former high school student had contemplated suicide. It was a “very close call,” he said. “We’re not out of the woods.”

In the past four years, millions of dollars in mental health services have flooded into this city, which feels remote despite being only 6 miles from the highway linking Houston and Galveston. But the lesson from Santa Fe, in a year in which the US averages more than one mass shooting a day, is that even time and money have not healed the lingering deep sorrow that is unique to such an event. Santa Fe, like communities across the country, has changed forever.

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Following the May 2018 high school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, the Santa Fe Resilience Center began its community support program at Aldersgate United Methodist Church. The center now operates from a strip mall, sandwiched between a seafood restaurant and an empty storefront.(Renuka Rayasam/KHN)

Most locals agree that four years after the unthinkable happened, Santa Fe is still reeling from the 30 minutes between the 17-year-old gunman’s opening shot and his handing over to police. And they’re still grappling with everything that followed—school board fights, City Hall changes, delayed shooter trials, and even conflicts over mental health deals that were given in response.

The lasting trauma here serves as a cautionary tale for residents of Highland Park, Illinois; Uvalde, Texas; Buffalo, New York — and elsewhere affected by such violence. The Santa Fe experience reveals the importance and challenges of building mental health resources quickly and sustainably, especially in under-resourced communities prior to the traumatic event.

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Prior to the shooting, several therapists worked directly in Santa Fe. And like any small community in rural America, this is a place where many are skeptical of therapists, either not realizing they need help or simply preferring to ignore the pain. Four years later, Santa Fe is still mired in grief, just as the federal funds that helped build its local mental health infrastructure are receding.

Following the shooting, the state formed the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium, which includes programs that help schools connect children with mental health specialists virtually within two weeks. But the program has rolled out to 40% of the state’s student population so far—and it hadn’t reached Uvalde before the May school shooting.

“Given Uvalde, there is a desire to make this program fully statewide,” said Dr. David Lakey, consortium chair and vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System.

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In June, Republican Governor Greg Abbott announced Texas would spend $5 million on a resilience center at Uvalde. The city also previously had few mental health services. Eight years ago, Congress began funding behavioral public health clinics, but they were slow to spread across the country. The new federal effort aims to expand it even further.

People who have experienced mass shootings illustrate the long-term scope of the trauma. In 2019, six years after Jeremy Richman’s daughter Avielle was killed in a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, she committed suicide. Later that year, Columbine shooting victim Austin Eubanks died of a heroin overdose at the age of 37, two decades after he was injured and his best friend was killed.

After a shooting, people should ideally have access to services through several routes: their primary care physician, specialists in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, and even residential care programs, said Dr. Shaili Jain, expert on post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma at Stanford University. “What is the future of children who survive this major traumatic event if they don’t get the mental health help they need?” he says.

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After the Santa Fe shooting in 2018, “everyone was scrambling” to regulate the mental health response, said Deedra Van Ness, whose daughter witnessed the attack. Santa Fe officials and mental health groups apply for grants through the federal Victims of Crime Act Fund, which draws money from criminal fines, forfeited bonds, and other federal court costs. The city set up a resilience center in a Methodist church that the Red Cross used for its initial crisis operations because it was one of the few buildings with space in the large community.

Van Ness’ daughter, Isabelle Laymance, had spent 30 minutes locked in the art room’s supply closet, which was fired by the shooter, killing several teenagers. Van Ness sent Laymance, now 19, to a juvenile PTSD specialist in nearby Clear Lake City for nine months, which cost him up to $300 a month with insurance, before transferring him to an endurance center. There she was referred to the Trauma and Grief Center at Texas Children’s Hospital. The visits are free but the psychiatric treatment costs about $20 per month.

Van Ness said his daughter would have hours of panic attacks at the school, the same place where the shooting took place. He was absent for more than 100 days during his sophomore year. At one point, says Van Ness, she and her family went to a resilience center every day to attend family counseling and use other services.

Flo Rice, a substitute teacher who was injured in the Santa Fe shooting, was able to immediately contact a counselor from the Galveston Family Services Center who one day showed up in her hospital room. For years he called, texted, and looked at it for free. But Rice was forever changed. He couldn’t be near the school or go to the restaurant. He can’t sleep without medicine.

“PTSD, for me, is a lifetime,” Rice says.

A photo shows Flo Rice sitting on a chair at home.Flo Rice is a substitute teacher who was injured in the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting. She says she still has PTSD.(Renuka Rayasam/KHN)

The state has provided $7 million to service providers, cities, and school districts through the federal crime victims’ fund in response to the shootings, according to the governor’s office. However, the numbers are decreasing every year, with some groups no longer receiving funding, according to state records.

The city itself does not have the budget to fund such a program, said Santa Fe Mayor Bill Pittman.

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The lack of resources represents a larger mental health care gap in the state, said Greg Hansch, executive director of the Texas branch of the National Alliance for Mental Illness. Unlike most states, Texas does not expand eligibility for Medicaid, the federal state program for low-income Americans that is the largest single-payer of mental health services in the state. And the state, like many other states, has a severe shortage of mental health care workers. More than half of Texas’s population lives in areas with a shortage of mental health care professionals, according to KFF.

The Santa Fe community is torn between forgetting and grieving. A memorial to the eight students and two teachers who were killed adorns the city. An 8-foot-tall empty aluminum chair stands in front of the high school. Ten white crosses planted in the grass next to the Maranatha Christian Center. Green and black benches made from recycled plastic lids are located in the library and therapy garden behind City Hall.

The long-term emotional toll also remains in sight, according to Poteet. Many students go to college but return home after a year. A messy marriage. Children turn to alcohol or drugs.

“The city is still very angry,” said Mandy Jordan, whose son survived because he was late for school on the day of the shooting. He and his family eventually moved from Santa Fe. “It’s almost in the air.”

But so far, no suicides have been linked to the shooting. “By God’s grace that didn’t happen,” said Poteet.

A photo of Reagan Gaona's wrist shows a black and gray rose tattoo with the date next to it: May 18, 2018.Reagan Gaona’s rose tattoo includes the date of the Santa Fe High School shooting, May 18, 2018. His girlfriend, Chris Stone, was among those killed.(Renuka Rayasam/KHN)

Reagan Gaona, 20, credits the therapist for helping save his life. Gaona was finishing her sophomore year when her boyfriend, Chris Stone, was killed at school. It took three therapists to find the right fit. Now, on one side of Gaona’s left arm, she has a rose tattoo next to the shooting date, May 18 2018, and on the other a butterfly with a semicolon as the body, signifying mental health awareness and suicide prevention. It represented “that I was flying out of my depression and that I was spreading my wings,” he said. “That I am beautiful.”

Gaona has frequent panic attacks and anxiety-related muscle spasms. He attended Kansas for a year on a softball scholarship before moving back to the area. She feels better, but says she also “feels empty.”

The shooting also thwarted Laymance’s plans. He intends to go to college on a bowling scholarship to study interior design.

But PTSD has become a major obstacle. He suffers from short term memory loss. When he went to orientation at a junior college, he felt insecure hearing about Texas’s open-carry policy on campus. He wants to go — and study psychology — but for now, he’s working as an assistant manager at Sonic, a fast food restaurant.

Van Ness said the person who became his daughter that day died. Her daughter is trying to find out who she is now.

“We are as proud of his progress as we are of almost any decision he has made,” Van Ness said, “as long as he continues to choose life.”

Renuka Rayasam:
rrayasam@kff.org, @renurayasam

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