Photo: Reuters

From Venezuelan Violence to American Mass Shootings

My family left Venezuela for a safer place. But my years as a student in Florida, very close to a high school in Parkland, were marked by fear

The year was 2018. I was in my junior year of high school in Florida and it was Valentine’s Day. Flowers were being sent around campus, students were exchanging gifts and the general mood was relaxed. I was preparing for my exams and I was just waiting for the bell to ring so I could go home. As the clock signaled the end of the school day, some people started murmuring that there were reports of an active shooter in a nearby school. 

In my mother’s car, I listened to a man narrating for a local Spanish-speaking radio station, in a somber tone, that there were reports on social media of a school shooting in nearby Parkland. Always very skeptical of Miami radio, I just turned it off, but once I got home I started getting calls from my friends to turn on the news because apparently Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, a school in our same district, which we regularly play football against and with which we share a close relationship with, had an active shooter situation. My mom and I immediately realized that the horrendous nightmare situation we usually see on cable news in some far away city had finally come to the school next door.

When I saw the gruesome videos that were posted on social media, I noticed how most of Stoneman Douglas’ classrooms not only were extremely similar to my school’s but that some students still had their Valentine’s gifts laying around while 5.56mm NATO rounds were razing their classrooms. I started to realize that for most of these kids that day had been a regular Wednesday just like mine, but I got to go home to my mom after the bell rang and many of them were texting their parents and loved ones their final goodbye. 

At that moment, the obvious-by-now thought came to my mind: “That could have been me.”

Not only did this atrocity occur in a nearby school, but many of the victims were my age, the school demographics were very similar to mine and even one of the students that died was a Venezuelan

Put simply, I felt that if certain circumstances were different, I could have been one of the seventeen people who lost their lives by just making the simple decision of going to school. A haunting feeling that still accompanies me today as I continue to watch the list of mass shootings in the United States grow like it happened this week in Uvalde, Texas.

Insecurity in Caracas vs. Uncertainty in My Classroom 

As my community looked horrified at what happened to one of our schools, terror started to pressure kids and parents alike on how to react after such tragedy. A great number of students in my school were refusing to attend out of sheer fear, as in their eyes, the possibility of losing their lives in school had been proven to be quite real. 

That fear was reinforced when threats were made to my school and others around it, raising the idea of a possible copycat shooting. Emails, calls, and letters from the Broward County School Board and the Superintendent’s Office were sent, reassuring parents of our safety and attempting to give us a sense of security. When classes restarted, many classrooms were almost empty, leaving several teachers no option but to not teach and talk about the tragedy instead.

Seeing students and teachers talk about violence, and uncertainty for their future instead of things like a Science quiz is anything but normal. As for me, the constant discussion of politics, the suspension of classes, and everyone’s concerns about the near future reminded me of the time when a certain person died while I lived in Caracas. For the first time in five years, I worried because I felt my life was in danger. Any stranger could simply go through the school gate with an AR-15 and break pandemonium. The massacre in Parkland only took six minutes to be carried out. I was outraged by our government’s response to that situation, like implementing some “feel good” measures and sending “thoughts and prayers,” as they’ve done so many times.

For the first time in my life, I felt that while my family and I escaped the danger of crime in Caracas by moving to the United States, we had reached a situation where that very violence we were trying to flee might knock on my classroom door one day, and I could do nothing about it except hide in a corner and hope the shooter didn’t see me.

‘Students and Teachers, We’re Under a Code Red’ 

In response to the Parkland shooting and to the tense situation in schools, the state legislature and the local government approved certain policies to make us “feel” safe but which actually did the contrary. For example, armed police officers started guarding every public school in order to arrest anyone considered a threat. In reality, those armed police officers caused more tension than anything, as they started to arrest more and more students every week for “behavioral reasons”. As a recent report found, many of those arrests were not only unjustified, but we saw an increase in the use of physical restraints on students for minor infractions, thus proving that an increased armed police presence not only failed to make schools safer, but actually made the students feel unsafe.

Additionally, the state also mandated the now infamous Code Red drills: when the alarm rings during the middle of class, a voice speaks through the intercom saying that the school is “under code red.” This means that while the teacher turns off the lights and locks all doors and windows, students need to get on the floor, away from the windows and… that’s it. It’s basically a procedure where you get down on your knees and pray that if there’s a shooter, he/she magically forgets about you because you turned off the lights. It’s basically a monthly reenacting of the duck-and-cover drill Cold War kids performed in the case of a nuclear attack. As a foreigner, I was absolutely stunned to see that these types of solutions were the farthest the all-powerful government of the United States was willing to go to protect the generation that would ultimately become its future.

As the government was trying its “hardest” at ending school shootings in America, the constant threat of a shooting still existed in our minds. We tried to basically make jokes about it, like who would be our school shooter. However, that was a manifestation of the feeling of powerlessness we felt in our position. As the only thing that we could do in that situation—apart from the organizing—was just moving on and hoping we could finish school alive and in peace. 

Every now and then, something reminded us of the fragility of the peace we desired. I vividly remember how, in my last semester of school, a time when students usually lay back and enjoy the remaining days with their friends before going away to college, our school was put in lockdown because of a possible threat. We had several helicopters flying above us, ambulances on standby and terrified parents waiting outside the school while armed police officers checked every classroom trying to find a suspect. As they failed to find one, we were dismissed until the next day. The remarkable thing is that this happened several times as more and more threats appeared, each time more elaborate than the previous one. We evacuated the school three times that semester: once because of a bomb threat and  twice because of shooting threats. 

 

When I graduated, my family was happy for me as I finally closed one of the most important chapters in my early life, but most of them were even happier that they were being released from the constant fear of dropping me at school and having to wonder if it could be the last time they’d see me alive. 

I will never forget my father’s words as soon as I graduated: “Thank God you’re out of there, now your mom and I can be at peace.” 

Thousands of parents were feeling the same thing. Little did we know that as a student at Florida International University, I’d still get warnings about possible shooting threats and drills. My experience in an American high school has marked me forever, not only because of the memories that I wish no young teen has to experience during their time in school like I did, but also because when I go anywhere in the United States where there’s a crowd, few exits, and a lack of tangible gun control legislation, I fear danger could be just around the corner waiting for me,  even when I’ve been trying to protect myself for so long. 

This isn’t a feeling that anyone should be having in a country as big and powerful as the United States, where the government is willing to send people to Mars but is unwilling to protect the kids in its schools because the political implications that it would bring from the gun lobby are too controversial, even if the plurality of Americans are now demanding change.