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Schools In Sutherland Springs Working To Help Students Cope With Church Shooting


All the 1,018 school districts in Texas have crisis plans, but no school administrator is emotionally prepared for what happened in Sutherland Springs over the weekend. The local school district had two of its own students killed in the church rampage. NPR's John Burnett reports on how the schools are coping.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Early Monday morning, Principal Shelley Keck hurriedly called a staff meeting in her elementary school. Two of their students were dead - second-grader Emily Rain Garcia, 7 years old, and kindergartner Brook Bryan Ward, 5 years old. Another kindergartner was hospitalized in grave condition.

SHELLEY KECK: We prayed together that God would give us the courage to find the right words and find the right actions to walk into those classrooms and be strong for our students.

BURNETT: The yellow school bus that goes to Floresville South Elementary School picks up students from Sutherland Springs. The bus stop is right beside the Baptist church where the massacre happened. Mrs. Keck's school has been intimately and dramatically affected by the shooting in this rural county where so many people know each other. Indeed, the principal herself grew up in a neighboring town and knows the families who were shot to death in the pews - but how to convey that darkness to the tender ears of primary school students?

KECK: We're honest, but we don't have to share all of the details. So you know what? There was a bad man that hurt people. But we are doing everything we can to keep you safe, and we're here to help you.

BURNETT: In the kindergarten and second-grade homerooms where the children would know the slain classmates, the school called their parents and asked them to be present when the news was delivered that Brook and Emily would not be coming back. The 900 students at the school were encouraged to write letters to their missing classmates and their families and to write letters to each other because some students had a grandfather, an aunt, or an uncle who was killed or injured.

KECK: There's an impact across, you know, the entire campus because they may have sat by them in the cafeteria or ridden a bus with them or went to PE with them.

BURNETT: Counselors have flooded all the Floresville school campuses, including volunteers from other South Texas districts. Ben Reed, the district social worker, says he even heard from a school counselor from Las Vegas, Nev., who had responded to that mass shooting last month.

BEN REED: She told herself that if something like this would ever happen, she was going to reach out and help us through it. And she didn't know it was going to happen 36 days later.

BURNETT: Principal Shelley Keck says in her school, substitutes are taking over classrooms when teachers need a moment to compose themselves.

KECK: We will never go back to who we were Sunday morning. We're emerging stronger. You know, we will get through this.

BURNETT: The school district has a thick crisis binder with all sorts of contingency plans. They learned how to deal with a disaster two years ago when a tornado tore the roof off the high school. It was before the students arrived, and no one was hurt. That experience tested them and hardened them. But this is so different, says District Superintendent Sherri Bays.

SHERRI BAYS: It's hard for us to understand, so trying to figure out how to explain that to children - you would think of all places that you feel safe, it should be in a church.

BURNETT: Tomorrow, under Friday night lights, the undefeated Floresville Tigers meet the undefeated Southside San Antonio Cardinals in a big football game here at home. The school district has called for a white-out. Everyone rooting for the home team should wear white to show unity and to honor those who died in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. John Burnett, NPR News, Floresville, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF KANYE WEST SONG, "BAD NEWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.