© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Months Before Fla. School Shooting, N.M. Deaths Got Little Notice


Three months ago, a gunman opened fire in a high school in a small town in New Mexico. He killed two students and then himself. And this shooting didn't get a lot of attention in the national media, but the school is struggling to move forward. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Aztec, N.M.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Walk the bustling halls of Aztec High, and at first glance you'd think nothing is wrong. Banners promote the Aztec Tigers' spring softball schedule. Students roughhouse out on the basketball courts during the noon recess. But you talk to kids for just a few minutes, and it's clear this is all on the surface and they're hurting.

SARAH GIFFORD: I feel like my security has been taken away from me.

SIEGLER: This is Sarah Gifford (ph). She's a junior. She was in the hallway just a few minutes before the 21-year-old gunman, who posed as a student, walked up and down here firing randomly.

GIFFORD: I, like, don't even go to the mall or Walmart the same way because I'm scared someone's going to just come in.

SIEGLER: Talking about the horror of that morning, December 7, makes her voice shake. She's holding a plastic water bottle. Her fist starts to grip it tightly. The plastic crunches. Two of her classmates, senior Casey Marquez, and junior Francisco Fernandez, are dead.

GIFFORD: There's only two. It's not like Florida. You know, they lost a bunch of kids. And I feel terrible that they lost so many kids. But it is a big deal for us.

SIEGLER: A big deal for this high school of 900 students in the New Mexico high desert just south of the Colorado border. Three months after the shooting, here is a stressed and traumatized school. The smallest things, a slam of a locker door, put people on edge. And some feel hurt that the shooting prompted so little national attention. They feel like their tragedy is overlooked. History teacher Fritz Polk says a lot of his kids are now experiencing a second wave of PTSD.

FRITZ POLK: We're settling back down, and then the Parkland shooting happens, stirs it all back up again. Course, the kids, you know, they're watching the news or listening to videos. They're kind of reliving it.

SIEGLER: Polk relives the tragedy every day when he walks into his classroom. Polk and his class were singled-out by name in the gunman's manifesto.

POLK: He was coming into my door here. He shot up all this, and then died here.

SIEGLER: As police closed in, the gunman shot himself at this door steps away from where Polk had barricaded his students at the back of his classroom. Polk works as a volunteer chaplain for the local sheriff. He had to identify the dead. After the shooting, the state brought in counseling and offered free mental health care. Polk openly tells students that he's in counseling, too.

POLK: But I don't think everybody's getting the help 'cause I don't think everybody knows that they need the help until they're in kind of a free fall.

SIEGLER: Some students have dropped out. Teachers say grades are slipping and kids are acting out.

POLK: Hi, Rathi (ph).


POLK: How're you doing, dear?

RATHI: Good. How are you?

POLK: See you, guys.


SIEGLER: Last month, police arrested a student for making a threat against the school. Kirk Carpenter is the superintendent.

KIRK CARPENTER: I think at one point we thought, things are starting to smooth out, and then the very next day, you know, we had some fallout.

SIEGLER: Carpenter grew up next door in Farmington, N.M., and he spent his 28-year career at this school district. Aztec is an open campus, spread out over 11 acres near a lot of open country. And, for starters, Carpenter says, rural schools need more funding for security and other upgrades.

CARPENTER: Sometimes we talk too much, and it's time for action.

SIEGLER: Aztec High now has a full-time police officer on campus, at least through the end of the year. Students now have to wear ID badges everywhere. The district hired three new security guards. They're not armed. And many parents say that's just not enough. Glena Moore (ph) has two daughters at Aztec. She graduated from there, too, and says her youngest didn't want to go back after the shooting.

GLENA MOORE: It's hard for her to trust people - what's in that backpack that the kid's getting off the bus with? Who's this person? You know, if they're not used to seeing that person.

SIEGLER: A lot of days, it's a struggle to convince her daughters to go to school. This breaks her heart.

MOORE: What are we teaching them right now? Mostly, we're we're teaching them about violence and what could happen. They're not even able to learn.

SIEGLER: Moore says one of her biggest fears is that nothing will change and the school shootings will keep happening. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Aztec, N.M.

KING: And today on All Things Considered, Kirk will report on a debate in that small town over arming teachers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.