(NEW YORK) — A powerful new public service announcement is raising awareness about gun violence in a unique way.
Today, Sandy Hook Promise — a nonprofit organization led by several family members whose loved ones were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012 — released a video of survivors of school shootings reciting lyrics from Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” to show others that for victims of school shootings, the teenage dream is not what it used to be.
“It’s quite ironic, I think when you look at the lyrics,” Samantha Fuentes, a Parkland school shooting survivor who appears in the PSA, told “Good Morning America.” “It’s like the epitome of what you imagine — the typical teenage American life, the carefree worries of what that era of your experience is. So as a teenager who’s had all of that ripped from me — it’s almost like something that you wish that I could have.”
Fuentes added, “This story that I’ve experienced — my life is becoming more and more of a reality for people of my age.”
Living with the trauma
For Fuentes, the aftershock from the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is something she still lives with each day.
“I’m now physically handicapped,” said Fuentes, who suffered leg injuries due to gunshot wounds as well as smaller injuries from shrapnel. “I have issues with mobility and getting around. I suffer from PTSD, depression, anxiety, insomnia. These are all things that I have to juggle on a daily basis.”
Aalayah Eastmond, who also survived the Parkland shooting and participated in the PSA, told “GMA” that she struggles each day with survivor’s guilt after her friend, Nicholas Dworet, sacrificed his life to save hers.
“I’m only here because of Nick,” said Eastmond, who explained that Nick’s body took the bullets that day as she hid underneath him. In the PSA, Eastmond honors Nick by holding up his photo.
”I have to navigate every single day — while also struggling and dealing with survivor’s guilt — which is the biggest hurdle to try and overcome in this process. So, it’s not easy at all, especially being young. You’re never prepared for something like this. There’s no handbook on how to survive a school shooting and what to do afterwards.”
Nick Walczak, a survivor of the 2012 mass shooting at Chardon High School in Chardon, Ohio, said he now thinks three steps ahead wherever he goes in case he’s caught in another shooting.
“I have a plan in the back of my head almost everywhere I go now,” Walczak told “GMA.” “I have to figure out where I am and how to get out. And if I’m somewhere that has stairs or something, it’s very nerve-wracking because I am stuck there.”
Nine years ago, Walczak was at school when one of his classmates opened fire at him and three of his friends. Walczak was shot four times and the last bullet paralyzed him.
Despite the challenges that he has faced over the years, Walczak — as well as Fuentes and Eastmond — said they want others to know that shootings are preventable.
“The truth is that gun violence is in everybody’s backyard across the nation,” Fuentes said. “My hope is that people can make gun violence prevention a priority in their lives again, because people don’t realize that it’s folks like you and I, everyday people who went around thinking they wouldn’t be affected by something like this.”
Message for students returning to school
In previous years, Sandy Hook Promise released PSAs teaching people about gun violence prevention and how school shootings are preventable. But this year, as students return back to school, the nonprofit’s leaders said it was important to open up a conversation about how school shootings impact the lives of survivors.
“This has been a rather exceptional year and we’re facing a very different return to school,” said Sandy Hook Promise co-founder, Nicole Hockley, whose son, Dylan, was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. “This time, I wanted to focus instead on the lived experiences of people, the aftereffects — because I don’t think people focus on what happens after a school shooting and how that impacts lives for decades.”
“I’m so grateful for all of those that survived and have the strength and fortitude to be able to share their stories, to help save the lives of someone else,” Hockley added.
According to a report released earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gun violence is the leading cause of death for teens, which is a concern facing many students returning to school this Fall.
“Our students are having feelings of loss of sense of safety, where that is different from past generations it’s a different experience,” Dr. Rachel Masi, a clinical psychologist and director of research at Sandy Hook Promise, said. “And if our kids are feeling anxious, worried, sad and depressed, which we know that they are at an increased level at this point. They’re not going to be able to learn.”
“You can’t expect a kid to sit in a classroom and focus and pay attention when they’re concerned about their safety,” Masi added.
Despite the trauma that students, teachers and families have experienced from past mass shootings at schools across the country, folks at Sandy Hook Promise and survivors like Fuentes, Eastmond and Walczk, are hopeful that change will happen.
“I know our generation has not been complacent with this issue. We’ve been having these conversations, forcing folks to sit down and recognize how important this problem is and how preventable it is,” Eastmond said. “I’m definitely hopeful that we will decrease gun violence.”
As students return to school this fall, Masi shared some tips to help students feel safer this school year. Read them below.
Prioritize mental health
“I think for teachers, they are that first line of defense in the school, they really know their students,” Masi said. “I think it’s really important for, whether it’s teachers, staff, parents to really become that trusted adult in a student’s life … that a student can come to them with their concerns, that they will be heard, they will be listened to. And their concerns will be taken seriously and they’ll get the support they need.”
Another thing Masi encourages all teachers, parents and adults to do this school year as it begins for many students is to know the warning signs that people or students can exhibit before an act of violence is carried out.
“Nothing’s ever as simple as we see but there are things to do,” Masi said. “These are preventable and there’s ways to intervene.”
Have open conversations with students
With the reality of school shootings, Masi said it’s important to have open conversations with students about their concerns.
“Let’s bring it into the light and say these are the concerns that our kids are having,” said Masi. “These are real things they’re experiencing and the more we talk about it and the more we give those kids the voice to talk about it, the more that we’re going to see change.”
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