Highland Park parade mass shooting haunts return to school for traumatized kids, parents
“Nobody’s had experience with this,” said Marty Esgar, a Deerfield High School teacher. “We don’t know how many of our students are going to come with levels of trauma.”
“I was screaming, ‘Eyes straight, eyes down, eyes straight,’ ” Ruder Ring said, not noticing that a bullet fragment had hit her foot. “I was so nervous that, if they saw what was happening around us, any more than just focusing on what I was telling them to do immediately, that any added delay would mean the worst for us.”
She and her husband Greg got their 8-year-old twins Jackson and Zoe and 4-year-old daughter Millie safely home.
But they couldn’t protect them from what they saw and heard when a gunman fired two bursts of semi-automatic gunfire from a rooftop, killing seven people and wounding 48, including eight children.
The twins still have panic attacks, Ruder Ring said. About a week or so ago, her son suddenly said, “I am so scared right now, I don’t know why ... I haven’t felt this scared since we were at the parade.”
Like many parents in Highland Park and the surrounding area traumatized by the shooting, Ruder Ring worries how she and her children can return to the normal life of school days.
“It’s strange to even think about getting prepared for a school year, realizing that this sort of thing doesn’t ever necessarily leave you or stop affecting you by a certain date,” she said.
Starting Wednesday, Ruder Ring’s twins will be going to Braeside Elementary School, the same school and the same grade as their friend Cooper Roberts, the 8-year-old who was shot in the abdomen at the parade and was left paralyzed from the waist down.
Students will be watched more closely, according to officials in North Shore School District 112 and Township High School District 113: Better surveillance and security systems, more counselors and regular mental health checks.
New this year: Mental health checks
North Shore School District 112 expects to welcome more than 3,900 students to its early learning center, seven elementary schools and two middle schools in Highland Park and Highwood.
Supt. Michael Lubelfeld said the district has increased the number of mental health professionals to about 29 social workers and psychologists.
In the past few years, the district has had a program called “Calm Classroom” that focuses on mindfulness and de-escalation techniques. It also will implement new programs to address social and emotional well-being, such as “Sown to Grow,” a regular online mental health check-in for students in grades three through eight that will be monitored by teachers and mental health professionals.
For the first time, all students also will take part in a mental health assessment at the beginning of the school year.
“What we are looking for are risk signs, risk factors or children who are not receiving interventions who may now need them,” Lubelfeld said, with the aim to be able to provide treatment for depression or other issues.
For Cooper, who’s entering third grade, the district has enlisted a team of architects and engineers to make its schools more accessible. Braeside has only one wheelchair-accessible ramp into the building.
Students like fourth-grader Kinley Forehand, 9, have raised about $2,000 to buy large lawn games for the school so Cooper can participate and to make the campus’s new Ga-Ga pit — a dodge ball game — handicap-accessible.
New high school position: ‘Director of recovery’
In Township High School District 113, which includes Highland Park and Deerfield high schools, Jennifer Ginopolis is the new “director of recovery.” Her job is to help deal with the social and emotional needs of students and staff members after the shooting.
Ginopolis — a counselor with the high school district for more than 20 years — said she has been in touch with the director of recovery at Oxford High School outside Detroit, where a gunman killed four students and wounded seven others last November.
Ginopolis has been hiring full-time “social emotional learning specialists” and “healing engaged interventionists” with backgrounds in counseling and mental health.
The social specialists will work most closely with the various school departments. The healing specialists will work with students on eight- to 10-week cycles. Both roles are meant to ease the weight placed on classroom teachers.
“I have had some students reach out to me, and they’re nervous to come back, and I know that some staff is, too,” Ginopolis said. “And then there are many students and staff that are actually ready to come back, and they are craving that structure and that normalcy.”
‘Nobody’s had experience with this’
Last Monday, teacher training began with a talk by Scott Poland, a psychologist who’s the director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. Poland, an expert at addressing traumas in a school community, met with parents later in the day.
“I have responded to many tragedies affecting schools over five decades,” he said. “My message to parents is pay attention to your child’s emotions and be careful not to project all of your worries onto your child.”
Marty Esgar, a biology teacher at Deerfield High School for 31 years, said no one knows what to expect when students return.
“Nobody’s had experience with this,” said Esgar, president of the District 113 Education Association, a teachers union that covers Highland Park and Deerfield high schools. “We don’t know how many of our students are going to come with levels of trauma. There is already, with schools, a level of concern about school violence, and to add in a community trauma, it makes even more people anxious.”
‘The anxiety comes in hard and fast’
Piper Mead is president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Oak Terrace Elementary School in District 112 in Highwood. She has a kindergartener and a third-grader at Oak Terrace she hasn’t let out of her sight since the shooting. She thinks many other parents have been just as watchful — so much so that kids are looking forward to the freedom of school.
“They’re excited to see their friends again, especially because they’ve got these mean moms that haven’t let them go anywhere because we want to make sure that they are home safe,” Mead said. “The kids haven’t seen all the bad things that us as parents have. So that’s where you struggle.”
She said Robert Crimo III, who, at 21, has been charged with the mass shooting, “isn’t all that much older than these kids in school, and, to know that, … you always worry about the next thing.”
Mead lives a street away from Crimo’s home in Highwood. Since the attack, her oldest son has been struggling when he hears loud noises. And he has a lot of questions about who Crimo is.
“Our 8-year-old wants to know all the details on where he is,” Mead said. “He is very literal.”
To help, they have shown him photos of the Lake County Jail in Waukegan where Crimo is being held without bail.
Mead said she walks by Crimo’s home every morning. Even though she knows he isn’t there, she somehow wants to just make sure.
“I need to be OK sending these kids back,” Mead said. “And I am not OK. The anxiety comes in hard and fast and not necessarily when I am expecting it.”
Mead said she and other mothers think their young kids are far better prepared for active-shooter situations than adults are because this is what they’ve grown up with.
“The 8-year-old talks about the spot during the drill last year that he found to hide,” Mead said. “And he was all proud of it: ‘Guess what I found — the best hiding spot from the shooter!’ ”
‘Like sandbagging before a tsunami’
Parents have expressed concerns to school officials about whether active-shooter drills will continue this year. Lubelfeld said school districts are required to complete the ALICE — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate — active-shooter training every year.
The superintendent said school officials will take steps to ensure there are no surprises during the training — and that families are warned well in advance that it’s a drill.
When Sharone Marck was running from the parade shooting, she told her 7-year-old son to act as if this was just an ALICE training. The young boy responded, “But this is real.”
Marck said she’s been afraid of school shootings since she was a kid. She was an eighth-grader sitting in class in Glencoe when Laurie Dann walked in to a school in Winnetka and killed a second-grader.
Now, Marck has two kids in District 112. She said she has no complaints about the efforts being made to increase safety but isn’t sure how effective they will be.
“The school district can’t do anything to make us safer,” Marck said. “The government needs to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.”
Sonya Cohen, who lives in Highland Park with her four children, ages 2 to 15, said she has felt similar frustrations.
“Some people want metal detectors,” Cohen said. “Some people don’t think it’s a good idea to talk about bullet-proof glass and armed guards. But these safety mitigations … If I could liken it to anything, it’s like sandbagging before a tsunami.”
Officials in Dstricts 112 and 113 said they’ve been working to alleviate concerns people might have about security at schools.
District 112 has been bringing its buildings up to standards set by the Illinois Terrorism Task Force Report on School Safety after the Parkland High School shooting in Florida left 17 dead and 17 wounded in 2018.
The school district has made improvements to its security cameras and installed a “Blue Point security system” that lets anyone pull an alarm if there’s someone with a gun, sending an alert to several police jurisdictions.
Both actions were taken before the Fourth of July shooting.
Lubelfeld said District 112 also has been exploring the installation of bullet-proof glass throughout its buildings and some sort of barricade outside schools to try to prevent anyone from driving onto the campus. On Tuesday, the District 112 school board approved adding $6 million for enhanced safety and security measures to a larger bond referendum that will go before voters in November.
District 112 has one school resource officer for its 10 schools. District 113 has one officer at each of its high schools. Some parents want more. Others fear more guards would further traumatize kids.
District 113 has installed a new security systerm that alerts administrators when a door has been propped open and a new ID scanner for students that has required hiring more security guards.
Both school districts have applied for federal funding to cover some of the added costs.
Bruce Law, the District 113 superintendent, said he’s grateful for the federal aid for such concerns but also frustrated it even exists.
“That mass shootings are just as expected as a natural disaster just strikes me as unacceptable, and it should be unacceptable to everyone,” Law said.
Shooting now ‘part of who you are’
When Ruder Ring thinks of the return of school, she said it brings back the memory of seeing all of the children who sat near her on the Fourth of July, excited for the parade to begin.
Her family had gotten there early, and they had some of the best seats, near where many of the killed and wounded were shot, including Cooper Roberts, the boy who was paralyzed.
When the gunfire started, the family raced for cover near the Dairy Queen and then, holding on to each other, ran to their car in an underground parking garage.
A woman stumbled in, covered in blood and holding a 2-year-old boy, Aiden McCarthy.
“The blood is not mine, it’s not his, and he is not mine,” Ruder Ring said the woman told her.
They grabbed the child from the woman’s arms, but Ruder Ring’s husband worried the boy’s parents were upstairs and might be putting themselves in danger’s way while trying to find him. He wrapped Aiden in a towel, hid him under his arm and ran back to street level.
But he quickly came back, telling his wife he saw bodies on the ground, though he now remembers none of that.
They brought Aiden to Ruder Ring’s parent’s house, where her father took Aiden and their 4-year-old daughter into a room to watch Mickey Mouse cartoons until the police arrived.
“Every time I asked him what his name was,” Ruder Ring said, “he would just say, ‘Mom and Daddy come and get me soon. Mommy, Mommy, Daddy come with your car to come get me.’ ”
Highland Park police officers took Aiden to a hospital, where he was reunited with his grandparents. Aiden’s parents — Kevin and Irina McCarthy — both were killed in the shooting.
According to the grandfather, Kevin McCarthy died while shielding his son from the gunfire.
Having her children close to her this summer has helped Ruder Ring deal with the trauma.
“For me, it’s going to be really hard without them [her children] to be dictating my immediate schedule for any given day,” she said. “I myself am still struggling to focus on anything. I am just regularly melancholy, trying to work through it.
“It’s not going to ever leave you,” she said. “This is something that is now unfortunately a part of who you are, your memories and what shaped you.”