My daughter was among the last to leave Santa Cruz High amid reports of an active shooter; the wait was terrifying

A tearful embrace Thursday at Depot Park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Thursday’s event turned out to be a hoax, but it reminded us how close we live to tragedy. How quickly the images of Uvalde, Parkland, Newtown and Columbine reappear in our minds. Community Voices Editor Jody K. Biehl recounts the short hours and long anxiety of Thursday’s false active shooter report at Santa Cruz High.

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My 16-year-old daughter was among the last kids evacuated from Santa Cruz High School on Thursday, amid a terrifying, and ultimately false, report of an active school shooter.

It’s terrible to have to wait to see your child. Not to be able to do what we parents instinctually do — protect our babies.

My daughter texted me at 9:40 a.m. that the school was on lockdown. Her third-floor Advanced Placement U.S. history classroom looks out on Walnut Street, and her class heard sirens and watched dozens of police officers, guns drawn, enter the school. Officers saw the kids and shouted at them to move from the window, to “get down” and be quiet.

She texted me that she was scared. That kids were sobbing. That there were injuries.

I told her to stay calm. And quiet.

I texted what I wanted to be true: “You are safe.”

I asked her to keep texting me, so I would know she was OK.

It’s extraordinary how slowly time passes when you are waiting.

It’s terrible what images quickly come. Uvalde. Parkland. Newtown. Columbine.

So many parents who sent their children to school one morning and never saw them again.

The randomness of sudden violence is paralyzing. Especially when you consider how casually you could be among the parents mourning.

I am not sure I would have the strength to survive it.

That is why, even when we knew at 11 a.m. that the reports of injuries were wrong — that the whole life-altering episode that brought 150 police officers to Walnut and California streets, caused Dominican Hospital to cancel nonemergency surgeries and call 100 extra people in to work, that pushed city and county school administrators into overdrive and made more than 1,200 students, teachers and administrators at Santa Cruz High hunker down in classrooms for hours was a hoax — I still had to go to Depot Park.

I knew she wasn’t there — that I would need to wait. But that was where the school told parents to gather, and it was the closest place I could be to her. The closest I could get to getting her back.

Families of Santa Cruz High students wait for them at Depot Park on Thursday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Hundreds of parents had arrived before me. We stood around in weird solidarity. I hugged people I vaguely knew — one I had seen once in the bleachers at a volleyball game, another who had asked a good question at back-to-school night. There was an eerie, but also lovely, sense of community. We had all felt the fear of losing what matters most.

I talked to friends, colleagues from UC Santa Cruz, my doctor, city councilmembers, who had also dropped work and come. What else, we all said, could we do?

One parent passed out doughnuts. The school offered us water and, later, apples and granola bars. Mental health counselors wandered around asking if we needed anything, which of course we did. We needed our kids.

My daughter’s best friend has a 15-year-old cousin visiting from Germany who is attending Santa Cruz High this semester. He was in a bike-repair class when the lockdown happened, and he was among the first to get bused from the school.

I stood with him at Depot Park, talking about the day, about this tragically American experience. About what he would tell his friends back home. About how strange (and in this case useful) it is that American school classes are now equipped with buckets and sheets to create makeshift bathrooms inside a classroom in case of a lockdown. Lockdowns have become that common.

Reunited Thursday at Depot Park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

My daughter’s class used theirs.

We are, of course, lucky in ways people in Uvalde and Parkland and Newtown and Columbine and so many other places were not. By the end of the day, all of us got to hug our kids.

Today, no one has to mourn. Our community is safe.

I waited 2½ hours at Depot Park. My daughter was among the last to leave Santa Cruz High. The school and the administrators, the police and certainly her teacher, and many others, did an incredible job of remaining calm and keeping us and the kids informed.

My daughter got off the bus at Depot Park around 2:15 p.m. and waved at me from behind a fence. Santa Cruz High has an open campus — she leaves school all the time for lunch on her own. But on this terrifying day, she couldn’t leave until administrators “checked her out” to me.

So I waited more.

Then, finally, I got to hug her.

Santa Cruz High students at Depot Park before being released to their waiting families.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I hugged her friends who came out with her and I hugged her friends’ parents and grandparents. I cried and did not want to let go.

That embarrassed her, which felt blissfully normal.

She says she is OK, but I hear in her voice that she is shaken. I see it in her demeanor. Watching police march into your school with guns drawn, ready to open fire, is unnerving. Texting your friends to see if they are hurt is terrifying. So is sitting in silent fear for hours.

School principal Michelle Poirier put on an informative Zoom meeting Thursday night, with Santa Cruz Police Chief Bernie Escalante, city schools superintendent Kris Munro and county schools superintendent Faris Sabbah. My daughter, husband and I watched it together. It felt good to see how prepared and coordinated we are. Cathartic to relive it calmly, snuggled next to her in her bed.

We will continue to talk about it and hope the trauma subsides, that she and her friends — many of whom already suffer from depression and anxiety (some texted their therapists from lockdown) — will find ways to heal.

We will also discuss it as a nation, as a community. Thursday was a hoax, a terrible, sick, criminal “prank,” but it reminds us how close we live to tragedy.

The school is encouraging us to get back to normal. To send our kids back to class.

We will. But Friday, my daughter didn’t want to go. She didn’t feel ready.

Me either.

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