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Collegiate families deal with 'mixed bag of feelings' approaching school shooting anniversary

A young man, who is White with mid-length brown hair and who is wearing jeans and an olive green sweater, sits on the bottom of a set of bunk beds. He is looking out of frame with an apprehensive look on his face, with his hands clasped. Behind him in the room, a large collection of plants is visible.
Tristen Rouse
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St. Louis Public Radio
Jacob Hicks, a senior at Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, is photographed on Oct. 15 at his home in the Holly Hills neighborhood of St. Louis.

School shootings are often measured by numbers of deaths and injuries, but for each incident of mass violence, there is a much larger wake of people connected to the school who have to deal with the long-term effects of the event, unrelated to gunshot wounds.

After the October 24, 2022 shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, that wake of trauma included both students connected to the performing arts magnet school and students at Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, which shares the building with CVPA.

In the days and weeks following the shooting, much of the media and community focus was almost entirely centered on CVPA. After all, the gunman and both of the people he killed were directly connected to that school. But Collegiate students and their families say that focus often seemed to overlook their own experiences of the tragedy, making it difficult for them to process their resulting emotions.

Collegiate senior Jacob Hicks’ room almost looks like a greenhouse - shelves and tables are lined with, at last count, more than 100 houseplants. Like many of his classmates, Hicks is hoping to become a scientist and plans to study something involving botany and plant research after graduation.

After the shooting last year, Hicks felt depressed, like he was “on auto-pilot.” He had just gotten to know CVPA teacher Jean Kuczka, who was killed in the shooting, because he was on the cross-country team and she was a coach.

“She had a bicycle and she would bike throughout the park as we were running and find us and give encouragement and ask us how we're doing,” Hicks said. “You know, can we push ourselves harder, do we need to slow down? She really cared about each of us individually.”

During the dark time after the shooting, Hicks also had a daily reminder of how bad his mental health had gotten — his plants were starting to die, because he wasn’t feeling well enough to take care of them.

“There's probably about six or seven that ended up, like, dying during that period that were just starting to turn crunchy and brown all over,” Hicks said.

A young man, who is White with mid-length brown hair and who is wearing a green sweatshirt, examines the roots of a plant he has removed from its pot.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Jacob Hicks repots one of his many plants on Oct. 15 at his home in the Holly Hills neighborhood of St. Louis.
A diptych of two vertical images. The left image is of two knitted cacti, sitting on a wood shelf and surrounded by numerous other real plants. The right image is of a a young man, seen from behind and in silhouette, watering a plant on a desk.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
LEFT: Two knitted cacti sit on a shelf of plants in Jacob Hicks’ room on Oct. 15 at his home in the Holly Hills neighborhood of St. Louis. RIGHT: Jacob Hicks waters some of his plants.

Eventually, as Hicks started to feel better, he was also able to revive most of the plants. But he and some in the wider Collegiate community are still processing difficult feelings, especially around how the shooting was discussed publicly.

“It has hurt in a way sometimes, because the media had definitely put more emphasis on CVPA, and like I said, that's hard because as Collegiate, we don't want to diminish what they went through,” Hicks said. “But nobody seems to be talking about the fact that we are going through just as much. And it was also really hard to go through all that and then have to go back [to school] after only a month. [CVPA] got longer and they needed longer. But it was still hard to go back so soon.”

Collegiate parents have also felt this conflict over what they have felt because of the shooting and how their children’s school has been seemingly overlooked. Sarah Javier has a senior and a freshman at Collegiate. She says she has worked with a professional trauma counselor to deal with the ongoing emotions from the shooting that bubble up at unexpected times. Javier says many from Collegiate felt very left out of the coverage after the shooting.

“It didn't matter if they went to Collegiate or CVPA,” Javier said. “Our lives were forever changed by this event. And when we weren't acknowledged as having experienced this, it diminished it somehow. It made it feel as though we didn't have as much right to feel these painful things that we experienced, or that we weren't as seen as other people.”

National research has found a broad effect of school shootings on the children who were there. A team at Stanford estimates more than 100,000 students attended a school where a shooting took place in just 2018 and 2019. Research has shown those students could experience negative effects on both mental health and even academics for years after the shooting.

A middle-aged Hispanic woman, with dark hair in a ponytail and a white t-shirt, sits with her hands clasped at a table. The wall behind her is blank, except for a rectangular stained glass window shining yellow light into the room.
Tristen Rouse
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St. Louis Public Radio
Elena Aztatzi-Pedro is photographed on Oct. 15 in her home in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of St. Louis. Aztatzi-Pedro’s daughter is now a senior at Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience.

Many Collegiate students and their families say they are experiencing this. Elena Aztatzi-Pedro’s daughter was a junior at Collegiate when the shooting happened and is now a senior. Aztatzi-Pedro says on the day of the shooting, after receiving a text from her daughter that she could hear gunshots, it felt like time slowed down as she drove to the school.

Even now, if she hears sirens or helicopters, Aztatzi-Pedro has a physical reaction as her memories of that day come back to her.

Soon after the shooting, Aztatzi-Pedro says she tried to get mental health help for her daughter, but it was hard. She found a lack of resources available through Medicaid, long waitlists and what she felt was a disparity in what was available for Collegiate students.

“All the help, all the resources, were just going to CVPA and especially for the kids that were in Collegiate, they noticed all that stuff,” Aztatzi-Pedro said.

Eventually her daughter was able to find professional help, but Aztatzi-Pedro says she and her family are still dealing with the effects of what happened.

A young woman, who is White with orange-red hair down to her shoulders and who is wearing a pink long-sleeved top. She is holding her own arm with her opposite hand. Behind her is a park full of trees with yellow-green leaves.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Giada Omercehajic is photographed on Oct. 13 at Tower Grove Park in St. Louis. Omercehajic is a senior at Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience.
A diptych of two vertical images. The left image is of a young woman's hands, clasped together. The right image is of the entrance to Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience in St. Louis, seen through the leaves of a tree.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
LEFT: Giada Omercehajic is photographed on Oct. 13 at Tower Grove Park in St. Louis. RIGHT: Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience on the right.

As the anniversary got closer, Collegiate senior Giada Omercehajic reflected on how far both she and her community had come in the previous year. She doesn’t appreciate the focus on the difference in how the schools were talked about, because she says it’s not a competition. She thinks people understand her school also experienced the shooting and that the trauma is shared.

“It should not be, who gets more publication, who gets more praise, who gets more sorrow, who gets more compassion towards them,” Omercehajic said. “It's not about that. It's about the bigger picture. The community as a whole.”

As Omercehajic has moved forward after the shooting, she’s trying to be grateful that she survived, while still caring about CVPA student Alexzandria Bell and teacher Kuczka, who were killed.

“Instead of being sad and depressed that it happened, rather, think positively,” Omercehajic said. “And say, you know, I'm very thankful that I'm here today. And I'm thankful that everyone around me is better. And how can we as a community work harder to not let this happen again?”

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Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.