Parents Face a Haunting Question: Is Any Schoolchild Safe?

Late Tuesday night, Luz Belliard sat on the edge of her bed in Upper Manhattan in the room she shares with her 9-year-old granddaughter, Victoria, and thought about what to say.

Victoria, a third grader, was sitting on her own bed, which was covered in stuffed animals; she had already seen on the evening news that children her age had been killed in a mass shooting at a school in Texas.

Now, Ms. Belliard had to consider just what she would tell Victoria on their walk to school the next morning: Listen to your teachers. Get down on the floor. Remember the drills you do in class.

“She’s young, but she understands — sometimes too much,” Ms. Belliard said Wednesday outside of Victoria’s school, P.S. 4 Duke Ellington in Washington Heights. “To take your child to school, and then come back to see them dead, it’s not fair. It should not be that way.”

Victoria was standing at her grandmother’s side.

“It’s sad that a lot of children died that way. Those children had a big life ahead of them,” the girl said. “When I hear that kind of stuff it makes me scared.”

In New York and across the country on Wednesday, children, parents and caregivers grappled with the aftermath of the deadly shooting in Uvalde, Tex., where an 18 year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers before being shot dead by authorities.

Jose Chavez, Marisa Salinas and Mireyah Chavez, from right to left in the second row, prayed at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Wednesday. Mireyah, left, was present at Robb Elementary School during the shooting.Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

They hugged their children a little tighter, and lingered a little longer at drop-off. They could imagine too easily a gunman bursting into their own child’s classroom. And they were once again faced with a haunting question: Is there anywhere in America where schoolchildren can truly be safe?

Some schools around the country took extra precautions in the wake of the shooting. Schools in Texas and Florida banned backpacks from buildings on Wednesday. Officials in states including Georgia and Virginia sent extra officers to schools as a precaution. In New York City, home to the nation’s largest school system, officials are considering ways to tighten security, including locking school doors after children have arrived for the day.

The shooting has cast a somber tone over the final days and weeks of the school year.

“Sometimes I don’t know what to say publicly,” Deborah Gist, the superintendent of schools in Tulsa, Okla., wrote in a Facebook post. “I feel a huge responsibility to use the right words. How, though, do I express the horror, outrage, frustration, disappointment, pain, and fear that an event like the shooting in Uvalde brings? It is a parent’s, a teacher’s, a principal’s, and a superintendent’s worst nightmare.”

In New Jersey on Wednesday morning, Cindy Cucaz, 47, received a message from the principal at her daughter’s high school in Belleville that said the local police department would be at drop off and dismissal.

“Hoping this brings some comfort and relief to students, teachers, administrators and parents,” Ms. Cucaz, who works in medical billing in Manhattan, read from an email sent to the student body.

But Ms. Cucaz said it would do little to relieve her fear from the moment her daughter, Catalina, 17, left for school until she returned home in the afternoon.

“I send her off every day with prayers that she comes back in one piece. Because of how the world is,” Ms. Cucaz said. “I just pray that she comes home.”

In Buffalo, not far from where a racist gunman killed ten Black people at a nearby supermarket less than two weeks ago, the shooting in Texas piled fear atop fear. Patricia Davis paused before she dropped off her 13-year-old son at school on Wednesday morning.

Be careful, she told him. If anything happens, “just fall on the floor.”

“I was devastated,” said Patricia Davis, whose sons Jaylen, 13, and Alexander, 10, were already reeling from a shooting in Buffalo, where they live. “How could someone do something like that to some children?”Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

As she drove away, she could not help wondering: “Am I going to see my son again?”

“All of it is senseless,” Ms. Davis said. “We’re not safe anywhere, it just makes you want to stay home and lock yourself up and not go out for anything.”

The Texas shooting also rekindled the long-smoldering grief around the devastating shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. a decade ago that left six staff members and 20 children dead, some as young as 6 years old.

Scarlett Lewis, whose six-year-old son, Jesse, was killed in the Sandy Hook shootings, said learning about every mass shooting is “like a punch in the gut every single time” that reactivates the pain and grief.

“For me, it never gets easier,” Ms. Lewis said. “Especially because they’re all preventable. It’s so difficult to lose a child and you always have that pain.”

In New York City, even with some of the strictest gun laws in the country, some parents said they were on high alert after the Texas shooting, the massacre in Buffalo, and a mass shooting on a crowded subway car in April, in which a gunman opened fire during rush hour in a subway car in Brooklyn, shooting 10 people and injuring at least 13 more.

“The feelings are just everywhere at this point,” said Victor Quiñonez, whose 11 year-old daughter attends a school in Brooklyn. “It’s anger, it’s frustration, it’s sadness.”

“It’s just difficult because there’s absolutely a sense of vulnerability for everybody in this country, because you can’t control what people do,” he said.

In Buffalo, where 10 people were killed in a mass shooting less than two weeks ago, fears are now compounding.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

For some New York City parents, the shooting in Texas added to the emotional toll that gun violence in neighborhoods already takes.

Maria Urena said a shooting outside her 11-year-old son’s school in Maspeth, Queens, prompted a lockdown and an urgent message to parents. She could not reach her son, Chris, and a sickening panic set it in.

She later learned that an upperclassman had been shot outside of the school by another teenager. When she hovered over her children that evening, they were the ones comforting her: “Mom, this is an everyday thing,” Ms. Urena recalled her 17-year-old daughter, Ashley, saying.

As the children left for school on Wednesday morning, Ms. Urena said, fingering her gold necklace that says “Chris” and “Ashley” in script, she thought about Texas, and what if that morning’s goodbye was the last.

“Us moms in the morning, you don’t know what is the last thing you told your kid in the morning. You could have gotten upset with your kid — ‘don’t do this, don’t do that,’” she said.

“You don’t know, that could be the last thing you ever told your child.”

New York City students and teachers are trained regularly on how to behave during a mass shooting, but city officials pledged to explore ways to tighten security at city schools.

The city schools chancellor, David C. Banks, said the school system was considering locking building doors after children have arrived for the day.

“The buildings are still open, so if somebody meant to do harm, they would be stopped by a school safety officer,” Mr. Banks said, “but they are already in the building.”

A school resource officer watches over P.S. 8 in Washington Heights on Wednesday. New York City’s school chancellor said he would consider locking schools’ doors during the day.Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

He and Mr. Adams said the city was also exploring technology to better detect guns being secreted into schools.

Parents have also struggled with how to reassure their children that it is safe to return to class.

In Buffalo, José Esquilin, 43, was sitting at his desk when his daughter, Avalynn, 7, came in with her eyes wide after watching news of the Texas school shooting on television in the living room.

“‘Is this here? Did this happen here? They killed the kids? Is this going to happen at my school?’” she asked, according to Mr. Esquilin. He explained to her that there were many schools across the country, and that these shootings were rare.

When she replied that the same thing had already happened in their neighborhood, Mr. Esquilin paused.

“As a parent, like, what can you say? It’s true. It’s hard dealing with this.”

Sarah Maslin Nir, Sarah Mervosh, Corey Kilgannon and Ali Watkins contributed reporting.

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