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What we owe our children after the horror at Michigan State

Michigan State’s sprawling campus has hosted thousands of people, like my daughter, during some of the most exciting and challenging years of their lives. It may seem that almost everyone in the state has a connection to school in one way or another.

And so, there are countless personal stories of the mass shooting in the State of Michigan.

Mine isn’t particularly special. But here it is.

My son was going to stay late for a couple of campus activities Monday night and I was ready to pick her up for a late dinner. But because I was editing a breaking story, I got to campus a few minutes late. Looking back, I’m hyper-aware of when she got in her car and rolled her eyes at working late again (8:08 PM). I know when we passed by Berkey Hall, where she had already had meetings (8:12 pm). I know when we pulled into our driveway (8:21pm).

Because at 8:37 he got the alert — and it was unlike anything he’d ever seen from MSU, even though there had been threats and incidents before that. There was an active shooter situation on campus and she was told to shelter in place if she could. If not: “Run, hide, fight.”

What to read for young people. If no one comes to save you from the slaughter, here are some fighting rules to quickly memorize. Because at any moment in a country awash in guns, your life could become a war zone.

Then came the terrified messages all over her group chats. Her friends who returned home after their meeting were desperately trying to find places to hide. Others were barricaded in their apartments or dormitories. Everyone was crying. Some were having panic attacks. A person with heart problems later had to get medical help.

He reached out to everyone, even people who had college degrees and lived in New York or Chicago. She has been texting people she hasn’t spoken to in years.

You’re safe? Are you OK?

The messages were infinitely terrifying.

Every wild rumor that spreads on Twitter and Snapchat is off to the millisecond. There were so many reports that the gunman was wandering wantonly from building to building.

Nobody felt safe.

Nobody knew what was really happening. Nobody knew what was true. No one knew which information to trust.

When my daughter showed me each awful new post, all I could do was hug her, muttering gently that scanner traffic is notoriously inaccurate, reporters sometimes get it wrong in the heat of the moment, and viral posts are usually hoaxes. None of it was remotely comforting. Nothing was. In those moments, you cling to anything that could give you some peace of mind through the horror. But your competence won’t save you from anguish, from helplessness, from overwhelming guilt.

I was one of the few parents lucky enough to be able to hold my son in my arms through the entire ordeal. For so many others, Monday night was about trying to breathe as they waited for a call, a text, any sign that their babies were okay.

If you were an outside observer, it probably seemed like it was all over relatively quickly, as police within hours located the gunman who was already dead. But for so many of us in the MSU family, it’s as if time and real life suddenly stopped at 8:37 pm on a Monday and became a slow-moving nightmare.

It’s a nightmare from which three students, Arielle Anderson, Brian Fraser and Alexandria Verner, will never wake up. It’s a nightmare that their friends and family will relive over and over again. It’s a nightmare for five other injured students who fought for their lives and all who love them.

One of those students happens to be my daughter’s friend. And I won’t say anything else about it right now because it’s not my story to tell. But all of this was devastating.

What I will say is that in the past few days, so many of us have discovered how small MSU’s place is under the saddest of circumstances. In life, each of us touches so many people. It’s something we rarely stop to think about. The ripple effects of tragedies like this are almost incomprehensible.

I’ve seen so many acts of kindness and comfort, from students who don’t even know each other talk and hug each other to people who bring therapy dogs onto campus to give even a moment’s respite.

When my daughter wanted to go to the wake Wednesday night, my first instinct as a mom was to keep her off campus as long as possible, even though I’ve been there three times because that’s my job as a reporter. But it was her decision. And she wanted to be there with thousands of others as they all faced fear and anger and pain, alone and together.

But I also saw unimaginable cruelty. We expect anonymous accounts to mock survivors after disasters, but heaping that kind of pain on anyone is cowardice. And there are also political operatives and leaders who proudly troll everyone with pro-gun propaganda that they should be deeply ashamed of.

So I’m amazed by students like my own who are already working to turn their pain into radical social change, showing up on Capitol Hill this week to demand real gun reform. I can tell you they will keep showing up and no one should ignore them. Lawmakers should know better than to try to placate them with platitudes about “thoughts and prayers” or insisting that mental health is the only issue.

We have two generations of kids who have grown up doing block drills in school as if it were as normal as learning the ABCs, sometimes starting in kindergarten. We sent them the clear message that they were always at risk of a mass shooting like the one at MSU and 72 others in America this year alone. And so, sadly but not surprisingly, some arrived on campus as survivors of Oxford or other shootings.

This is another form of slow trauma. It has been ignored for too long.

So many young people have had enough. Doing everything possible to ensure they don’t have to survive in another combat zone seems like the bare minimum for a functioning society.

Too many times children are told it’s up to them to build a better world. But we owe him so much. And it’s really on all of us to stop letting them down.

Susan J. Demas is the editor-in-chief of Michigan Advance, where this piece originally appeared. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are influenced by public policy or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your comment, here.

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