On Monday morning, as the shock from one of the largest mass shootings in U.S. history reverberated through Las Vegas, the school buses arrived just as they always had. Students with backpacks slung over their shoulders filled the hallways just as they always had, and teachers prepared their lesson plans just as they always had.
On a day when lives were ended and upended, and any sense of normality was decimated with the pull of an assault rifle trigger, schools across the Las Vegas Valley stood as a haven of routine and familiarity for their 300,000 students. For many, nothing else will be the same for a long time.
“The goal is to maintain as much structure and routine as possible,” said Ana Zeh, a coordinator in the guidance counseling department for the Clark County School District. “It’s to make sure there is a sense of security there, and that school is a safe and secure place.”
Each school in the district experienced the tragedy in a different way. Some schools lost graduates or had students injured in the shooting. Some lost parents or friends. Others were less directly affected.
At Coronado High School in Henderson, Nevada, guidance counselor Michele Ellis noticed an eerie silence fill the normally bustling hallways on Monday. Gone was the laughter, the childish antics, the boisterous greetings and the subtle head nods kids like to give when they’re just trying to be cool. In its place was grief, shock and confusion, as students wrestled with a single, impossible question—Why?
“There wasn’t a lot of emotion at that moment,” Ellis said of Monday. “There was a lot of shock. A lot of faces didn’t have any emotion at all. They were just like I was … a lot of them were in shock.”
Coronado was hit especially hard by the tragedy. Three former students and one current student were shot and injured. Later in the day, news spread that sophomore Ayzayah Hartfield’s father, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Officer Charleston Hartfield, had also been slain. A teacher wrestled with the knowledge that her daughter’s friend had also been murdered at the festival.
Ellis knew Monday would be a difficult day. The school of 3,400 is heavily involved in the community and had students at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, she said. It can be easy to forget that families and children live just outside the neon glow of Sin City’s tourist corridor, but this week there was evidence everywhere, as a city of 2 million reeled from the tragedy.
“When something happens in our community it happens to every single person,” Ellis said. “Of course kids are involved. If it happens to students, then every other student is involved, and of course school staff is involved.”
Coronado’s lead counselor, Lisa Diffley, encouraged teachers and counselors to be on the lookout for students who seemed disengaged, emotional or disappeared into the bathroom for long periods of time. All could be signs of grief. Some teachers attempted to continue their lessons as normal, while others took time to address the tragedy depending on the classroom’s needs.
As the day progressed, Diffley and her staff of about eight counselors helped about 20 different students. They became the heart of the school, a place where students could pour out their feelings and know it was okay to not be okay.
“They’re looking to us to know how to process this situation,” Diffley said. “We acknowledge that this is a tragic and sad event with no answers.”
The healing process continued throughout the week as the shock wore off and reality settled in. Students continued to trickle down to the office looking for support and guidance. Diffley expects more questions when school returns after the weekend, as more students go home, watch the news and talk with their parents.
The students will forever be changed, said Ellis. For many, they’ve been stripped of that youthful cloak of invincibility. Death is real to them now. Diffley hopes they’ll develop a more global perspective after this horrific event, but she doesn’t really know.
For now, the schools are focused on being there for students. The bell will continue to ring, classes will resume and homework will be due on Tuesday. Some things in life never change, and for many students, that’s a comfort.
“As a whole, Las Vegas is still trying to heal and return to some sense of normalcy,” Ellis said. “We, as a school, are trying to bring normalcy back and little tiny emotional bursts will come forth. Those students will be brought down to the counseling office. I think it will be very sensitive for quite a while. So we will handle each individual case.”