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Essay: My sister survived a shooting at a college campus. When will these tragedies end?

Editor’s note: This post contains references to recent shootings at the University of Virginia and Michigan State University. Contact Counseling and Psychological Services at 202-994-5300 for on-campus counseling or the National Helpline at 800-662-4357 for confidential, free 24/7 support. 

When I got a Twitter notification on Feb. 13 that Michigan State University was on lockdown, my thoughts instantly flashed back three months earlier to Nov. 13, 2022 and the University of Virginia. “There is a shooter,” my sister, Elizabeth, texted me that night. Elizabeth, a freshman majoring in biology at UVA, was considering going to the campus gym when she suddenly realized she couldn’t even leave her room.

My heart stopped when I got that text. I left in the middle of my musical theater rehearsal and called her to make sure she was OK. Huddling around my phone in the hallway of West Hall, I listened to her describe the all-caps texts that UVA’s emergency response had sent telling her to “remain sheltered in place until further notice,” an “active attacker was on campus” and she should “run, hide, fight.” I told her about everything from what I did that day to the highlights of my Tiktok For You page to keep her calm and distracted. I continued to talk to her as I jumped on the Mount Vernon Express to ride back to my residence hall in Foggy Bottom. UVA remained on lockdown for hours with the shooter still on the loose. Even from about 100 miles away, I wanted to be sure my sister was safe.

Elizabeth told me she was sheltering in place in her room, probably as far away from the violence as she could be. A few months ago, I helped her move into campus. Now, I was hearing the muffled voices on the UVA Police Department scanner reading the names of familiar campus locations, like the Culbreth Road Parking Garage, where the shooting took place, and Rugby Road, where law enforcement believed the suspect had fled.

The level of uncertainty was one of the hardest parts of grappling with the UVA shooting as a family member of a student there. We knew nothing – when it was going to end, where the shooter was or how many people had been injured. Everyone on campus had different information, and the university shared few updates. The UVA Police Department scanner kept describing random spots around campus – or “grounds,” as I can hear my sister correcting me – as locations where the suspect could possibly be. But nothing was for sure.

The lockdown ended up lasting more than 12 hours, finally ending around 10:30 a.m. UVA took a collective deep breath when Henrico County police finally apprehended the shooter the next morning nearly 70 miles away from UVA’s campus. Students could finally grieve the loss of three of their peers and hope for the recovery of two others. In the aftermath, UVA officials canceled classes for two days while the university community, native Virginians, friends and family mourned those who lost their lives in the shooting. Those who survived lost their sense of safety and now carry the added burdens of grief and fear.

But as quickly as the world learned about the shooting, they stopped talking about it. Days later, while my sister was still afraid to walk alone at night and the campus was still trying to cope with the unimaginable fallout, I felt like barely anyone outside UVA remembered what had happened. She was still grappling with the violence on her campus when I got to see her over Thanksgiving break.

The shooting at MSU took me back to that night in November. I couldn’t stop reading about the situation while it was unfolding, listening to the MSU Police scanner and constantly refreshing Twitter just trying to get the latest information. Like UVA, MSU also told its students to “run, hide, fight” – the standard but terrifying advice colleges share with students to respond to mass shootings. The lockdown at MSU lasted for four hours instead of 12, but the university’s community faced the same unimaginable grief as those at UVA. At MSU, three students also lost their lives in the shooting.

When I graduated high school last year, a part of me thought I wouldn’t have to worry about finding the best hiding spots or running from a shooter as a college student. There were 51 school shootings at K-12 schools that resulted in injuries or death in 2022 compared to one mass shooting on a college campus last year. I grew up 45 minutes away from Virginia Tech which was the site of a mass shooting in 2007. I always knew that shootings on college campuses across the country were a possibility, but I didn’t think they would impact me.

I was in elementary school at the time of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 and an eighth grader during the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, I’ve almost been desensitized to the shooting drills and practice lockdowns. But in college, my professors had yet to talk about what to do in an active shooter situation. The absence of the conversation put my mind at ease – maybe that small part of me was correct in thinking gun violence was a worry of the past.

But after two college shootings only four months apart, I’ve reverted back to my high school mindset, now more vigilant and wary of mass shootings. I don’t want to miss any texts from my family and friends in case they are in an emergency. And while my sister has started to feel safer on campus, the shooting at MSU reminded her of her own lockdown experience. She also stayed glued to the police scanner as MSU Police officers continued to investigate the scene and surrounding area.

How many more times will Elizabeth and I see tweets from emergency responders, monitor police scanners or wonder where we’d go in a mass shooting? When will these tragedies end?

Caroline Moore, a freshman majoring in international affairs, is an opinions writer.

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