'I Don't Want To Leave My House': Santa Fe's Invisible Wounds

May 21, 2018
Originally published on May 23, 2018 6:18 am

If this were a normal Monday morning, students at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, would be heading back to class. Instead, school is closed, its classrooms still a crime scene. The big question for investigators: How did a gunman walk into school Friday morning, killing 10 people and wounding 13?

But Katelyn "Kayte" Alford and her 1,400 classmates struggle with a different question: How do we move on from this?

Friday morning, Kayte (pronounced Katie), 18, thought her school was on fire. She was in her floral design class, on the second floor, when the alarm sounded. She dropped everything and ran — outside and across the road. There, one of her friends pulled up in a truck, ghostly pale.

"I got shot, I got shot!" her friend cried.

Kayte felt confused. "I was like, 'Shot? It doesn't make any sense. What is going on?' And I look down, and she has a bullet hole in her leg."

Kayte's telling this story a day after the shooting — from the safety of her grandmother's house, where she lives. But even here, there's uncertainty. The rambling brick two-story had to be renovated after the ravages of Hurricane Harvey last year.

Kayte sits at a small island in the kitchen. She is slight with long hair past her waist. Her fingernails match the thick, dark frames of her glasses. Her grandmother, Lisa Clemons, and her mother, Danell Reed, stand around her, for comfort. All three attended Santa Fe High.

In that moment Friday, along the roadside, Kayte says she had a panic attack. But the worst was yet to come. She learned later that a boy she'd grown up with, Chris Stone, had been killed. She wants people outside of Santa Fe to know that his smile brightened every room, and that he was loved by everyone. But as she says this, Kayte's face darkens. The panic hasn't gone.

"I don't want to go anywhere," she says. "I don't want to leave my house. I don't want to be alone. I can't even get up and go to the bathroom without having my mom come with me because I'm constantly looking over my shoulder. I was trying to sit in the backyard, and I was scared that somebody was going to jump over the fence and shoot me."

Earlier in the day, when authorities bused students back to Santa Fe High to pick up their cars, Kayte simply couldn't do it. She's a senior, so close to graduation, but says she can't imagine going back there. Her mother feels the same.

"I don't want my kid going back to school," Reed says, her voice frayed by grief and fury. "I'd rather her not walk across that stage and then just mail the diploma."

Kayte talks of trying to find a new normal after the shooting. She used to love volleyball and track and says she'd been accepted to a two-year college — with hopes of transferring to Sam Houston State University. But now she's not sure of her future. She feels ... upended. So does Clemons, Kayte's grandmother.

"Honestly, when we saw her, I hugged her so tight. And I thank God that she's OK. But then I see the other families that lost a child. I don't know how I would have coped with that. Honestly," Clemons says, her breath quickening through tears. "I don't know if we'd lost her what we would have done. I don't see how those families — how do you move past that? You're not supposed to outlive your children. You're just not."

Kayte feels this too, this guilt. In fact, at the end of our conversation, the last thing she says is that she wishes she could apologize to the students and teachers who died.

"Because I was lucky enough to make it out," Kayte says. "They weren't. And I'm going to live with that for the rest of my life — because it could have easily been me. But it wasn't."

Kayte is getting help. She says she's going to see a therapist this week. And she has her family. Research shows that supportive caregivers are vital to mitigating the effects of childhood trauma.

"You can't let people like [the gunman] take your life from you," Clemons tells Kayte. "He was able to take theirs, but you can't let him take yours. You have to move forward. You just have to."

Later that night, Kayte does take a small step forward.

She goes to a cookout, behind the town bank, for fellow students and family. A rapid-response team of chaplains, all wearing blue shirts, ease their way around the teens who sit in small clusters at long, white tables, talking quietly, many crying.

Kayte walks past the lavish spread of Texas brisket, sandwiches and chocolate cake and finds a friend. Together, they disappear into the crowd.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If this were a normal Monday morning, students at the high school in Santa Fe, Texas, would be heading back to class. Instead, the school is closed, at least until Wednesday, as the investigation continues into why and how a gunman walked into school Friday morning killing 10 people, wounding 13. NPR's Cory Turner is in Santa Fe. And he has the story of one student who says she cannot imagine going back to class ever.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Katelyn Alford, known as Kayte, thought her school was on fire. She'd been in her floral design class on the second floor when the alarm went off. She dropped everything and ran. When Kayte got outside to the road, one of her friends pulled up in a truck, ghostly pale and crying.

KATELYN ALFORD: And then she told me, I got shot. I got shot. And I was like, shot? It doesn't make any sense. What is going on? And I look down and she has a bullet hole in her leg.

TURNER: Kayte's telling this story at her grandmother's house, where she lives. It's a day after the shooting. We're sitting at a small island in the kitchen. Her grandmother and her mother stand around her for comfort. All three attended Santa Fe High. Kayte says in that moment Friday, she had a panic attack. But the worst was yet to come. A boy she'd grown up with, Chris Stone, had been killed. She wants people to know his smile brightened every room.

ALFORD: And he's going to be missed and loved by everybody. And his memory will carry on in Santa Fe.

TURNER: How are you now one day later?

ALFORD: Still scared as ever, shaken up. I don't want to go anywhere. I don't want to leave my house. I don't want to be alone. I can't even get up and go to the bathroom without having my mom come with me because I'm constantly looking over my shoulder. I was trying to sit in the backyard, and I was scared that somebody was going to jump over the fence and shoot me.

TURNER: Earlier, when authorities let students go back to school to pick up their cars, Kayte just couldn't do it. She's a senior, so close to graduation, but says she can't imagine going back there. Her mother, Danell Reed, feels the same.

DANELL REED: I don't want my kid going back to school. I'd rather her not walk across that stage and them just mail the diploma.

TURNER: For investigators, the big question right now is how did this happen? But for Kayte and her family and her 1,400 classmates, it's how do we move on from this? She says she'd already been accepted to a two-year college with hopes of transferring to Sam Houston State University. But now she's not sure. She feels upended. So does Lisa Clemons, Kayte's grandmother, her nani (ph).

LISA CLEMONS: Honestly, when we saw her, I hugged her so tight and I thank God that she's OK. But then I see the other families that lost a child. I don't know how I would have coped with that. I honestly don't. I don't know if we would have lost her, what we would have done. I don't see how those families - how do you move past that? How do you move past losing a child? You're not supposed to outlive your children. You're just not.

TURNER: Kayte feels this, too, this guilt. In fact, at the end of our conversation, the last thing she says is that she wishes she could apologize to the students and teachers who died.

ALFORD: Because I was lucky enough to make it out and they weren't. And I'm going to live with that for the rest of my life because that could have easily been me. But it wasn't.

TURNER: Kayte is getting help. She's going to see a therapist this week, and she has her family. Her grandmother, wiping away tears, says of the gunman...

CLEMONS: You can't let people like him take your life from you. He was able to take theirs. But you can't let him take yours. You have to move forward. You just have to.

TURNER: That night, Kayte does take a small step forward. She goes to a cookout behind the bank for fellow students and family. And there, she quickly finds a friend and disappears into the crowd. Cory Turner, NPR News, Santa Fe, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.