School shooting survivors: Sandy Hook students set to graduate as Marjory Stoneman Douglas comes down

Survivors of two of the nation’s most infamous mass school shootings are facing an emotional week as some graduate high school while others will watch the building where their tragedy took place be demolished.

Sandy Hook Elementary survivors are walking across the stage Wednesday 12 years after the massacre in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 students and six educators, while Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School will be demolished in Parkland, Fla., on Thursday six years after 17 students and educators were killed there.

“Certainly, if you’ve had issues associated with posttraumatic stress disorder, depression or any kind of major mental illness issue, then these will be a challenge. This is just a natural normal thing with survivors of traumatic events,” said Charles Figley, a professor who specializes in disaster mental health at Tulane University.

At Newtown High School in Connecticut on Wednesday, 60 out of the 330 students crossing the stage survived the deadliest elementary school shooting in U.S. history on Dec. 14, 2012.

“I think we’re all super excited for the day,” Lilly Wasilnak, a graduating senior who was in a classroom down the hall from where other students were killed, told The Associated Press. “But I think we can’t forget … that there is a whole chunk of our class missing. And so going into graduation, we all have very mixed emotions — trying to be excited for ourselves and this accomplishment that we’ve worked so hard for, but also those who aren’t able to share it with us, who should have been able to.”

The memories of the peers who won’t be able to cross the stage with them because of that day has left a lasting impact on many of the graduating seniors.

“There’s gonna be a lot of students that have emotional reactions thinking about these particular events. Even just all of them being together, there will be tension without a doubt. But my sense is that if any group of students have thought about this particular day, or this particular graduation week, it’s these kids, and I guess I’m optimistic that they will all come through it, learning as they do, as they experienced this,” said Figley

“These kids I know had practiced thinking about and trying to imagine what it’s like to not have that heavy cloud over their head all these years, but I guess I’d put my bet on the students coming through this pretty well,” he added.

Emma Ehrens, who was 6 years old at the time, recounted the Sandy Hook events on “Good Morning America” on Tuesday.

“I remember being at the front of the classroom, and he came in and stood right next to me. And I watched all my friends drop,” Ehrens said. “One of the victims [who] did not make it, he told me and a couple other people to run, and we did. We ran out of the classroom, out of the school, and on the way we saw bodies in the hallways and doors blown off the hinges. And we just ran and ran and ran, out of the school, out of the parking lot.”

Alison Holman, a professor in the department of psychological science at the University of California, said the week’s event could easily prompt depressive episodes or wishful “what if” thinking among survivors.

“It is definitely something that can trigger somebody,” said Holman, with possible reactions including flashbacks or putting a person into a state of anxiety.

Holman emphasized “you shouldn’t assume that is going to happen for everybody. It happens to some people, it may not happen to others.”

Meanwhile, family members and dignitaries have been permitted to watch the Thursday destruction of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, six years after the shooting there left 17 dead.

“The mechanical demolition involves dismantling the structure by pieces (not an implosion), beginning with the top floor. In preparation, crews cleaned and cleared the building, adhering to state and the Environmental Protection Agency’s landfill disposal regulations, and electronics were removed for proper handling. Additionally, survivors of the tragedy, families of victims, as well as teachers and staff had any items they desired returned to them,” Broward School District said in a statement to

The school district announced last September the building would be taken down during the summer of 2024 after they spoke with health and safety experts. The officials said the decision was also made “out of concern for the well-being of students and staff on campus.”

“It’s always a good idea” to provide counseling service, Holman said when asked how students should be supported in such moments.

“It’s really important for healing for people to feel like they’re connected to others,” Holman said. “And oftentimes, people when they experience a really horrible traumatic event, they’ll want to experience that. The healing comes in part when they feel like they can connect with others who have been for the same thing, and so the people who had lived through that event … maybe helping to build that sense of community among the survivors is something that people in official positions could do to support the survivors.”

Leading students through an emotional time such as these is not an easy task, but one Andy Fetchik, former principal of Chardon High School in Ohio, went through after a student walked in with three of his classmates in February 2012. Three others were wounded, and one will forever be in a wheelchair due to the injuries.

Fetchik told The Hill the key to helping students during tough moments after the event was making sure they took student input into account.

The graduation after the shooting occurred in 2012, and “we reached out to the seniors, ‘How do we help guide them?’ ‘What do we want to do with graduation?’ ‘How do we want to recognize or do we want to recognize what happened on February 27?’” Fetchik said. “A year later, we had an anniversary. I learned very quickly from the students they didn’t want to call it an anniversary. They wanted to call it a day of remembrance.”

Before the first day of remembrance occurred for Chardon High School, the Sandy Hook school shooting happened, reopening a still-fresh wound for his kids.

The students decided they would write letters to those at Sandy Hook to show their support.

“And we were able to do things based on [our students] and we were able to guide the student voice, so the students had input. They were able to actively own how they wanted to recognize and do different things,” Fetchik said.

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