The kids aren't alright

After another school shooting left 17 dead in Parkland, Florida, high school teens are reminded that they’re not just kids — they’re targets.

Note: After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I wrote a feature on a high school student from Mountain Vista, where I went to school as a kid. In 2015, we had a shooting scare of our own, but an anonymous tip came through in time to save lives that otherwise would be lost. My subject requested her real name be concealed so her parents don't get mad at her.

Elle Young inconspicuously parks her car in front of a row of cookie-cutter houses that stretch around the cul-de-sac her friend Emily lives in. She glances down one last time at her iPhone before locking it up and hiding it in the middle console of her RAV4. Her parents track her phone, and they wouldn't be happy to know she was headed into one of America's most notorious college towns — Boulder, Colorado — for a fake birthday party thrown in her honor.  

As she drunkenly swings her arms at the piñata her friends bought her at Target, she feels a brief break in her happiness as she realizes there's no way to reach her parents or call for help if something bad actually happened.

The thought passes as quickly as it came about, and she takes one final whack at the floating donkey, emptying it of its contents and sending the room into a chorus of cheers.

A close call

When she's not with her friends in Boulder, Elle is a senior in high school in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Her favorite class as a freshman, Creative Writing, allowed her to find her niche at Mountain Vista High School, where she's now an editor for the school's newspaper (the Eagle Eye), yearbook (the Aerie) and online website (VistaNow).

During the first semester of her freshman year, Elle remembers cramming for her finals and scribbling notes in her journal during Creative Writing as another student, Sienna Johnson, walked to the head of the room and started to read her entries aloud. It was the middle of December and the clouds in the sky suggested that, at any minute, snow could start falling; but Sienna wore short sleeves, leaving the scars that decorated her forearms on display for her peers.

Sienna let bits of information about her fragmented life slip through the cracks of the walls she built around herself as she spoke. But she didn’t share the thoughts that lurked in the margins of her notebook.

"I hate myself. I'd blow my head off (before happiness),” Sienna wrote in her journal, which she later posted online. On another published page, she cried: “Somebody! Anybody! Help me please! Set me free! Clean me please!”

All of the journal entries and artwork posted on her blog suggested that something wasn’t right. Sienna had drawn pictures of people bleeding and beheaded, and wrote that her parents were scared of her. On social media, she shared images of mutilated babies, assault rifles and her heroes, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the two perpetrators of the Columbine massacre. To most of her classmates, all of that was a mystery. Her teachers would later claim there was nothing she ever shared that made any of them feel she was in need of help.

After that semester, Elle all but forgot about her distraught classmate. It wasn't until a year later, when she was studying for her first round of final exams as a sophomore, that she saw Sienna's name again. This time, it appeared in the headlines of national news: She was one of two students arrested and thrown in jail on a $1 million bond for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder at a school 10 miles down the road from Columbine.

Elle read the news, finished studying and went to bed.

Final’s week

Monday morning, a police officer armed with a long rifle across his back strode up and down the halls of Mountain Vista. By now, even though Sienna's name hadn't officially been released, students knew what her plan was.

“God, Brooke and me will be unstoppable,” Sienna wrote in her journal, according to prosecutors. Sienna and Brooke Higgins, a friend of hers from school, had mapped out the locations of their targets. They knew where police officers were posted. They knew how to bring guns into the school. They had practiced with targets and BB guns. “They knew where we would run and hide in a crisis,” Elle wrote later in a post on her school's website. 

They knew how to kill.

But the last few weeks of the semester passed smoothly, thanks to an anonymous tip that led law enforcement to intervene before lives were lost. 

Despite the national media attention and threats that continued to surface on social media, school continued as normal. There were basketball games, pep assemblies and final exams. When it was announced that a beloved teacher committed suicide on the first day back from winter break, the community all but forgot about the tragedy that almost shook the country.

Close to home

Elle was busy on the day of the shooting in Parkland, Florida. When she first read the news, she was sitting at John Holly's, a Chinese restaurant where she works as a hostess. As she skimmed through the noise, the restaurant's phone rang, calling her back to earth: “Could I place an order for pick up?” The news upset her, but it was just another sad story to add to the stack. 

She went home and fell asleep. As an editor for her school's media program, she was in the middle of one of her busiest weeks: Wish Week. Her school had raised over $150,000 for Make-A-Wish, and she was responsible for covering the pep assembly that ensued.

But the next morning, as news flooded in about the victims, it became difficult to care about the money raised or the wishes granted. Growing up in Colorado — home of the Columbine, Arapahoe and Aurora shootings, among others — it's hard to digest news of gun violence without feeling that, in some way, it’s deeply personal. The shooting, more so than her own life, seemed real.

“It really hit me hard,” Elle said. “I started crying… I honestly felt so weird walking into school. I tried to think about anything else.” 

 Thousands of miles away from Elle, editors of the Aerie yearbook and the Eagle Eye magazine in Florida were dealing with the loss of their peers (Stoneman Douglas's program has the same publication names as Mountain Vista). Meanwhile, Elle and her fellow editors were listening as their media advisor, Mark Newton, addressed the class. 

“I didn't sign up to be a first responder,” Newton, who’s an acquaintance of the yearbook advisor at Douglas, told her.

That statement, Elle said, hit her the hardest. “It could've been me or my friends or my sister [that were killed],” Elle said, “and it still could be… It was just a normal day.” 

Craving for control

After the Florida shooting, Elle used her platform as an editor for her school's media program to speak out about the tragedy. In a post titled “Craving for control,” Elle begged for common sense gun control on Vista's student-run website, saying she isn't ready “to be caught up in “‘just another school shooting.’”

Instead of worrying about who she's going with to prom this spring or what grade she'll receive on her AP Literature exam, Elle said she’s worrying about surviving one more semester before she can finally break out of high school.

"I was walking out to my car at lunchtime,” Elle said, “and I just started thinking about all the bad things that could happen.”

“I don't think I should be worrying about dying on my way to class.”