‘We should imagine’: How mothers of school shootings push to protect children
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AUSTIN, Texas. – Gladys Gonzalez, 40, sets the iPad that her daughter, Caitlyne, will read from on the wooden podium. The Texan sun beats onto Gladys’ face clouded with thought. Caitlyne did not let her see the speech she is about to read in front of hundreds of protestors outside the Capitol building in Austin.
She said her daughter, who would soon turn 11, told her: “You’ll hear it when you hear it, mom.”
The presenter introduces Caitlyne as “superhuman.” At 4 foot 10, Caitlyne steps onto a milk crate to get her head above the podium and reach the microphone. She’ll use this platform to publicly criticize Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for his government response to the deadliest school shooting in the state’s history.
Gladys now notices the iPad has overheated and powered off. She tries to turn it on to revive Caitlyne’s script.
“Good afternoon. My name is Caitlyne Gonzales. I am a fourth-grade Robb Elementary survivor from Uvalde, Texas.”
The iPad’s screen is still black. Caitlyne no longer has a script. She leads the crowd with her words anyway.
“On May 24, everything changed.”
Nine months prior, on May 24, 2022, at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Caitlyne survived a mass shooting. She was in her classroom, huddling next to her teacher’s desk. Her best friend, Jacklyn ‘Jackie’ Cazares, was across the hall with other classmates. An 18-year-old former student was shooting at them with an AR-15 style rifle.
Caitlyne’s voice quivers as she recounts how the gunman wobbled her classroom’s door knob. She tries to restart the sentence, but her hand covers her mouth, and she begins to cry.
“Do you want me to finish for you?” Gladys, standing right behind her, asks twice, her hand resting on her daughter’s back.
Caitlyne lost her best friend in the shooting. That night she woke up and told her mom, “I wonder where Jackie is.” Gladys remembers Caitlyne punching the pillow.
“She hated this man for getting her friend, so it was just the hardest thing I had to do was break the news that her best friend had passed away,” Gladys says.
Shortly after the massacre, Caitlyne started leading rallies and giving speeches. The first one, in July 2022, was at a local rally where Gloria Cazares, Jackie’s mother, had asked Caitlyne to speak. A few weeks later, at a school board meeting, Caitlyne would call out Uvalde police chief Pete Arredondo and law enforcement, demanding they turn in their badges and step down.
“If a law enforcement job is to protect and serve, why didn’t they protect my friends and teachers on May 24?,” Caitlyne shouted during that board meeting. Arredondo was fired within a few hours. He has said that he and his officers tried to keep the children safe.
Gladys says she’s always supported her daughter. “And I’ve always told her, I’ll support you until the day that Mommy dies. And then she tells me, ‘No, you’re not going to die, mom.’ And I said, well, until then, Mommy’s always strong. But you know what I mean, Caitlyne? And she said, ‘I know,’ but she knows that Mommy and Daddy are always going to be there to push her along the way.”
In this first year since the Uvalde massacre, Gladys has joined other mothers across the country to have their and their children’s voices heard. In a nation deeply divided on gun control, these mothers face pressure from politicians, their communities, strangers and their own selves both to speak up and to stay silent.
While some mothers, like Gladys, are marching for gun control alongside their surviving children, others have dedicated their lives to passing gun control bills named after their murdered children.
A third group of women lead gun control advocacy groups even though their children have never experienced a school shooting. Instead, they are motivated by the very likely possibility that their kids will eventually face gun violence.
In the United States, children and teens are more likely to die by a gun than anything else, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2022, there were 51 school shootings — more than any year since the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, which left 12 students and one teacher dead in 1999.
As school massacres keep happening and gun control legislation continues to face the political division between Democrats and Republicans, the question of whether the public is desensitized often trends on social media, with impacted and unimpacted people asking what it will take to shake the country into ensuring these mass shootings, indeed, happen “#neveragain.” Beyond the internet, the question of “what will it take” to make change is also dividing communities.
In Uvalde, many impacted by the tragedy want answers — including camera footage and records — and are unwilling to heed those telling them to quiet down and move on. Some mothers of these tragedies feel they have been left to their own devices to try to reckon with their trauma.
They travel thousands of miles to protest or spend hours organizing local events honoring their children, all while balancing full-time jobs and their own advanced schooling; parenting their other children; finding resources for their family’s mental health. The lengths mothers affected by gun violence go to have their children’s voices heard are at once a political and personal cause.
Connecting through division
Along the way to push for changes, these mothers often become an invaluable network to one another. Gladys recounts that it was Rhonda Hart, 41, who gave Caitlyne a pink megaphone she used at the march from the Texas Capitol steps.
“Don’t be silent,” Caitlyne chanted into the pink megaphone, surrounded by a crowd of supporters that day. “End gun violence.”
Rhonda describes connecting with mothers of school shooting victims as “trauma bonding.”
Five years ago, on May 18, 2018, Rhonda’s 14-year-old daughter, Kimberly Vaughan, was drawing in her high school art class in the small Texas city of Santa Fe, about an hour’s drive southeast of Houston. At about 7:40 a.m., a teenage classmate allegedly opened fire with his father’s shotgun and revolver, killing Kimberly and nine others.
That was the “OG Texas school shooting,” as Rhonda calls it, because it was the first school shooting in Texan history. Since losing her daughter, she has become a prominent parental voice calling for gun reform, achieving almost 30,000 Twitter followers by pushing for law changes to protect other children from dying as her daughter did.
In 2022, Rhonda’s activism led the U.S. House to pass the Kimberly Vaughan Firearm Safe Storage Act. In part, the bill requires firearms and ammunition to be safely stored at home, especially if there is a minor ineligible of possessing a firearm residing there.
“That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You know what I mean? To get a bill passed,” she says. “At the same time, it cost the expense of my daughter, so it was awesome to be there, but I wish it wasn’t under those terms.”
The measure did not make it to the Senate last year, so lawmakers began the process all over again this year, and reintroduced it in the House. Now, the new version of the bill prioritizes public education about safe firearm storage.
Through her advocacy work, Rhonda has met people from all walks of death and gun violence. She has reached out to grieving mothers after seeing their interviews on TV, asked reporters to pass along her contact information to parents and forged connections during protests and marches.
She has also maintained solid relationships via social media with people she has yet to meet. In-person friends — like David Hogg, who has turned to activism after surviving the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — have also made introductions.
“And so it’s literally just networking across the entire country,” Rhonda says. “And you go to events and people say: ‘Oh, I’m so-and-so from this shooting.’”
As mass shootings continue to occur and gun control legislation does not advance, Rhonda believes the American public may be numb to gun violence. In early May — just two weeks before the Santa Fe shooting’s five-year mark and three weeks before the Uvalde massacre’s one-year mark — eight people were killed, including three children, at a mall in Allen, Texas. Unedited videos of the victims’ dead bodies, one appearing to be a child, circulated on Twitter, launching a discussion of graphic content’s impact on the public.
Rhonda remembers Gov. Abbott promising her and other parents in 2018 — during a private meeting with survivors and families — that the Santa Fe High School shooting would be the only one in Texas history. Four years later, Uvalde became the second.
She doesn’t know when the next Texas school shooting will be, Rhonda says, but she has lost trust in Gov. Abbott and knows it’s only time before it happens.
“There’s going to be a third,” she says. “Get ready for the third one.”
Gov. Abbott declined Futuro Investigates’ request for an interview.
In addition to pushing for gun reform, Rhonda lobbied for access to her daughter’s crime scene photos. Since the shooting, Jack Roady, Galveston County’s district attorney, denied Rhonda and other victims’ parents access to their children’s autopsy reports. Previously, the state’s public information law mandated that if Roady released the records to the families, he also had to release the information to the press and public.
Texas Senate bill 435 would give crime victims and families an exception. Gov. Abbott signed it into law exactly five years and one week after the Santa Fe shooting and a year to the date of Uvalde. It had overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans, receiving a unanimous vote.
Still, this bill does not grant Rhonda and other victims’ families complete ownership over their loved ones’ final moments, as they “may not duplicate, record, capture, or otherwise memorialize the information.”
“I’m glad we got this bill passed,” says Rhonda, “But it could have been so much easier if Jack Roady had just given us the information.”
“The new law provides a sensible balance between the rights of crime victims, government transparency, and the criminal justice system,” Roady said in a statement to Futuro Investigates after meeting with families of Santa Fe victims late May, “Our Office is working with all those who want to view the information in order to provide them with an opportunity to do so, in a private setting and in an orderly manner.”
A prosecutor may require Rhonda and her relatives to sign a confidentiality agreement in order to view the information.
Rhonda supports the public release of her daughter’s information in hopes that people realize the “complete horror and slaughter” of a gun’s power to a human body. She doesn’t know if people are, indeed, desensitized or if they are visual learners. In any case, she thinks sharing would make a difference.
Of course, she says, it depends on the parent.
“I would share it,” Rhonda says. “The public needs to know. I don’t think that there’s any other way to really illustrate the devastation that guns can cause. Maybe not showing a victim’s face, like my daughter was shot in her torso, but showing her injuries, yeah, I would support that.”
In Uvalde, a similar struggle is taking place. Many families have been fighting Uvalde County District attorney Christina Mitchell Busbee to get access to the footage and investigation records. The district attorney says she’s concerned releasing these would compromise the ongoing investigation. Some Uvalde parents say it would help their healing process to know what exactly happened to their child.
History inspires activism
Over 68 years ago in 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley decided to have an open-casket funeral for her son, Emmett Till. His mother would share graphic photos of Emmett’s body’s disfigured state after he was lynched. At 14 years old, Emmett was kidnapped, brutally tortured and murdered in Mississippi after being accused of offending a white woman.
By showing the aftermath of her son’s injuries, Emmett’s mother hoped to keep her son’s story alive. Although the mainstream media refused to publish the “inappropriate” photo, the Black press would print the image, circulate it into mainstream history and leave a dent in the American conscience.
Keith Beauchamp, an investigative filmmaker behind the 2005 film “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” and 2022’s “Till,” was a close confidante to Emmett’s mother, Mamie. Before she died in 2003, “Mother Till-Mobley” gave Keith her life rights to tell her son’s story visually on the big screen.
For Keith, the visual, whether it’s filmmaking or photography, is “the new wave of activism.”
He believes there needs to be another “Emmett Till moment” to create a social movement with momentum.
“It was the visual of Emmett Till that’s formed generations of people to fight against the white supremacist system. And it’s going to take us, unfortunately, to see things, to believe it.”
Keith says the country needs a wake-up call. “This is the season for us to recognize the wrongs that are happening in this country and for this generation to stand up and say, ‘No more,’” he says.
Gladys Gonzalez, Caitlyne’s mother, says she often thinks about Mamie and how she was able to gather herself amid the pain.
“But she knew it in her heart,” Glady surmises, “that she needed the world to see what had happened to her son.”
‘We should imagine’
Gladys and Rhonda are part of Moms Demand Action, a nonpartisan group with a nationwide presence that pushes for gun safety. Some members own guns. Some are Democrats. Others are Republicans or Independents. Beyond providing education on gun storage, the organization aims to pass gun laws covering everything from background checks on gun sales, mental health-focused legislation like “red flag” laws, to prohibiting assault weapons.
And though there are mothers, like Rhonda and Gladys, who have joined the call for gun safety after their child’s direct experience with a school shooting, some other mothers’ activation is, instead, sustained by the likely threat that their child will eventually face a school shooter.
Sandra Gutierrez, 39, is a co-leader of the Tucson, Ariz., chapter of Moms Demand Action. Originally from Los Angeles, she says most of the friends she’s made in Tucson have been found through the organization. On the way to her first meeting, in 2019, she experienced a panic attack. When she reached out to cancel, she was reassuringly invited to join the survivor network.
Sandra said she first survived gun violence at 19, when a guest started shooting next to her at a party she was attending, prompting her to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Then, in 2017, a friend was shot and killed in domestic violence. About two years later, in June 2019, her brother-in-law died by gun suicide.
She has a 7-year-old son in first grade that stopped attending in-person public schooling because of respiratory health issues. The Uvalde school shooting was a turning point for her. She has not felt comfortable re-enrolling him in in-person education out of concern of impending gun violence.
Even in online school, though, she has not been able to shield him away from the threat of a gun. This April, while in a “breakout room” — a virtual space where students meet in smaller groups without a teacher being constantly present, a classmate showed her son a toy gun and what her son described to her as a “real rifle” over the computer screen.
The classmate then threatened to shoot her son and his stuffed animals, according to Sandra. She reported it to the school. That led to a discussion with school staff and the classmate’s parents, who allegedly said there was no real rifle, only a toy gun. The school district and the school did not respond to Futuro Investigates’ request for comment.
“Whether it was a toy or not,” Sandra says, the classmate “was actually threatening to shoot … When we see signs like that, it’s become so normalized to just overlook them when, really, we’re realizing the epidemic in this country. So I think we need to change our approach.”
Sandra joined Moms Demands Action after being part of the survivors’ network. She sees the solution to gun violence as two-pronged: education and legislation. She says parents have the responsibility to educate their children and themselves on gun violence and gun storage. She adds that Moms Demand Action helps take care of that with their offered programming and framework.
As for legislation, Sandra credits members of Moms Demand Action across Arizona for helping elect “Gun Sense Candidates” up and down the ballot, including Gov. Katie Hobbs. She’s the first Democrat to hold the office since 2009. Since her inauguration in January, Gov. Hobbs has vetoed at least five gun-related bills — including prohibiting the banning of gun shows and repealing the state’s ban on gun silencers —all which the organization believes keeps gun safety in mind.
Sandra says that none of these bills make people safer.
When it comes to gun reform, Sandra says change tends to be weighed on a national scale but state-level efforts should be kept in mind.
On May 24, 2022, Sandra was about 800 miles away from Uvalde in Tucson. Still, she rushed to pick her son up from school early. She couldn’t wait to hold him and didn’t want to send him to school the next day. Since then, Sandra closely follows the political activism of the Uvalde moms.
“Often moms say… ‘I could never imagine,’” Sandra remembers. “The reality is that nobody wants to imagine, but we should imagine. We should imagine what it would be to feel their pain and how we would want to feel their support, how we would want to see change.”
As she reflects on the one-year mark of the Uvalde shooting, her voice falls to a sad, pensive low while admiring the legislative effort Uvalde families have made in spite of, she says, a lack of support at the federal level.
“I don’t think there’s been the change that we should see within the year,” she says. “And it breaks my heart.”
Speaking at a Cost
Gladys joined Moms Demand Action last summer, a few months after her daughter Caitlyne survived the Uvalde massacre. Working alongside her and other Uvalde families, Moms Demand Action volunteers have recently backed legislation that would have raised the gun purchasing legal age in Texas from 18 to 21.
The bill advanced out of a Texas House committee, but then was not included on the House agenda, missing a crucial deadline for lawmakers to vote it on the floor of the Texas Congress.
“It took almost losing my daughter to be able to comprehend the severity of gun violence, the leeway of people purchasing assault weapons here in Texas to jump on the bandwagon and say ‘Enough is enough,’” Gladys says. “I have never felt so strongly.”
Before the massacre, Gladys was never the type of person to be standing on stage or protesting. Standing front-and-center was too anxiety-inducing. She now often finds herself on the frontlines for calls to gun reform, standing behind Caitlyne and other victims of gun violence.
“If this is what’s important to Caitlyne, then I’m going to be there to support her,” Gladys says.
She has sometimes wondered how healthy it is for Caitlyne to speak in public so often — and she has had to contend with the criticism from people, sometimes from her own community, who say that by allowing Caitlyne to speak, Gladys is revictimizing her. What they don’t know, she says, is that she has never forced Caitlyne to participate in any public event.
She remembers what Caitlyne has said during interviews: Talking publicly is therapeutic.
“If it’s helping her and it’s coming from her … why not, right?” asks Gladys.
She says watching Caitlyne being invited to speak out so often has also pushed her out of her shell. As a Mexican-American woman, she’s thought about the ways her culture has impacted her comfort with speaking.
When, earlier this year, Caitlyne broke down on stage in front of the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Gladys felt maybe she had made the wrong parenting choice in letting her daughter speak out. She thought of what her more traditionally Mexican mom, who she lost about a year before the shooting, would’ve said.
Although it has been difficult to go through the past year without her mother, who Caitlyne was also close to, Gladys believes she would have encouraged her to keep her head low after the shooting.
There are a number of voices Gladys has to often block out as she continues to advocate. She says she feels embraced by the families of fallen victims, but some people in Uvalde — a predominantly Latino community — tell her she should quiet down and not draw so much attention. They have argued that Caitlyne is not a “real survivor” since she was not in the same room with the gunman.
“Our culture, we’ve been growing. I think we were conditioned to believe that we shouldn’t speak up so much,” Gladys says. “It shouldn’t be like that, you know? What happened on May 24th should have never happened.”
Rhonda, the white mother from Santa Fe, believes Uvalde mothers, mostly of Mexican heritage, have been treated differently by cops and lawmakers. According to Rhonda, she has never been arrested, forcibly removed at protests, or threatened, like has happened to Uvalde mothers Adriana Martinez Reyes, Ana Rodriguez, and Angeli Gomez.
Meanwhile, Sandra, the Mexican-American mother organizing in Tucson, says she also gets nervous to speak out and wonders if it may have something to do with the history of Mexicans being beaten or killed for speaking Spanish in the United States.
Monica Muñoz Martinez, an associate professor at the University of Texas-Austin, grew up in Uvalde and studies the history of anti-Mexican violence and suppression in the U.S.
“What we have seen historically is that people in vulnerable communities who try to call for change or point out injustices are so frequently dismissed, disavowed, [and] in some cases they are blamed for causing tension or exaggerating reality,” she says. “Too often in history, the people who call out injustice are identified as a problem when we know that the leading cause of death of children and teens in Texas is guns.”
Monica’s mother, who also grew up in Uvalde, experienced punishment for speaking Spanish and was part of the 1970 walkout at Robb Elementary that partly ignited the U.S. Chicano movement. With both U.S. and family history in mind, Monica is not surprised that mothers have been outspoken about their trauma.
“Historically, it’s consistent with Black and Brown mothers and families trying to end violence and cultures of violence that they are trying to prevent others from suffering the way that their loved ones did,” Monica says.
Now, the historian is involved in efforts to bring better mental health access to Uvalde that will help the community move forward after this massacre. She is currently making several trips to Uvalde to design a recovery plan that takes broader social well-being into consideration. It’s expected to be reported out at the end of the summer.
Mental health stigma will need to be addressed in a culturally competent manner in a community that is predominantly Mexican-American. Monica joins families and mothers of the victims and survivors in this quest to change not just the mentality around mental health, but also its access.
In Uvalde, mothers and relatives of victims try to figure out the healing process, essentially, on their own. Whether it’s from local law enforcement’s inconsistent stories or the scant mental health resources, Uvalde families are at a loss of trust in their community.
Gladys says she knew the night of the shooting that Caitlyne, who immediately developed PTSD, was going to need help. It took Gladys and her husband, Neftali ‘Nef’ Gonzalez, almost eight months to find Caitlyne the right therapy and specialist — outside Uvalde — that would accept their insurance.
For months, Uvalde residents had access to the Uvalde Together Resiliency Center, a provisional mental health facility. It offered therapy in portable classrooms that look like shipping containers in the town’s outskirts, which Gladys felt was an inappropiate environment for trauma therapy. In May of this year, a permanent center opened in Uvalde, offering free services. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), the intensive treatment that Caitlyne is receiving, is offered at the center but only to adults.
Part of the reason Gladys was able to find the right therapist was because, for 11 years, she was a children’s caseworker. She pursued a master’s degree in counseling a few months before the shooting and is now focused on finishing in hopes of becoming an EMDR specialist.
Her daughter, she says, is “a different person than the day that I dropped her off on May 24. And it’s something that we’re going to have to deal with as a family together.”
According to the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, a non-partisan research organization around mental health, Uvalde children who survived the tragedy will see an approximate 42% increase in mental illness a month after the shooting. Meanwhile, their parents’ mental illness will increase by approximately 30%.
Throughout the past year, Gladys has had to swim through the mental health system for Caitlyne’s recovery — all while supporting Caitlyne’s activism, navigating the passing of her mother, continuing graduate school, working a full-time job, making lunches for Caitlyne’s many extracurriculars, taking care of her youngest daughter, Camila, and addressing her own mental health needs.
It wasn’t until a few months ago that Caitlyne began to show some signs of progress, that Gladys decided it was her turn to go to therapy.
“I think a lot of it has to do with primero ella antes que yo,” says Gladys, which translates to “She should be taken care of before me.”
“I grew up in that household where it was, like, tend to the kids and leave yourself to the backburner. After May 24, it was quite honestly all about Caitlyne even Camila. Just making sure she wasn’t left to the side and was just doing damage control. Now, I’m having to re-put the pieces together, so now it’s my turn.”
The Meadows Institute also estimates that the mental health of adults in the community changed after the mass violence incident. They calculate an increase of 20% in the prevalence of mental illness by the end of June 2022. This translates to 6,000 total Uvalde County adults having a mental health need — one year ago.
The historian Monica says that “turned upside down” doesn’t even capture the way that lives in Uvalde have been interrupted by this kind of massive violence.
“It was the teacher that survived…it’s the kids who made 911 phone calls and kids like Caitlyne,” Monica adds, “to give testimony, but also to testify in public at rallies at the Capitol about the pain of losing their friends and having their lives.”
‘I shouldn’t have to be here’
At the podium that sunny February day, Gladys offers to finish her words for Caitlyne, who still had no script after her iPad overheated. Caitlyne shakes her head “no” and cries into her T-shirt. Caitlyne feels the comforting hands of not just her mother resting on her back – but also that of a Texas senator, a mother from Santa Fe, and another Uvalde father, all encouraging her to keep going.
Caitlyne’s wet eyes rise from her T-shirt. Her eyelashes, sprinkled with teardrops, resemble the morning dew on the cemetery grass where she often plays when visiting Jackie and her other dead friends. Photos of them smile behind Caitlyne in the colorful posters held by Uvalde families also standing on stage.
In the crowd, in front of Caitlyne, are reporters and protestors, including volunteers from Moms Demand Action, cheering her on, wiping their own tears, and waiting to see if Caitlyne, or Gladys, could continue to speak their truth.
Caitlyne takes two deep breaths, she stares into the crowd and finishes: “I shouldn’t have to be here speaking — I’m only 10 years old — but I am because my friends have no voice no more. Thank you for your guys’ time. Have a wonderful day.”
*Maria Hinojosa, Amy Bucher, Heidi Burke, Mariana Surillo and Reynaldo Leaños Jr. contributed reporting to this piece.
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