School shooting survivor works to educate others

By Macyn Field

High school shooting survivor Ashley Paseltiner speaks at the New York premiere of the HBO documentary “Song of Parkland” in January 2019. Photo courtesy of Ashley Paseltiner.

On Valentine’s Day of 2018, high school junior Ashley Paseltiner remembers being so excited about driving herself to school for the very first time. She was sitting in her drama classroom at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in her final class of the day when the second fire alarm of the day went off.  

She led her class out of the building, across the lawn, and towards their fire-safety location by the freshman building next door. That was when she heard it.

“There were these loud, banging, explosion noises,” Paseltiner said. “I looked at the top of the building because I was thinking there was a fire, so I thought the roof was collapsing. But when I looked up, there was no fire, no smoke, no evident fire. I just kept hearing bang, bang bang and then people started running back into the classrooms. That’s when [I thought] oh, my god, somebody is shooting a gun, and I ran back to my classroom.”

Paseltiner and her 60 classmates hid inside a storage closet for over two hours, frantically texting parents.

“I was crying the whole time. We could hear everything going on outside. We had no idea where this person was going, or how many shooters there were.”

Ashley Paseltiner

The girl sitting next to Paseltiner had her snapchat open and was getting videos from inside the freshman building, where the shooting was taking place. Paseltiner said that after a while it quieted down, and then it was completely silent.

Paseltiner is neither the first, nor the last student to endure a shooting at her school.

According to data collected by the Federal Beaureau of Investigation, since the shooting at MSD in 2018, there have been 34 school shootings resulting in 27 deaths and 65 injuries. In May of 2018, the shooting at Santa Fe High School left 10 dead and 13 injured.

 Experts say March of 2020 was the first March without a school shooting in the United States since 2002. What stopped the violence? Not policy change or gun reform laws, but schools being shut down due to COVID-19, experts believe.

According to a study done in 2018 by National Public Radio, “the United States has the 28th highest rate of deaths from gun violence in the world.” The study creates the rates by analyzing violent gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2017 in different countries around the world. The United States, in comparison to other wealthy and developed countries, far surpasses these countries in gun violence rates.

The U.S rate is 4.43 deaths per 100,000 people which is 29 times as high as Denmark, which has 0.15 deaths per 100,000 people. The United Kingdom has a rate 0.06 and Australia has a rate of 0.13. Indonesia, a country with a similar population size to the United States, has a rate of 0.04, one of the lowest worldwide. The highest rates worldwide rank from 15.19 to 43.11 deaths per 100,000 people and they occur in El Salvador, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, and other South American countries.

Several nonprofit organizations in the United States are working to decrease gun violence statistics and improve school safety, including Sandy Hook Promise.

 During the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012, 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 were killed, as well as six adult staff members. After this horrific attack, parents who had lost children created Sandy Hook Promise. This nonprofit is dedicated to protecting children from gun violence by educating youth to “know the signs.”

According to the organization’s webpage, 12 million people have participated in their “Know the Signs” programs, there have been 64 confirmed life-saving interventions, and 60 thousand anonymous tips received.

The organization also emphasizes the importance of advocating for legislation that will prevent gun violence. They advocate for universal background checks and Extreme Risk Protection Orders, which would allow a court to temporarily remove firearms from a person who presents a risk of harm to himself or others. The organization also proposes limits to the number of high-capacity magazines that a person can buy.

Many organizations like Sandy Hook Promise exist, but advocating for change relies on politicians to step up and enact change, gun safety legislation advocates say.

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the Trump administration created the Federal Commission on School Safety. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the commission’s purpose was to travel to schools across the country and interview students and faculty about the best practices in school safety.

The final report of the commission was released in December of 2018. The following year, in 2019, there were over 25 school shootings. The commission focuses heavily on mental health and the need for mental health professionals to intervene within the schools and stop school shootings before they occur. However, the commission gives no answer on how to fund mental health resources at schools which are already struggling financially.

The commission also references training school personnel to ensure student safety and brings up the concept of arming school employees. The commission places an emphasis on the schools themselves limiting school shootings, rather than working toward passing sensible gun regulations for the entire country.

After hours of Paseltiner and her classmates sitting tightly packed together, the storage closet door was broken open by a S.W.A.T team which told the students to put their hands above their heads, drop all their belongings, and run out of the school.

The frightened students soon learned that the shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, had killed 17 people and injured 17 others, making it the deadliest high school shooting to date.

Today, Paseltiner is a student at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. She is on the executive board for Berg Votes, a nonpartisan club that works for voter education and helps to register college students to vote.

This past election they registered many students to vote and helped students get ballots sent to their homes.

As a result, Paseltiner said that they were able to get a lot of students to vote.

“That is a very important goal of mine when it comes to enacting changes in the country in general,” Paseltiner said.

Paseltiner also continues to do interviews with different companies and organizations who ask her to share her experiences. She says she believes this is can be very impactful because her first-person experience can put it into perspective for people. She has done work with HBO and CNN in the past, including interviews and talk-back sessions after viewings of the documentary “Song of Parkland”.

After that terrible day, Paseltiner says she found healing through theatre and music and she realized how important the arts are for healing from traumatic events. “Now I’m at Muhlenberg as a theatre major and a psychology major so that I can possibly go into art therapy or music/drama therapy when I graduate;” Paseltiner said, “So that I can help people who have suffered from trauma.”

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