Parkland Shooting Survivor Samantha Fuentes on Fixing School Safety

Future Schooled is hosted by Beverly Hills School Board candidate Robin S. Rowe and Green New Detroit activist Devankar Mukhi with special guest Parkland Shooting survivor and school safety activist Samanatha Fuentes.

Summary

Fuentes describes how excessive school security traumatizes children, her struggle coping with PTSD after seeing her high school friends die in a shooting, and how better gun legislation, better mental healthcare, and better preventive police work can avoid school shootings. Recorded October 21st, 2020.

Robin S. Rowe

BHUSD Candidate Robin S. Rowe

Robin Rowe
I’m Robin Rowe, the host today. We’re here to hear from Samantha Fuentes, who is a Parkland Shooting survivor and school safety activist. My own background, I’ve worked in national security. I was Navy research scientist. And, I’m running for Beverly Hills Unified School District School Board. So if you live in Beverly Hills, you might vote for me.

So with that, we’ll jump over to Samantha Fuentes, I think you can introduce yourself even better than I can. How did you become involved in all this? What have you learned since the tragedy?

Samantha Fuentes

Samantha Fuentes, School Safety Activist

Samantha Fuentes
I thank you so much, Robin. It’s a pleasure and honor to be sharing space with you to have a very important conversation. I’m Sam Fuentes. I’m a gun violence prevention activist. I’m also Youth Congress member with March for Our Lives. And I’m also the campaign manager for the impact campaign with the documentary Us Kids, which surrounds a lot of gun violence prevention movement and social justice work. I’m doing a lot of work surrounding voter registration, early voting, positions having a youth engagement within this political circuit I think is really important. Especially with the youth being some of the lowest voter turnouts, typically in every election.

I was not necessarily always an activist. Growing up, I grew up a lot like other people in the sense that that I didn’t necessarily have an understanding of the world around me and the different atrocities that happened. I just didn’t understand how real and how terrifying it is to be a victim of gun violence. Until, it unfortunately happened to me.

On February 14th, 2018, I was an 18-year-old student. I’m about to graduate, in my Holocaust studies class, when a shooter wielding an AR-15 shot and killed 17 students and faculty members in my school. I among those who were injured. I unfortunately had to watch my dear friends Nick Dworet [a 17-year-old senior] and Helena Ramsay [also 17] die in front of me.

So, my activism stems unfortunately, out of necessity. In stepping out of a situation like that I was filled with so many different emotions, but the one that registered the most was definitely rage. I had all of this unconstructive, unproductive emotions and PTSD, and depression and anxiety. I was a triple-threat at this point in my life, and hit the lowest lows.

For me, activism was an outlet. It was a coping mechanism. It was a way to connect with other survivors within this community who are unfortunately impacted by this plague that runs our country. So for me, I learned the importance of human life, you know, the importance of compassion and empathy when it comes to having conversations around gun violence prevention.

I think it’s important to always, when coming into a space, be diligent and be aware of the survivors and the communities who are most impacted by this. And to give them a platform, and a safe space, to unionize and to speak, on the behalf of these terrible atrocities. So for me, I’ve learned how to make relationships with them. People are unfortunately in the same situation.

I’ve learned the reach of gun violence and its unfortunate effects on communities of color, Black and Brown alike. The unfortunate and rising rates of suicide that we have. I’ve met, even have personal family members who have taken their life at the hands of a gun themselves. So for me, it was something that I did out of necessity to heal and to make myself feel that I was honoring those that I have personally lost to gun violence and those who will continue to lose those to gun violence.

Robin Rowe
After the tragedy, what changes happened at your school and what was its effectiveness?

Samantha Fuentes
So, it feels silly to talk about it even now. There were so many different things that were put in place that were very absurd. Start off with switching to clear backpacks. We had students with transparent backpacks, so all of their personal belongings and all of their doodads were on display for everyone to see. We had metal detectors in place and security checkpoints on all the exits.

Our guards, sorry, arms security, who were ironically carrying the same weapon that was used in the shooting, which was an AR-15. As you might imagine, intimidating and freaked out many students who were traumatized. For that same weapon to make a return in a school was something that was a very poor choice.

Robin Rowe
You mentioned PTSD earlier, I would think most of these changes would increase PTSD.

Samantha Fuentes
Yes. For students returning it’s been noted that many felt unsafe. And it’s also to note, more importantly, after these increased security measures were put in place, it was very evident that the Black and Brown students in the school had now felt even more unsafe, and at times, arguably targeted by security staff and new new security measures felt as if they were being profiled at times, and we’re put into uncomfortable situations. So a lot of the security mechanisms and methods that were implemented, were not necessarily done with the students and their trauma and PTSD in mind. Took a kind of a backward step.

Robin Rowe
We’ve kind of angled off into mental health. What could have been done to prevent this tragedy? What what could have been done to help this former student who caused this? Is there something with hindsight that you wish would have happened before any of this?

Samantha Fuentes
I’m absolutely there. I’m not sure if you are aware of, but in this circumstance with this particular student, he was somebody who had very telltale signs and a lot of red flags. That he himself was either going to act in a homicidal or suicidal way. This was noted by many students and many of his peers who’ve had experiences with him. He was a outward, racist and would target of Black and Brown students within the school, even my own personal friends. Would make threats to people. Had brought knives to the campus. Several times was reported and was detained several times. And that was all on record, not just by our School Board, in our school system within our campus. But this was a knowledge that was made aware to as well to the Broward Sheriff’s office, the FBI, and many other entities like his friends and his peers.

So this was something that was heavily monitored, but no actions were made to prevent this from happening. Because very evidently he was able to acquire a firearm, even though he was heavily being monitored. So I think what the issue was that it wasn’t taken seriously. We had all of these preventatives put in place that were acting ineffectively. That I will have to blame on the inefficiency of those programs, but also their inability to indicate whether someone is going to act violently or not, even though they are predisposed to behaviors that would indicate such.

So a preventative would be obviously having these programs on a national and local level to actually do their job in preventing things like this from happening, especially when it is documented. There is proof that would lead anybody who would look at it, would indicate those persons, those people or individual has violent tendencies. So I think it really would have been a preventative if this person was detained or actually monitored. Or, had some form of rehabilitation in which they would not have the ability to harm themselves or others.

Whether that is common sense gun laws and legislation, whether that’s red flag laws, whether that’s a community effort of actually bringing this issue. There’s so many factors and so many shortcomings that led to this, unfortunately.

Robin Rowe
I want to ask you a hard question. Before I ask that question… I don’t see anything in chat. Anyone else on the call with a question? If you have questions, please jump in and type them in the chat. And Devankar will call on you. And you’ll get to talk directly to Samantha.

Something I’ve thought about, and is kind of a controversial question, is whether violent delusional racism should be treated as mental illness. Many people oppose that idea due to the concept that this makes people who are terrible seem more like victims than like perpetrators. While others say that, in psychology, when someone has a fixed delusion and can’t let go of it, no matter what rational arguments are, given, that person is generally considered psychotic. Racism seems to be a special case where we don’t do that. Since you brought up the outward racism, and you experienced it personally, do you have a thought on how racism, that is, extreme racism, should be addressed in the mental health system, particularly with the children?

Samantha Fuentes
That is definitely a tough one. Interesting thing about people with very extreme or outward racist tendencies is that they do have very similar behavioral patterns to those who are mentally ill. And I don’t know if there is necessarily a connection with those things. But they should be addressed with the same amount of caution and the same amount of importance, essentially. The thing is, that person really a victim of their own mental health and their own mental illnesses until they endanger other people’s lives.

The issue with trying to normalize homicidal behavior as something that is a symptom of mental illness is a cop out, it’s a scapegoat. People will try to use the argument that meant a a deteriorating mental health is a plausible explanation or excuse for somebody murdering another individual. I think that the argument cannot be said, when the action is carried out, I think that pretty much cancels out anything, any argument to be made, because lives have literally been taken.

I think, in general, when people are driven to violent and homicidal tendencies, there have been several layers of failures within their mental health treatment, in their ability to get resources. So that in itself is a larger problem. The inaccessibility for people to actually reach out and get help with whether it be like that, or mental health issues or be able to openly talk about their bigotry and their fear, quote, unquote, fear of people of color, black people.

Robin Rowe
I think we have a question.

Devankar Mukhi
Yes. Thank you so much, everybody. First of all, thank you, all of you for coming on. And, Sam, thank you for answering that. I know it’s a very tough question. We have one comment in the chat. From Ray, a person coming from India. It’s a culture shock for me that they have metal detectors at schools as a search for kids for firearms. Would you like to elaborate or ask another comment or question kind of relating to that towards Sam?

Robin Rowe
Okay, so what’s Ray’s question about metal detectors?

Ray
It’s been almost five years since I moved to United States. I’ve heard it in the news about the school shootings that happen in USA and other gun laws, and everything. But I just, I just realized when I moved here, when I was speaking to this kid that he kind of told me that what actually happens in your school, like they’re being searched visually for weapons, and they have to go through a metal detector. And I asked him, how old are you? A 14-year-old. When I was 14 years old, I used to sit in the back bench and eat my lunch. So a memory of mine is basically, eating, eating lunch. Thinking about the kids in USA, what if their memory was I just narrowly escaped the school shooting? That’s a huge difference, that’s a huge impact on their lives, and basically, the rest of their lives. So that was a biggest shock for me. Going through that would be really, I mean…I understand I don’t really understand it. That is really brave of you. I like to, I like to let you know that.

Robin Rowe
Samantha talked about that a little bit earlier. Can you go a little deeper on what your mental state has been as a result of all this?

Samantha Fuentes
Simply, it’s bad. It’s not great.

As you might imagine, that is an incredibly terrifying and traumatizing experience to go through. I have, obviously, PTSD, and depression and anxiety. You know, the whole barrel of fun. So, it’s one of those experiences that you come back from, and it totally reshapes everything that you’ve ever thought about before. It makes you think about life, from a perspective that you didn’t think was possible, because you are living like you’re dying.

Basically, at this point, you are confirmed with the facts that your safety and your livelihood is not a guarantee. I think the biggest fault of this, unfortunately, is that I do live in fear often. It’s hard for me to feel safe and feel secure in my surroundings. And I do certain things now and behaviors that I didn’t have before it. I’ve learned that it changed so much about myself, my personality, my maturity, my growth. In so many ways that I recognize, it’s something that comes consciously and subconsciously.

Robin Rowe
Is there therapy or treatment or self-care? What helps?

Samantha Fuentes
Absolutely. I think in general with people that what helps you, what works, is different for everyone else. For me, personally, definitely, I partake in therapy, I partake in different forms of therapy, like EMR or rapid resolution therapy. I unfortunately, don’t really do any of the pharmaceuticals, because it’s not necessarily a route that I go down. I do holistic medicine and healing. I use spirituality as a guide as well. I practice a lot of life coping and grounding mechanisms. I do yoga and just practice self-care in a way that I can reflect on things but not be consumed and obsessed.

It’s an everyday battle. Some days are worse than others. When you have a good support system, a good therapist, and the space and time to reflect, and really process your emotions instead of just coping with them, I think that in itself has made this process a little bit easier.

Robin Rowe
Are you doing any advanced or experimental therapies? Are you doing false memories or hypnosis or any of those types of things?

Samantha Fuentes
No, definitely haven’t done anything.

Robin Rowe
Or, using virtual reality to to change the experience?

Samantha Fuentes
No, I don’t I’m not sure if that would be really for me.

Robin Rowe
With veterans, one approach that’s being taken is blanket denial is to actually try to rewrite people’s memories because of the problem of flashbacks. I’m wondering…I don’t want to trigger anything by asking you about it, but curious to know, how deep does the PTSD go? How do you cope?

Samantha Fuentes
I don’t know if I can answer how deep I am, but I can describe to you what that feels like, for sure. When I’m having a flashback, it’s not normally that I’m imagining that I’m in the same place as I was born, it’s normally that I create a new scenario in which my life is in danger. I usually become silent, I shake, I freeze, I either run, I will dart for, you know, for who knows how long. This is something that pretty often happens, not necessarily regularly, because I’ve worked on it. But if I even try to put myself back in that place, I kind of become entirely mobilized. So I really try not to reimagine myself in that situation. I have tried forms of therapy before which involves me returning to that place and being there visually, like, physically,

Robin Rowe
Is that aversion therapy where they try to make you relive it? Or, are you actually changing the memory to something that didn’t happen?

Samantha Fuentes
I think the goal was to reorganize it to be another scenario. But it wasn’t effective. Because the way that I was approaching it was so head-on and so early on, I had a therapist essentially, have me reimagine my situation, from the worst point

Robin Rowe
I’m surprised that you can trust therapy again, even face it, after that. That’s courageous.

Devankar Mukhi
We have a question from Madeline.

Maddie
Thank you so much. My name is Manny trainer. I am currently in Thompson, Maryland. And I just wanted to commend you, Sam. Thank you so much for coming and sharing your story and having the time to communicate with us. We really appreciate it. So kind of backtracking a little bit, I know that I have younger siblings who are in middle school and elementary school, and they participate in the new drills. They’re developing for active shooter drills within schools. And I know they come home, and they have a lot of anxiety about what that means for them, and what potential situations could arise at any moment during their normal school day. So I’m kind of focusing on reducing anxiety and kind of improving these programs.

As a student who experienced tragedy in this horrible situation, what would you suggest would be a more effective way of preparing students?

Samantha Fuentes
For these potential situations, or maybe in conjunction with preparing students in schools promoting different policies? Yeah, that was one question. It’s absolutely a very valid question.

I find personally, that, unfortunately, there is no set of drills, or steps or preparations that you can do to prepare yourself for shooting, especially as a child. When your life is literally at danger, your logic goes entirely out the window. And for you to try to remember certain steps or try to practice certain things that are involved in this drills actually end up getting killed. Believe it or not, there are so many situations where, you know, they say things like turn off the lights , cover the door, lock the door. In my case, for example, the door was locked, but you can shoot through a window. If you tried to block that door, you put yourself in danger.

Trying to go through the certain steps in order to prepare yourself and in most cases, you can’t actually execute that because you’re so consumed in adrenaline. So, unfortunately, I’m going to have to say that there isn’t a certain amount of preparation that you can do that would prepare you for school shooting. I would know, I’ve gone through them. I grew up with those drills, and was something that I practiced.

What I can recommend for the anxiety that surrounds those drills, and those conversations? One is, kids are smart as hell. Trying to sugarcoat or not be transparent, or not be honest about the content of what it is, and why you’re doing something like this is going to make them each increasingly more anxious. So being as light but as confrontational as possible with your child, and really introducing the reality of that situation, in a way that promotes them to have that conversation and be open with their feelings.

I think oftentimes with children they don’t feel like they have the ability to talk about these anxieties. Because having conversation about school shootings is so taboo. We don’t ever want to imagine what that’s going to be like. But, to pretend that it doesn’t happen, will teach your child to live in fear. Not given the right knowledge for them to flourish without having that kind of anxiety. I think having open very honest, transparent conversations about these topics with your children and reassuring them, of their safety, in the sense of what you can control is going to probably be the most that you can do.

I think, in general, with these drills, and these security measures that they try to implement, the only thing that’s really going to combat gun violence is common sense gun law legislation, and preventative action that stops gun violence from the source opposed to a reactionary response to act after it happens. At that point you’re just controlling the bleed.

Robin Rowe
We’re over time. We can go another five minutes, and then we’re out. Maybe we can spin through a couple more questions quickly?

Addrea
Yeah, I agree with you about the parents, they have to teach their children. And I think they should train them for them special classes to learn. It’s not just shooting, they could be biting or other danger in this world. And I know, kids use guns as toys or watching movies. I think parents should take it to the next step for their children.

I have a question about after it’s all happened, you’re surrounding yourself with things. Are you referring to people or just your home your environment or therapy and things like that?

Samantha Fuentes
Yeah, absolutely. I would have to say all of the above.

Within my activism, I have the opportunity to meet with survivors from all different kinds of communities who are impacted by gun violence. Those relationships are some of the most meaningful ones I’ve had. And it makes me definitely feel like I’m not the only one and that I’m not alone. That I have a community and a support system, really able to relate to. And, additionally, obviously, within my own family, I have a good support system. Having the support of a therapist, when you don’t know who to talk to about your issues. Just having a way, an outlet, a safe and comfortable way to get out your emotions. That’s productive, and that is healthy for you.

For me, as you might imagine [motioning to guitars on her wall], that’s music. I’m an avid writer. I put a lot of my things that I can’t reconcile with, that I’m working through on paper or whatever it might be. It’s always a multitude of different things that is going to help you get along. It’s never just one cure-all. There’s not just one antidote. I think it’s practicing and using a combination of things.

Devankar Mukhi
Last question.

Maddie
Thank you. Sam, I was just really curious about the work you’ve been doing now, if you could kind of speak a little bit more to that and how individuals like ourselves could get involved in that effort? That’d be awesome.

Samantha Fuentes
Oh, wow. Okay, it’s a very big question. I’m going to try to answer it quickly, as quickly as possible.

So, activism. There is no such thing as not enough or too much, right? And there’s no such thing as one form of activism. Right? So activism can be the groundwork, showing up to protest, making it known that you’re public, creating a group to go for an issue that you care about. It could be donating money to an organization that you care deeply about. Or, to a funeral fund for families, unfortunately, devastated by gun violence. It can be going out much like what I do. I travel the country. I tell people the full extent of my story. How that’s impacted me. How I do personal work, and in hopes that it inspires other people.

That can look like film. That can look like music. That can be a piece of writing. What really connects to people. And that’s the thing about activism. That the more media mediums that you have, the more further the reach, because certain forms of activism resonate with other people in certain ways.

Not every single thing you do is going to reach out with people. I personally, right now, I work on Our Lives. They’re doing tons of work, right now talking about Black Lives Matter, talking about trans women and men protecting their lives, police brutality. We’re talking about the importance of voting, getting people to the polls, early voting, putting a lot at bat.

I’m also in a documentary that if you would like to check out, absolutely that would be such a great thing. Called Us Kids, which is a documentary following me and some of my colleagues who are also gun violence prevention activists. This film in itself is a piece of activism. Because it hopes to inspire a generation of youth who are traumatized. And so around that I’m doing tons of virtual events and screenings to get the message out.

I hope that that inspires you to want to do the same. There is no end to what activism can and cannot be. And any start is a good start. You just have to find an issue that you’re most passionate about. Become because there’s a huge, huge pile of things that people need to work on. Something that resonates with you so that it’s authentic. Something that you can put your heart soul to. So that’s a little bit about what I’m doing, what you can do also.

I cannot emphasize this more than enough, please, please, please, please vote. And, social media is such a great tool to use to promote any narrative or any rhetoric. My top recommendations.

Robin Rowe
That was fantastic. Unfortunately, we have to wrap we have less than a minute left here. Sam, do you have any social media or links or anything that you want to shout out for people to follow what you’re doing?

Samantha Fuentes
Yeah, I can just put this in the chat. [From samstimemachine: Funkpuncher insta/twitter uskidsfilm.] My handle is pretty weird. It’s called funkpuncher. You can follow me on Twitter or Instagram. If you’re interested in seeing my film or sharing that with other people, you can follow us at UsKidsFilm.

On Instagram or Twitter will give you more information about the organizations we’re actually collaborating with. On October 24th we have a virtual event called Vote with Us that we’re doing in honor of early voting. So if that’s something you’re interested in, listening to a good conversation.

Robin Rowe
We have to wrap. We only have 10 seconds.

Devankar Mukhi
Thank you, Sam, for being a part of this. Robin was a pleasure and everybody else have a great week.

Robin Rowe
For anyone who wants to catch the replay, that’ll be on my site: robinsrowe.com.

Robin S. Rowe is running for BHUSD School Board in the November 2020 election.