CHAMPAIGN COUNTY, Ohio (WDTN) — It’s been four months since terror struck West Liberty-Salem schools.
On January 20, 2017, the same day Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, gunfire erupted inside the Champaign County school.
Ely Serna, a 17-year-old student at the school turned a shotgun on his classmates, leaving 2 students injured, including Logan Cole, who was critically injured. It’s taken months, but Cole continues to recover, while the student who shot him has been ruled competent to stand trial.
Cole’s wounds have healed over time, but for some students at West Liberty-Salem. the wounds and the suffering still feel fresh
Molly Smith is a West Liberty-Salem Middle/High School Counselor. She says everything changed on Friday January 20th.
“I kept saying to the students, the train is still moving,” Smith said. “The train is back on its tracks.”
“Everything is moving, but we don’t feel on the inside like we’re moving.”
Many students feel stuck, imprisoned by memories. They still hear the sounds of bullets and screams and relive the fear they felt while climbing through windows to escape. Counselors say some students can talk their way through it. Others can’t find the words, leaving them feeling alone.
That is completely normal according to Kim Leichty, a therapist at Consolidated Care in Logan County. Leichty and Consolidated Care are working hand-in-hand with the school to help students following the shooting. Leichty says a common belief among the student body is, “Everybody else seems to be doing fine. What’s wrong with me. I’m still stuck.”
Leichty says they are giving students whatever they need, whether that’s group sessions, individual therapy or simply just listening to each of their stories, so the kids know they are not alone. Geauga County and Madison Township agencies have offered help following their own harrowing experiences at Chardon High School and Madison Junior/Senior High.
School officials say healing is happening, but there is an upcoming concern, with summer vacation just days away.
On June 2, the students will file out of the hallways one final time and right into summer vacation. But, when break is over, the building and it’s memories will remain.
“It can be a hard place to be,” Smith said. “For some students, it can be specific to the room and location they were at that moment of the shooting.”
“For other students, they’ve noticed that it’s cut across no matter where they are. This is not a scary place, but they still struggle with fear and anxiety.”
Greg Johnson is the Middle/High School Principal. He says some have been able to move past the memories of January 20th and put it behind them but not everyone and certainly not all the time.
“That depends on the person,” Johnson said. “That depends on the day.”
“I know for me, personally, it depends on the day. There are some days where I feel like it’s pretty far in the rear-view mirror, and there are days where it feels fresh like it just happened.”
There are plenty of good days, too. Kids are singing in the choir. Extra-curricular activities are bustling after school. The students are making a conscious effort to not allow their school’s legacy to be that of school shooting.
Leichty praised their resilience saying, “The strength that they’ve demonstrated since the shooting, the courage to come back to school, to carry on with their normal daily activities has been remarkable.”
“Tiger Strong” is the rallying cry. Signs with that slogan are everywhere the school. Optimism for better days fill the hallways, yet at the same time, no one is fooling themselves. The scars of trauma remain. Kids startle easily and look for windows, doors and exits whenever they go into a room. Still, counselors say the train to recovery is certainly back on the rails.
Johnson said the school will be better because of their tragedy, “If we could go back and make January 20th not happen, I’d like to take away that pain, but as a school, as individuals, as a community, I really feel that we are better, stronger in some ways because of what happened that day.”
Not to be forgotten, the teachers and staff who themselves are still dealing with their own trauma. Principal Johnson says the school is addressing those needs as well. As for himself, when does he, the principal and dad of three kids at the school, plan to deal with himself. He says, this summer.