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Shooting clouds first day of school in El Paso

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A young girl stands in front of a makeshift memorial outside an El Paso Walmart that was the scene of a shooting that killed 22 people and injured 26. Countless parents have taken their children to the memorial to pay their respects and talk about the attack. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

EL PASO – In the days after the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart, parents from across the region took their children to the makeshift memorial near the crime scene as they tried to provide comfort and explain the horror.

“I wanted to talk to him about it here. I wanted him not to have that sense of fear,” said Clarissa Hernandez, standing at the memorial with her 11-year-old son, Ezra. The pair held handwritten signs, offering hugs to other families visiting the site. “I’m glad that we’re all here as one,” Ezra said.

Hernandez said it was especially important to reassure her son in the days before he went back to school.

“I let Ezra know our city is still safe. He’s still safe. The person who did this was not somebody from our community, thank God,” Hernandez said.

The 21-year-old gunman from the Dallas area carried out the terrorist attack on a Saturday morning at a busy Walmart where many families were doing back-to-school shopping. The Aug. 3 rampage cast a shadow over the first day of classes Monday in El Paso.

In an open letter posted on the El Paso Independent School District website, Superintendent Juan Cabrera wrote, “We are devastated, we are hurting but we are not broken.

“So today, using that strength that has come to define us, we begin the school year, and continue to persevere and thrive. There is no better way to fight ignorance, hate and racism than with education.”

He also reassured parents who expressed concerns about sending their children to school that “the safety and security of our students and employees is a top priority.” The school also had extra counselors available to help students cope with fear and grief.

Las Cruces Public Schools also reassured parents and students that security measures were in place on all campuses the first day of classes, which was Thursday. Counselors said they had received numerous calls from parents, students and teachers expressing anxiety and fear because the attack happened “so close to home,” according to Las Cruces Public Schools spokeswoman Samantha Lewis. A Las Cruces teacher’s sister was killed in the Walmart attack; the district did not release the teacher’s name but confirmed the death.

Many in the close-knit region that includes El Paso, Ciudad Juárez and Las Cruces remain fearful after the attack, especially children. “It’s very much on their minds,” said Sean Barham, associate director of operations and security for Las Cruces Public Schools.

Barham said schools are required to perform drills during the first few weeks of classes, including fire drills and a “lockdown” that would be used if there was an active shooter on campus. He said the district guidelines set by the National Association of School Psychologists.

“The conversations that we have are always age-appropriate. The kids know they’re practicing a lockdown, but that doesn’t mean we have someone pounding on the door or scaring them,” Barham said.

Parents are also trying to reassure children they are safe while grappling with how to discuss the alleged gunman’s motives.

“They need hear from us. It’s important they need to know there’s no place for hate like this anywhere. I think they need to hear that early,” said Tina Duncan, a native of Germany and mother of two. “We are a military family.”

Duncan took her 6-year-old daughter, Mia, and 9-year-old son, Ty, to the memorial site outside Walmart three days after the shooting.

Mia clung to her mother and did not really understand what happened, and Ty was upset about the shooting, according to his mother. “They need to see the tears, see the hurt. They just need to feel it, like we do. El Paso’s a strong city. We’re going to pull through this,” Duncan said.

“It will take time,” said Claudia Zarate, owner of a day care service in El Paso. “We have been hurt badly. Our peace has been shattered. We were a tranquil city.” She took one of the children from the day care with her to see the memorial. Seven-year-old Cameron seemed distracted, but then focused on the growing pile of flowers and balloons for the shooting victims, and said, “That’s a lot of love right there to give them heart balloons.”

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