Recent school shootings prompt painful memories for four Bethel students.
Sarah Nelson | Staff Writer
Freshman Kristen Stucker found herself in her room on October 1, knowing her roommate was gone for the weekend. She collapsed from a mental breakdown when she heard the news that nine students were shot dead that day at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. Stucker’s parents called to say that her sister Brenna, who attends another university in Oregon, was okay.
“It’s happening again and again,” Stucker said.
Some argue the most dangerous job in America is being a student, as more than 100 school shootings have occurred since Adam Lanza opened fire in Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2014. Friends, family and communities are affected each time gunmen enter an academic campus, most recently in Oregon, Arizona and Texas. On December 13, 2013, Bethel’s own Abbey and Emily Skoda, Kenzie Smith and Kristen Stucker experienced this violence at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado.
As a high school freshman, Abbey Skoda sat in Chemistry class on a Friday afternoon when she heard a loud popping noise from the hallway, followed by a series of more pops.
“It sounded like a table that was standing upright just goes flat on the ground,” Abbey recalled. Security guards ran toward the noise. Students began running the opposite direction, some fleeing to Chipotle across the street. Down the hall from her sister’s Chemistry class, Emily Skoda watched her teacher’s face turn to horror.
The pops heard that day came from Karl Pierson, a senior classmate firing a shotgun in school. Pierson entered the North entrance of the building looking for debate coach and librarian Tracy Murphy, who recently kicked Pierson off the speech team for threatening remarks made against Murphy’s life, according to the investigative report. Pierson was also armed with a machete, three Molotov cocktails and a bandoleer of ammunition. After a school janitor noticed Pierson, the school went into lockdown.
The fire alarm blared through the halls and classes, signaling staff to lock their doors and hide. Kenzie Smith was ushered from the cafeteria into the guidance office at the opposite end of the school. Emily sat in the corner of a dark classroom locking arms with her Spanish teacher, whispering prayers. Stucker, located in a Science classroom further away from the scene, worried with the knowledge that Abbey hid in a classroom with Pierson roaming just outside the door. An announcement came over the PA system, warning everyone there wasn’t a fire, and to stay where they were. Prior to the alarm, Emily recalls hearing Pierson yelling “Where are they? Where are they?” down the hall.
As the waiting continued, God became a source of peace for the girls. Abbey recited Psalm 23:4 and wondered if her surrounding classmates knew God.
“This is the one time in my life where I felt Him sitting behind me,” Abbey said.
After an hour, the SWAT team arrived.
“That part honestly is one of the parts that scared me the most,” Stucker said, explaining the last sight students wanted to see was more people pointing guns. Students then filed out to the track with their hands on their heads, and were subject to searches. Friends briefly reunited before becoming separated once again to different schools and churches to await family members.
At that point, news stations flocked to the crime scene. Emily then learned from reporters that classmate Claire Davis was shot during the attack, and Pierson ended up taking his own life in the library.
“I had no words for the feelings I had,” Emily said.
The following weeks proved to be difficult for many, as Davis died eight days after the incident. Finals were cancelled, and students agreed Christmas break wasn’t the same.
“My parents didn’t understand what I was going through,” Smith said. “I just felt pretty much alone. I didn’t want to be with anyone else.”
Upon returning to school, the mood was numb. Reporters everywhere asked for quotes and pictures, stunting the healing for many students. The library remained closed until the following December. Stucker recalls being in a class and freezing every time the dump trucks slammed dumpsters to the ground. Students were respectfully asked not to slam lockers. Certain areas in school reminded students of the tragic day.
“It became a thing I dreaded most every week, trying to go back to that classroom,” Stucker said.
Out of all the darkness that occurred during the cloudy day in December, light shone through. Students began finding faith despite never having prayed before. Shirts were designed by seniors in memory of Davis. According to the girls, the community ultimately became closer.
“For me, it cancelled out all the bad things that happened,” Emily said.
Through everything, Abbey decided God was calling her to be a nurse in the emergency room, wanting to console those going through tragedy similar to the event she endured. Smith learned the importance of being nice to everyone, and living life to the fullest. Emily learned in theology class about God’s foreknowledge, helping her understand the incident better. As for Stucker, getting past that day has proved difficult.
“It’s really been the biggest struggle of my life the past two years after it happened,” she said, “I was so heartbroken and crushed by it because you know there’s sin in the world and bad things happen but it really hit home now.”
God’s promise of always being there helped Stucker through her final year and a half at school. Upon the anniversary of the shooting, a restoration ceremony was held, leaving Stucker with hope she can move on. She describes her coming to Bethel as her “happy story”, citing a time she visited the university during chapel.
“Everybody was singing and I was like, ‘This is a place I can heal,’” she said.