‘These kids were so much more than bodies’
You can search by name on “Since Parkland,” a database of obituaries written by student journalists of all the young people killed by guns in the 365 days since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. With the exception of police shootings and suicides, the project is a full accounting of the 1,200 children, ages 0 to 18, whose lives have been ended by guns since Valentine’s Day, 2018.
It’s a beautiful and understated site, with the dead sorted into categories that capture some vivid aspect of their lives and identities: as artists, musicians, athletes, college-bound seniors, siblings, young parents. The obituaries aren’t long.
But it was hard to know where to begin. So I searched my own name. I landed on Kimberly Jessica Vaughn. I was halfway through this short, surreal profile — an obituary for a 14-year-old, written by a 16-year-old — when I realized Kimberly was murdered in a school shooting that had already escaped my memory. She was killed in the deadliest school shooting since Parkland, at Sante Fe High School last May.
Mass shootings, like unseasonably warm winter days, used to be so rare as to be obviously headline-making and now are so common they struggle to register, even though the increase in frequency ought to make them more, not less, alarming. And more typical types of shootings, by abusive boyfriends or fumbling toddlers or strangers in the street, are even less likely to draw and hold widespread attention.
The sick joke about gun violence in America is that the story is always the same. The Onion famously publishes the same story after every mass shooting — “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” — changing nothing but the dateline and the lede. But “Since Parkland” quietly and elegantly makes a different case, not only by showing that each of these stories is about a unique, irreplaceable individual, but by employing teenage journalists as reporters. The story does feel different now, in a post-Parkland world, because of who gets to tell it.
“Since Parkland” is the work of more than 200 student journalists whose work was overseen by The Trace, a nonprofit news organization devoted to covering gun violence. The Trace teamed up with journalism teachers who provided guidance, training, and editing. Other partners included the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit which tracks shooting incidents; “Since Parkland” relied on their database to identify child victims.
The Trace’s Akoto Ofori-Atta is the project director of “Since Parkland.” A few days after the site’s February 12 launch, she spoke with ThinkProgress about the story behind these stories.
What’s the response to “Since Parkland” been like?
It’s been overwhelmingly positive: from our peers in media, from parents of the victims we profiled, from the scholastic journalism community, from our student reporters who are just really kicking ass and being great ambassadors for their own work. It’s been really great. Even politicians are now using this moment, at a time we’re all thinking about the tragedy of Parkland, to remind folks that there were nearly 1,200 other young lives since we last had to deal with this. So all across the board, it’s just been really overwhelming, the ways people are sort of paying attention to the issue.
So much of the power of this project comes from the fact that these stories are reported and written by teenagers, about teenagers. That teenagers aren’t being protected from this kind of violence. But I’m curious if you’ve gotten any pushback from adults about the content being too graphic for teenagers to cover.
We haven’t gotten any of that feedback. The student journalists have told us, on many occasions, that the work is difficult. But at those same moments, they’ve said they’re committed to telling these stories.
I thought, how can we elevate these kids’ specific dreams?
One of the things that we wanted to do to make sure students felt supported in ways that I was not supported as a young journalist. We wanted them to be learning coping for telling these stories. There’s always lots of lessons of how to interview people who are dealing with grief, which is a very important part of what we do. But there’s not often a lot of talk about the vicarious trauma you experience from exposing yourself, day in and day out, to really horrific stories.
So we had a webinar for students to join with one of our journalists who does this a lot and is really good at managing her own self care. She has mostly, during her time here, reported on survivors of gun violence. And some of those stories are really horrific. We’re going to do another one, next week or the week after, just to wrap up. To get them all the resources they need to cope with some of these stories.
What surprised you about what these students brought to this project? Did they raise anything with you that you weren’t expecting?
Part of the reason why this even came to be was, I had spoken to journalism educators about this idea, but I hadn’t worked with students myself. I was like, can students do this? And they said, yes they can, absolutely. So I trusted them to do this.
But what surprised me the most was their unwavering dedication to power through these difficult moments and tell these stories. We had a big closing weekend here, so some of the students came to Trace’s offices, and we worked 12 hours Saturday and Sunday to get this done. And one student had said to me — she told me she was warning me — that there are kids who are alive right now who, come Wednesday, you’ll have to write about. And that happened. She said, “I was researching someone, and his Facebook page, which was live when I started researching him, I hit refresh, and it turned into a memorial page before my eyes.”
It was difficult, but it made her even more determined to make sure there was an accurate, meaningful portrait of his life. Those are things that are hard for veteran journalists. But they just had this resolve to push through. And I think it’s because this is their story. It impacts them in ways it never impacted me. I never had to do a lockdown drill in the early 2000s in high school. I also didn’t grow up in a neighborhood that is particularly violent. For kids in cities in neighborhoods with high crime, every minute, they are making decisions about their public safety. There’s kids who live in Philadelphia who, instead of walking the 15 minute walk home, they take a bus that’ll take an hour and a half. These are the calculations they’re making. So when you take those two things together, this affects nearly every kid in America. That just wasn’t true for me, and for people in my generation.
I think that’s why they feel so connected to it. They feel responsible for it. And you read the obituaries, and that comes through. These are stories that matter to them, so they were careful and forceful in the way they told them, in ways I just don’t think that adults could do today.
These student journalists are in our first post-Columbine generation; the idea of a “school shooting” has always just been a part of their vocabulary. What did you make of their perspective on school shootings and gun violence more broadly? How is this generation different even from millennials, who aren’t that much older than they are but still grew up at a time when school shootings were genuinely shocking?
On the “About Us” page, there’s a manifesto from six writers describing our goal for the project, and they say that exact thing: We grew up after Columbine. This is all we’ve known. We were young when Sandy Hook happened. And Parkland. These things are just a part of the world we grew up in.
Let’s talk about structure of the site, which is really beautifully designed. The profiles are divided into categories: athletes, college-bound seniors, young parents. They’re personality-driven, as opposed to, say, being sorted by geography or (for the most part) age. Can you tell me about the process of deciding how to organize and display all this information?
Probably I’m the only person in the world who has had to read all 1,200 of these obituaries. In terms of the site specifically, after I was about one-third of the way through, I was just like, oh, there’s so much material here, these kids were so much more than bodies. We have to find a way to organize the site that brings that to life.
Some of the things that stuck out to me were, I have an older brother, and there were so many kids who were siblings who were big brothers and little sisters. I was like, that is a hard thing to deal with, losing a sibling. These are important pillars of our social and familial lives, our brothers and sisters. So I felt like, we have to save some space for them.
Then I kept coming across aspiring nurses and people who wanted to be doctors, and I thought, how can we elevate these kids’ specific dreams? And then their hobbies, things they liked to do. So many surfers and hunters, so we called them “adventurers.” So many kids who loved playing video games. A lot of kids who had just had kids themselves, 18-year-olds who’d just given birth or were expecting a child. There’s 15 categories: funny kids, kids who were on their way to college. We felt like that was the real story, that we had to organize the site around who they were.
In terms of the obituaries themselves, all credit is due to project editor Beatrice Motamedi for this. She also has a poetry background. She’d spent a lot of time writing obituaries and profiles. And her charge to students was: we have to lead with the life. We are not going to lead with the death. We are going to use as much space as possible the celebrate who these kids were.
For the portraits where we didn’t have enough info to do that, those all fell into the “stories left to be told” category. This portrait is not complete until we can tell you something more about who these kids were beyond their death.
One thing about the site, which we didn’t even publicize, is each profile has a unique star. None of the stars on the site are the same. And that’s to underscore the individuality of the kids that we lost. The design team came up with a way to give each kid their own individual marker, using the number of characters in their name, their gender, their age, to make a program that would make unique markers for each one.
How were student journalists paired with stories? Did they choose their own or get assignments?
It was much easier to match journalists to those who matched their geographical situation. But towards the end it got much harder. If you live in Wilmington Delaware, and you’re sitting there without an assignment and someone died in Chicago, we’ll get you an assignment. In the beginning, kids were picking profiles like, “This is my same birthday,” or “I lost a cousin to a drive-by and this kid was basically my cousin’s age.” That’s how we were organizing them at first. But the demands of deadlines made that impossible after a while.
We have a long chain where there’s someone looking at the data set we use from the Gun Violence Archive, filtering those to make sure those are incidents we want to use: the right age, not police shootings, not suicides. From there, an assignment editor would assign them out.
Can you explain why you didn’t want to include police shootings or death by suicide?
As it relates to police shootings, we wanted to focus on the gun deaths of kids as a result of everyday people who have firearms. And for suicides, the simple answer to that is, there is just no comprehensive way to track that in real time. Suicides are not often reported to media; there’s so many ethical things to consider. So we decided to just omit them completely.
But the truth is, as with any age group, suicide is the largest chunk of our gun deaths. So we estimate there’s an additional 900 to 1,000 people who have killed themselves by firearm in the last year, which almost doubles our figure. And we write about that on our site. We have a piece called “The Missing 900.”
As someone who reads about gun violence all the time, what did you learn from this project that you didn’t already know? Did any patterns or themes emerge, not necessarily in the shootings themselves but in the ways the student journalists saw them, and what they focused on in their reporting?
I want to be careful with the way I say this. I’m still working through it. I was shocked by this: There are a lot of young women who have died in the data set. But most of the teens and the older girls, so many of them were connected to domestic violence incidents.
So when we’re talking about young women and young girls, and how they are impacted by gun violence, it’s not the same gun violence that impacts young black boys, or with the very young ones, which is often they get access to a gun and shoot themselves or another kid. A lot of the women I read about, they were caught in domestic violence situations. And not just their own romantic partners, but [sometimes it’s] an angry man in their mother’s life. In some cases, an angry or depressed mom who, unfortunately, takes her life and takes her kids’ lives.
It was interesting to me, for someone who can see into the many layers of gun violence, I had not thought about how young girls specifically are most impacted by this.
How much writing and reporting experience did these students bring to the project?
Some of the students are editors of their very prestigious school magazines and papers. Others had very little experience at all. Our project editor came up with a curriculum that taught students how to write profiles and portraits for this specific project. It was very specific and detailed. The curriculum is public. That’s how we were able to teach kids: “We’re writing a lot of portraits. If all you start them with ‘he was smart and funny,’ we will be doing a disservice to the fact that we want to celebrate each individual.” So there’s tons of lessons about how to make your first line poetic and compelling.
What were their hopes and goals for this site? What have they told you about what they want “Since Parkland” to achieve?
The students have told me that they just want to continue to build awareness of how gun violence impacts young people, because they don’t think it’s fair that so many young kids die this way. And that people really get a sense of who these kids were as individuals; that they engage with the project beyond just the homepage. Take time to read some of these profiles, understand the magnitude of the loss.
Gun violence already gets a significant amount of media attention. As you set out to do this, what blank space did you see in the journalism that was already out there? Do you feel like you filled it?
We all have a sense of the data and the numbers, but it’s easy to gloss over who these people were. One of the things i keep thinking about personally is, you can feel a mother’s grief, a father’s grief, a grandmother’s grief. Those things are so heavy and hard to swallow. But the other thing that kept coming at me is, these kids were loved, you know? One kid who died, we quoted his best friend saying, “I’m going to miss you. You were my ride to school.“ Losing kids this way just leaves a huge whole in our social networks, in the ways in which you move about the day. They have such ripple effects that goes far beyond their immediate family.
Losing kids this way just leaves a huge whole in our social networks, in the ways in which you move about the day. They have such ripple effects that goes far beyond their immediate family.
One profile I read, the headline the kid wrote was “An Empty Fifth-Grade Desk.” Those teachers who are having to deal with the trauma of losing a kid they’ve been working with so closely, and also coaching other kids in the class through that. We can count the victims, right? We know there’s nearly 1200. But the things I’ve just described you, I can’t begin to quantify that. You can’t account for all of the people who become devastated when the most vulnerable people in our country lose their lives to tragedy.
You’ve said this is an “ongoing project.” What’s left to do?
We’ve opened it up to the public to help us fill in these reporting holes, and we’re going to work until it’s complete, until it’s as close to done as possible. We want a complete snapshot of the 365 days since Parkland.
Have you heard anything from the Parkland kids?
We actually worked with 12 Parkland student journalists who wrote the obituaries for their fallen, so they were a part of it. They wrote some beautiful tributes because they’ve been on the story for a year. If you look at their obituaries, all their source material is their own reporting. Which is really, on a journalism geeky level, very exciting! But also, I’ve been saying this all along, that this is their story. It’s as true for them as it is for anybody else, these kids writing about the people who used to walk the halls with them.
Is there anything else you want people to know about “Since Parkland” and the student journalists whose work you’re sharing?
Of the kids that have reported, I think a little more than half are students of color for our reporters. And that’s something that we’re very proud of.