EL PASO – The morning of the mass shootings at an El Paso Walmart, Immanuel Christian School was having a workday for teachers and church members to prepare the grounds for the start of school.
Immanuel Christian, a ministry of Immanuel Baptist Church, is but a 2-minute walk from the El Paso Walmart where 22 were slain Aug. 3 by a lone gunman.
“That’s our Walmart. It is always busy,” Immanuel pastor J.C. Rico told the TEXAN. “Anyone [at the workday] could have said, ‘We need paper bags. We need to run to Walmart.’”
In fact, unbeknownst to those at the clean-up day, the shootings were occurring about the same time the teachers and church members finished their tasks and gathered together outside in the hot, El Paso mid-morning sun, to pray.
“We were praying in the schoolyard at the same time the shooting was happening. We had no idea,” Immanuel 7-10 grade Bible teacher Eva Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez headed for the Cielo Vista Walmart after she finished up at school that morning, only to change her mind and drive to a Walmart nearer her home instead. While in that Walmart, she received a call from her husband, an El Paso policeman, warning her about the active shooter.
An Immanuel preschool teacher was actually in the Cielo Vista Walmart parking lot as people fled the store in panic. The school’s athletic director had been there 40 minutes prior to the shootings. Others were at the Sam’s Club next door.
The uncle of an Immanuel senior, German-born Alexander Hoffman, a citizen of Juarez, was among the victims.
Usually the start of school means shopping for supplies or finishing summer reading or acquiring new uniforms and shoes.
The first day of school for many public and private schools in El Paso, was not what anyone expected.
For Immanuel Christian, the return of its 455 students to school Aug. 12 meant extra security and lockdown training its staff and teachers the week before, reassuring meetings with parents, and the presence of counselors, including Southern Baptist of Texas Convention Disaster Relief chaplains, for children and families.
“We have had security in the past and safety protocols in the past, but it’s really brought things close to home,” John Davis, Immanuel head of school, told the TEXAN, explaining that in addition to the measures already in place such as automatic locks and limited points of entry, the school added armed security officers — off-duty El Paso policemen — this year.
Families were asked to contribute toward the unexpected, non-budgeted expense and many have, Davis said.
Hector Vasquez, an El Paso policeman who was one of the first responders to the Walmart Aug. 3, is among the new security guards at Immanuel. He is grateful for the opportunity to be at the school.
“I like it. I am interacting with the kids a lot. I think it’s good. It helps out. Out there when I am working, I don’t get a lot of time to do community policing. Here I get a lot of time to do that, I actually interact with the kids and show them, hey, police aren’t bad. We are here to help out,” Vasquez said.
Davis said he believes it’s a great witness to the community and officers.
“The kids have responded really well. And having the officers here engaging with the kids, that’s been a great thing for our kids and for the officers, too,” Davis said. “The El Paso police department said this is one place where [their] officers want to be, because our kids are so respectful and engaging.”
By the time school began, the students seemed mostly back to normal, Gutierrez said, although some parents reported their kids were having trouble sleeping or being upset earlier.
Gutierrez took special steps to reassure her Bible students. “We start every single class with a devotional and prayer time,” she said. She said she now intentionally plays Christian songs encouraging letting go of fear and giving it to God. And with each day’s prayer requests, her Bible classes also pray for protection and a safe day.
“They hear that the Lord is with us in our fear. And they are hearing that we are praying that God keeps us safe,” Gutierrez said.
Unfortunately, the world has changed, she added. “It’s not ifsomeone comes, it’s whensomeone comes. But we can’t live our lives in fear. We just have to trust in the Lord and keep going and be there for each other.”
El Paso area public schools also increased security and provided additional counselors for their students.
TIME.com reported that extra security guards and counselors were sent to Horizon High School, the school attended by the youngest victim, Javier Amir Rodriguez. Socorro ISD also increased security and had counselors meet with each classroom to check on students. Teachers received tips on how to spot signs of trauma and grief, and were offered their own mental health services.
In a video statement released by El Paso ISD prior to the start of school, superintendent Juan Cabrera reassured parents that the district’s schools are “safe learning environments,” calling the security of students and employees, “our top priority.”
“We continue to offer monitoring and patrolling by our team of police officers who work 24 hours a day and seven days a week to keep our students safe,” Cabrera said.
Manuel Castruita, head of EPISD’s counseling and advising department, told NPR.org that during the week of professional development prior to the start of school, teachers talked through what happened and brainstormed ways to help students.
“Having a week in between before the start of the school has really helped us,” Castruita said, noting that some administrators planned to hold moments of silence for the victims the first day of school, striking a “delicate balance” of acknowledging what happened without “re-traumatizing” students.
Castruita said the district also has strong support services, thanks to partnerships with outside organizations and a number of licensed professional counselors.
EPISD’s job, Cabrera said, is “to make sure [students] are safe, happy, sound mentally and physically, and to make sure they’re prepared for learning,” which may mean discussing the shooting.
“The worst thing we can do is not let them speak or not let them talk about what’s going on,” he added.