For Oxford, a never-ending nightmare follows a mass shooting ⋆
Students Demand Action sent orange cords for seniors to wear at Oxford High School’s graduation ceremony this year. The color orange represents gun violence survivors. | Photo courtesy of Marisa Prince.
Oxford is not OK.
Parents, community members and students have said that repeatedly. They said it in interviews for this story; they’ve described their pain during school board meetings; they’ve told school administrators and mental health counselors and the media.
It’s a phrase, or a variation of it, that has surfaced time and again in the year and a half since a mass shooting killed four students at Oxford High School: I am not OK. My children are not OK. My family is not OK.
We are not OK.
“Kids are not emotionally well; families are not emotionally well,” said Brian Cooper, who has four children in the Oxford school district, including two high school students who survived the Nov. 30, 2021, shooting.
Often, there comes a question that follows this phrase: Is anyone listening? Does anyone hear that Oxford is hurting?
As the second class to survive the mass shooting prepares to graduate on Thursday, 534 days after a 15-year-old killed four of his classmates and wounded seven other people, parents, students and community members describe feeling isolated, ignored and frequently gaslit by a world, and specifically the Oxford school district, that often insists they move on.
“I think what people in Oxford want people in the state of Michigan to know and understand is when something like this happens, everyone is changed forever,” said Marisa Prince, who lives in Oxford, has three students in the school district, and was neighbors with one of the students who died in the shooting, 14-year-old Hana St. Juliana.
A mural in Oxford, Michigan. | Photo by Anna Gustafson
The St. Juliana family, including Hana’s sister, Reina, who is graduating from Oxford next week, still lives next door to Prince.
“You never feel better about it,” Prince said. When there’s sirens in our town now, people panic and freeze. You go straight back to that day. Don’t take for granted that you can live your days and live a normal life and walk past your neighbor’s house and know something horrible hasn’t happened to them.”
The pain, Prince said, doesn’t end. Nov. 30, 2021, is forever seared into memory: the teenagers – St. Juliana; Tate Myre, who would have graduated this year; Madisyn Baldwin; and Justin Shilling – whose futures were taken from them, the parents who lost their children, the students who armed themselves with scissors, a tape dispenser and a hockey stick they found in a classroom where they waited, their eyes fixed on a doorknob, to see if their 15-year-old classmate armed with a semi-automatic handgun would appear in the doorway.
“It’s changed my kids in a way where they won’t be able to come out of this haze they’re in until they’re in their 20s,” Cooper said.
These experiences, and the ongoing trauma and grief among students and their families, however, are not being honored by the school district, survivors, parents and other community members said.
As Thursday nears, high school and district leadership have denied seniors’ requests to wear orange cords – their color a symbol of gun violence survivors and awareness – at their upcoming graduation ceremony.
Students Demand Action, which is a part of the national gun safety organization Everytown, originally received a request from about 175 Oxford High students – a little less than half the graduating class – for the orange cords, which the group sends at no cost to gun violence survivors and gun safety advocates across the country. After news about the cords spread, Students Demand Action sent enough of them to cover the entire graduating class that numbers just over 400 people.
Prince is now distributing those to any student that wants one – and she said she’s fielding nonstop requests from both Oxford students and graduating seniors in neighboring districts, as well.
Owen Hillary, who survived the mass shooting at Oxford, graduated while wearing orange cords in 2022. | Photo courtesy of Heather Hillary
A few students wore orange cords to the Oxford High School graduation ceremony last year and were never barred from doing so. This year, however, far more students knew that they could request the accessory to represent being survivors of gun violence, and they asked the school for permission to wear them at the May 18 graduation ceremony. To their surprise, high school administrators told them no – and that was followed by Oxford Community Schools Superintendent Vickie Markavitch saying the same.
Markavitch, Oxford High School Principal Dacia Beazley, and communications representatives for both the high school and the district did not return repeated requests for comment for this story.
“It seems like so often when the kids try to memorialize what happened, they’re met with obstacles,” said Heather Hillary, whose son, Owen, survived the mass shooting and wore orange cords from Students Demand Action to his graduation ceremony last year. “I don’t understand the constant obstacles. Why are we wired to say no? I don’t understand what it hurts to say yes. I see all the pain it’s causing by saying no.”
At an Oxford school board meeting on Tuesday evening, Markavitch briefly addressed the cords and said the district was creating its own “navy blue and gold honor cords” that would be presented to all students graduating this year, as well as those who graduated last year and students who will graduate in 2024 and 2025 – essentially everyone who survived the mass shooting.
This year’s cords, made up of Oxford’s school colors, will include pictures of Tate Myre, who was killed in the mass shooting and would have graduated this year, and Daphne Beethem, an Oxford senior who died April 13, the superintendent wrote in an email that parents shared with the Advance.
“Our seniors this year would like and really deserve some special recognition,” Markavitch said during the Tuesday school board meeting. “They’ve achieved their diploma under challenges we would hope no child would have to overcome.”
Markavitch, who began her job as superintendent in January, went on to cite “tradition” and “other agendas” as the reasons behind not permitting the orange cords.
“You have a tradition here in Oxford, and your tradition is your graduation ceremony has been focused solely on students and their accomplishments,” the superintendent said. “You’ve not had other agendas or other topics really come into that ceremony.
“I was not comfortable setting precedent with approving anything that might open the door to bringing those other agendas to the graduation ceremony and therefore eroding the tradition that you’ve had,” Markavitch continued. “Precedent has legal implications, as we all know.”
The superintendent wrote to a parent in an email provided to the Advance that only pre-approved cords, tassels, gowns, and hats may be worn by graduates during the ceremony.
“Without these controls, graduation wear could span all kinds of political, personal and special interest agendas,” Markavitch wrote.
Marisa Prince, an Oxford parent who is distributing orange cords to graduating seniors. | Courtesy photo
‘Our trauma is not a political statement’
For parents, survivors and advocates, however, it’s not the students who are being political. The students want to wear a symbol that represents what they have gone through – and what they continue to go through: They are teenagers who survived a mass shooting that killed four of their friends and forever changed their lives.
“Where this became political was when you took away their voice,” said Mair Bedford, whose daughter wore orange cords to her graduation last year. “I don’t think it’s a partisan issue to want to come home from school every day.”
There’s a sea of reasons as to why students want to wear the cords, those interviewed by the Advance said, from a desire to advocate for an end to the gun violence that kills about 1,200 Michiganders and about 40,600 Americans every year to wanting a symbol of both their pain and their perseverance.
That orange piece of fabric says to the world: I am still here.
“It’s important to acknowledge these kids are all survivors of trauma, and that’s trauma they’re going to carry with them for the rest of their lives,” Bedford said. “To not allow them that badge of survivorship seems extremely short-sighted and rather heartless.”
You never feel better about it. When there’s sirens in our town now, people panic and freeze. You go straight back to that day. Don’t take for granted that you can live your days and live a normal life and walk past your neighbor’s house and know something horrible hasn’t happened to them.
– Marisa Prince, an Oxford parent who is distributing orange graduation cords to students
Chalmers Fitzpatrick, who has two children who survived the Oxford shooting, shared a similar sentiment.
“The kids have been through so much,” Fitzpatrick said. “There are very few outlets to express yourself, and everyone has different levels of being able to talk about, or not talk about, what happened. An orange cord is a symbolic thing; it’s a very simple thing to do. Even if a kid isn’t comfortable talking about it, they can stand together in solidarity and wear an orange cord.”
In other words, those interviewed by the Advance said, the cords symbolize that, in the days following the mass shooting, they have held their friends and family tight; they have studied and stayed up all night writing papers and gotten into college; they have continued to get out of bed every day and face a world that has left them with a grief that often takes their breath away.
And they have done all of this while living with the depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder emanating from the shooting; while mourning the friends they will never see again; and while advocating for the gun safety legislation that was recently signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“Our trauma is not a political statement,” Students Demand Action said on social media in response to the district’s decision regarding the orange cords. “We #WearOrange to honor survivors & our classmates whose futures were stolen from them.”
It is this idea – that somehow the students’ pain and grief is political – that is infuriating to survivors and their families. It’s a concept that also has spread past the school district located in an area that’s sent both Democrats, including Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), and Republicans, such as Rep. Josh Schriver (R-Oxford), to the state Legislature.
Meggan Johnson, the mother of a student, Maddie Johnson, who survived the shooting, said she recently submitted a request to the Village of Oxford for a proclamation to declare June 2 to 4 to be “Wear Orange Week.” The proclamation would be part of a series of “Wear Orange” events held across the country to spread awareness about gun violence.
Maddie Johnson, a former Oxford High School student and current co-vide president of No Future Without Today, at the End Gun Violence Michigan press conference in Oxford, Michigan on Jan. 18, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson
That request, Johnson said, was rejected. The Village of Oxford did not respond to a request for comment.
“Wear Orange would amplify survivor voices and recognize survivors of gun violence,” Johnson said. “Being that this community had four children that were taken due to gun violence, I was surprised my request was denied. It’s disheartening.
“Maybe tragedy makes people feel uncomfortable, but we need to recognize these survivors,” Johnson continued, adding that the proclamation’s rejection is akin to the school district not permitting students to wear orange cords.
“I feel like these kids have been silenced constantly,” she said. “… We need to honor our survivors and our lost children in this community. This is something our family, and particularly our children, will never get over.”
Maddie Johnson, who has previously described to the Advance how she had to “run for her life” during the shooting and lost one of her best friends, Madisyn Baldwin, in the Oxford shooting, said the decision to ban students from wearing the orange survivor cords is emblematic of a school district that she feels frequently turns its back on students by not permitting them to fully express their grief.
“I’ve been extremely disappointed in the school’s response to everything after the shooting,” said Johnson, who’s now the vice president of No Future Without Today, an anti-gun violence organization that Oxford students formed in the wake of the shooting. “This [the district banning the orange cords] was really frustrating for me, and I know students are very, very upset about this.”
Olivia Upham – an Oxford High alumna whose brother, Keegan, was good friends with Myre and is graduating this year – shares Johnson’s anger.
“With the orange cords, I can’t say I’m surprised by the district’s response, but that’s not to say I’m not deeply disappointed,” she said. “We’ve felt from day one in the aftermath of the shooting that the district has not prioritized or listened to the students and survivors. This is a manifestation of that.
“When the orange cords came in the mail for my brother, he was so emotional,” Upham continued. “Someone recognized his experience with gun violence. He lost a very close friend that day. He felt seen.”
Now, however, that has changed, Upham said. The students being denied the ability to wear the orange cords means “these kids aren’t being seen at all.
“I really worry for their psychological health and the prospect of their healing when they’re being told that their healing and their experiences that day [of the shooting] comes last on the district’s priorities,” Upham said.
It seems like so often when the kids try to memorialize what happened, they’re met with obstacles. I don’t understand the constant obstacles. Why are we wired to say no? I don’t understand what it hurts to say yes. I see all the pain it’s causing by saying no.
– Heather Hillary, whose son, Owen, survived the mass shooting and wore orange cords from Students Demand Action to his graduation ceremony last year
While survivors and their families said there’s a deep need to honor the students who died in the shooting, they have mixed feelings as to whether the navy blue and gold cords that the district will provide to students does that.
“For the district to come up with this too-little-too-late gesture is disrespectful,” Upham said.
Maddie Johnson said she has “a lot of feelings about” the district-issued cords.
“I feel like they’re trying to paint everything blue and gold,” she said. “The ‘Oxford Strong’ statement was fine at first for me, but it’s felt like having to go back [into the building] my senior year after it [the shooting] happened, the way I was treated, it felt like some in the district were trying to act like nothing had happened.
“The Oxford strong phase turned into that – into we’re strong because we overcame this, but not all of us did overcome it,” Johnson continued. “There are people who are still struggling, and they’re refusing to acknowledge that. ‘Oxford strong’ bothers me a lot.”
The phrase “Oxford Strong” became ubiquitous following the shooting, emerging on signs throughout the town. But students, parents and community members said it became something of a silencer for students who wanted to talk about their pain, as well as about gun violence and efforts, including legislation, to curb that violence.
“The ‘Oxford Strong’ is don’t ask any questions and keep pushing forward,” Cooper said. “It’s really damaging to these kids. And not just the kids, the parents, too.”
A sign outside Oxford High School. | Anna Gustafson
‘There was nobody’
Many of those who spoke to the Advance for this story said they’ve long wanted someone from the school district to stand up and say: Here’s what happened on the day of the shooting, and we are sorry for your pain.
That, survivors and their families said, has never come.
“We wondered, ‘Who’s going to stand up and lead us in this recovery and help lift us up? And there was nobody,” Cooper said. “They [district leaders] were so traumatized that no one was in the position to do that. The silence was deafening.”
Instead of rejecting students’ requests for a permanent memorial inside the high school’s main building that would include photos of the students who died in the mass shooting or holding meetings focused on lawsuits and not mental health, high school and district leadership should have been consistently reaching out to those in the school and community who are struggling, parents said.
“Part of what I’d like to see is a recognition that kids are not emotionally well, as well as families, and advocate for where they might be able to seek out additional support,” Cooper said.
Where this became political was when you took away their voice. I don’t think it’s a partisan issue to want to come home from school every day.
– Mair Bedford, whose daughter wore orange cords to her graduation from Oxford last year
Following the shooting, survivors and their family members said there quickly emerged a narrative that they should move on from the shooting and speak of Oxford as it existed before four people died: a small, quiet, woods-filled enclave where football games, not gun violence, dominate the local headlines.
But Oxford is not the same. Children, their families and community members are struggling with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder emanating from the shooting.
There are students who have been unable to return to the building where they saw their friends die. Those who have returned every day walk down the hallways they remember being filled with blood. Parents eating an apple with a paring knife find themselves thinking of how they could use that utensil to protect themselves if a mass shooter appeared in their doorway. Wherever they go, those who survived the shooting and their families search for the exits they could use to run from someone wielding a gun.
“Oxford is not OK,” Prince said. “There is a lot of pain here, and trauma. What happened is not normal, and we won’t accept it as a normal part of life. That’s where the orange cords come in. This is something that should never have happened. These kids [who died] should still be here.”
Oxford and Michigan State University students speak at a press conference demanding gun control legislation on Feb. 20, 2023, one week after a mass shooting on the campus of MSU. (Andrew Roth/)
But Hana St. Juliana, Tate Myre, Madisyn Baldwin, and Justin Shilling are not here. And many in the community said healing from that feels impossible to do so right now – in part because they say there’s a narrative being forced upon them that they need to move on from the shooting without ever fully grappling with the violence that ripped their lives apart.
“My healing, my family’s healing, my community’s healing, students’ healing would be light years beyond what it is now had the district handled all of this differently,” Upham said.
Cooper said “Oxford can’t even see a certain percentage of their students are just bodies in the building, going through the motion of trying to get out.”
Once the students graduate, Cooper said he hopes, “they are able to take a breath they haven’t been able to take for 15 months.
“I hope once they leave that school parking lot,” he said, “they just go.”
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authored by Anna Gustafson
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