Youth-led groups reach out to Oxford students to 'grieve, heal, grow'

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Oxford — At 12:51 p.m. on Nov. 30, Ava Wilson sent her mother, Laura, a message saying, “I love you.” She sent another to her brother, asking, “Are you okay? I need you to answer.”

The 17-year-old hid inside Oxford High School while a fellow student allegedly killed four teenagers and injured six others and a teacher. Wilson said what she experienced that day changed her forever.

“My classmates and I were never supposed to see the look on my teacher’s face when we heard the shooting,” said Wilson. “I don’t want to be afraid. I don’t want to miss my friends. And never did I think this would happen here, but it did.”

Wilson joined gun violence survivors, educators and students Sunday at a community healing event at Centennial Park in downtown Oxford. People arrived from Oxford and other cities in Michigan and nearby states to honor the lives of the shooting’s four victims: Hana St. Juliana, 14, Tate Myre, 16, and Madisyn Baldwin and Justin Shilling, both 17.

Sarah Schiller sits with her daughter, Natalie Schiller, 17, Gina Bitkowski, 18, Ava Wilson, 17, and Barrett Dolata, 17, all students at Oxford High School, during a community healing and building event at Centennial Park Sunday.

The event, which was focused on offering mental health resources and resources to the Oxford community and others who were affected by the shooting, was organized by the Michigan chapter of March for Our Lives, a youth-led organization dedicated to gun violence prevention, and the Detroit Area Youth Uniting Michigan (DAYUM), a youth-led social and economic justice organization.

A line-up of speeches was followed by an opportunity to share thoughts and culminated in exercises provided by mental health and trauma professionals.

Sarah Schiller’s biggest fear was always that the sirens she often heard while walking through her neighborhood would be responding to Oxford High School, which her children attended and she could see from her home.

As a teacher in her first year on the job in 1999, she remembers being terrified of going to school after news of the Columbine High School massacre rippled across the country from Colorado.

That fear returned when her children were in elementary school in 2012 and 26 people, 20 of whom were children aged 6 and 7 years old, were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

“Those fears became reality on Nov. 30,” said Schiller through tears.

Oxford High School student Ava Wilson, 17, speaks during a community healing and building event at Centennial Park in Oxford.

Ethan Crumbley, a 15-year-old student at the school, faces murder, terrorism and other charges that could bring life in prison. His parents, Jennifer and James Crumbley, have been charged with four counts each of involuntary manslaughter. Each charge carries the penalty of up to 15 years in prison.

March for Our Lives Michigan state director Zoey Rector-Brooks saw the event Sunday as an opportunity for the communities touched by the shooting to learn about resources available to them.

“We figured that this would be the perfect event to make sure that people are getting (mental health) resources and can come together as a community to grieve, heal and grow together,” said Rector-Brooks, 19, and a freshman at the University of Michigan.

The organization uses several approaches in its work, according to its other state director, Jayanti Gupta, 16, with a focus on grassroots organizing to influence legislation and public opinion regarding gun violence.

“As a high school student myself, it was really sad, but also really powerful to be here today and have my experiences validated,” said Gupta, a high school senior in Troy. “To have my fear of being the next statistic validated.

“I think that was our main thing to let folks know that they're not alone. And there's a whole community of people there to support them along the way.”

Some of that support comes from the Mental Health and Wellness Center and the Family and Mental Wellness Lab at Wayne State University, which since Nov. 30 have been providing in-person and telehealth therapeutic services to people in Metro Detroit who have been affected by the Oxford High shooting, according to Dr. Erika Bocknek, a professor of Educational Psychology at the university. Services include individual and family counseling.

Leah Porter, a third grade teacher at Wilcox Elementary and the 2021-2022 Michigan Teacher of the Year talks about the pain and grief being felt by all affected.

“The kids we’ve spoken to are having a very wide range of feelings, and their feelings are changing all the time,” said Bocknek. “They're experiencing grief and loss, then the next day they might be feeling really angry. And then there are some days where they’re kids and I think they're just not sure what to feel.”

In addition to direct counseling to people who seek it out, Bocknek and other counselors at the center are working with the Mala Child and Family Institute in Plymouth to develop a free text service where they "send out messages of support and healing" as well as information about trauma response on a weekly or semi-weekly basis.

“We’re going to try to share out some information for people … give people a bridge if they notice that their reaction or their feelings have become outside of what they can manage themselves,” said Bocknek.

“There are a lot of signs of trauma response that people may not be aware of. Loss of sleep, excessive worry over things that are unrelated, that kind of physical hypervigilance you can feel in moments that might surprise you.”

One of the speakers at the Sunday event, Jody Job, discussed the trauma, and commended the Oxford High studentsfor how they were handling the shooting aftermath. Among them is her son, Cam, a senior at the school.

People are welcomed by March For Our Lives organizers.

“Through this devastating tragedy, we’ve seen you protect one another, support each other and mourn your friends with grace,” said Job, who is a family counselor and has lived in Oxford for 20 years.

Discussing the phrase “Oxford Strong” which has adorned businesses, roads, homes and social media posts since the shooting, Job said strength was important, but reminded the audience that its absence was acceptable too.

“It’s OK not to feel strong,” said Job. “It’s OK  to feel pain, fear and sadness. It’s also OK to hang out with your friends, to laugh and show love when you feel like it.

“... Collectively, let's make sure that Oxford always remembers these four beautiful souls who touched our hearts so much while they were here, much, much too briefly with us on this earth.”