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Mattoon High School students learning to heal one year after shooting

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Mattoon School Security 08/10/18 (4)

The words 'Mattoon Strong' and the Green Wave logo are shown outside at Mattoon High School as the school year began in August.

MATTOON -- On Sept. 20, 2017, a student brought a gun to the Mattoon High School cafeteria in an attempt to shoot another student and potentially more.

Now, a year later, the halls twist the same; however, students are walking throughout the school as different people. And many are hoping to heal and forget about the events of that day leading into today (Thursday).

At this point, the chaos of that day is not as hard to think about for some of these students. Rick Wright said for him and other students he knows, enough time has passed.

"Overall, it's not that hard to think about anymore," Wright said. "Enough time has passed and we are able to see our surroundings in a new light."

Wright, a sophomore at the high school, was in the cafeteria at the time. He remembered the bangs that, for a second, were thought to be balloon pops while he was playing a mobile game with his friends. He remembers running for the back doors toward the football field. And he remembers running toward nearby homes with other students.

But Wright said his story and other stories from that day can now be shared without making as deep an emotional cut. For him and people he knows, the incident only comes up on occasion.

Bianca Beltran, a junior, agreed with the sentiment. She said a majority don't think much of that day anymore, especially the freshmen. However, the scars remain.

"There are still scars, but they're kind of the scars that you can hide, that don't come out every day," she said.

For Beltran, the reaction can still be visceral at times. Beltran was outside the cafeteria at the time of the shooting, and similar noises still trigger a response, albeit "once in a blue moon," she said. Most recently, she remembered jumping at the sound of a door slam on the second day of class.

In those moments, she said, she simply tries to collect herself and move on with the day.

Alex Seymour, a sophomore who was around the corner from the cafeteria on that day, said these noises still make an impact on her life as well. Over the summer, Seymour remembered dropping to the ground at the sound of a confetti cannon going off at a concert.

The impact of those seconds in school when the shooting occurred is still felt. Seymour said the school and its students are healing, though.

"Something like that, a traumatic event, you can't really get over," Seymour said. "I would say there has been recovery. I don't get as frazzled with loud noises...it doesn't feel as fresh."

The differences seem to lie in how to heal, though.

Throughout the course of the year, the school and the community have started campaigns in an effort to show support, to promote togetherness, or to give back to their community in positive ways. And in that vein, students will be going out across the area, including into Charleston, doing community service work today (Thursday) as part of the Mattoon Green and Gold Day.

All of the students will be sent out to various sites to do some community service work. Some of the work will include:

  • Planting green and gold chrysanthemums along Broadway Avenue
  • Washing cars, organizing gifts for patients and putting together dental kits at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center
  • Cleaning up the Coles County Fairgrounds in Charleston
  • Presenting lessons on kindness and giving back to kindergarten and first-grade children at Riddle and Williams Elementary schools

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Seymour and Wright said they are excited by the opportunity. Wright sees it as a chance to help out those who supported him.

"They helped us on this, so we are helping them on this day," Wright said.

Wright will be performing and assisting seniors downtown as part of the Green Wave Singers.

"I am excited to turn over a new leaf," Seymour said.

Seymour said also it is also a good chance to get out of the building on that day "so we won't have to sit there and relive it."

Seymour will be organizing clothes in a transition closet at Eastern Illinois University for Spectrum, otherwise known as the Gay-Straight Alliance.

On the other hand, Beltran said she and others she knows wish the day would've been treated like any other, without any special attention paid to the one-year anniversary.

"We want to live a normal life," she said. "We want to go back to how it was before... We have to accept that we went through it... but we want to be treated like those teenagers again."

Mattoon High School shooting 2

Police and other officials gather in front of Mattoon High School on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, after a shooting incident in the school cafeteria.

For Beltran, the service day and other such community-building campaigns associated with that day like #MattoonStrong, however beneficial, dually serve as an unwanted reminder of the events of Sept. 20, 2017.

The shooting made a mark on the students, not more so evident than in how they interact with each other. Wright said the students are more attentive to each other and aware of things like bullying.

"We have been able to share an experience that affected us," he said.

Beltran explained students are now taking more proactive roles in other students' lives.

For Seymour, the shooting ignited a passion for activism in whatever form that takes. She said it taught her to "speak up" for whatever she believes in. Seymour was notably one of the students who led a walkout as part of a national protest for changes in gun laws.

Wright said he grew from that experience. The student body grew.

School officials did not respond to requests for comment on this story.


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Contact Jarad Jarmon at (217) 238-6839. Follow him on Twitter: @JJarmonReporter

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Jarad Jarmon is a reporter for the JG-TC. He covers the city of Charleston, Eastern Illinois University, Mattoon schools and the Regional Office of Education.

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