Notebooks, Pens and Bulletproof Backpacks: A New School Year in America

It was the beginning of another school year in America, and Brenda Valenzuela, 37, called her children into the living room to make sure they were prepared. Bella, 15, arrived with a stack of notebooks alphabetized by subject, pencils sorted by color and a binder that read: “High school — magical years!” Caleb, 11, came in wearing one sneaker, dragging a bag of football equipment and carrying a cellphone to which he’d forgotten his password.

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“What’s that smell?” Brenda asked him.

“This is the year I’m trying out cologne,” he said. “Too much?”

“Dude, way too much,” she said, and then she gestured for her children to sit down so they could go over what had become the most critical part of their back-to-school routine.

“Keep in mind that the threat can come when you least expect it,” she told them, remembering how small the shooter had looked that October morning in 2015, how he smiled as he walked into the classroom, how he aimed for the teacher’s head, fired from point-blank range and then laughed.

“You have to turn on all of your senses,” she said, thinking about the way each gunshot had vibrated in her chest, the metallic smell of blood and the pleading she could hear even now.

“Hide. Run. Escape,” she said. “No matter what happens, you make it back home.”

It had been almost eight years since the last time Brenda went back to school herself at a community college in Oregon, where on the third day of class she happened to step out into the hallway to answer a phone call as a man walked by her into the classroom with six guns concealed in his backpack. For the next four minutes, she stood outside the classroom’s clear glass windows, called 911 and tried to describe one of the worst mass shootings in history, in which 10 people were killed and eight others were wounded. “Uninjured survivor” was how a police report described Brenda that day, which had seemed true enough until she returned home to the heart palpitations, the vomiting, the PTSD, the clinical depression that caused her to lose 70 pounds, the suicide note, the six mental breakdowns, and the 26 medications prescribed to dull a constant hum of anxiety and insomnia that crested each year when her children returned to school.

There have been at least 538 more school shootings since the one she witnessed at Umpqua Community College, according to federal data. Mass shootings have increased almost every year for more than two decades, becoming such a fixture of the American school system that the trauma has turned generational. Each fall, thousands of victims and survivors send off the next wave of potential victims and survivors, and Brenda had decided that if the country was incapable of solving the problem, at least her children would be prepared.

Getting ready for bed the night before the first day of school.
Bella’s pencils, organized by color in her backpack.

“This is going to be your lifesaver,” she told them, as she handed Caleb and Bella new backpacks equipped with bulletproof shields in the rear compartment. Brenda had spent hours researching different models online and comparing ballistics tests, and now she read again from the safety manual. For protection against a single bullet from a handgun fired at 857 miles per hour: “Shield not penetrated.” For a rifle from 15 feet away: “Not penetrated.” For rounds from an AR-15: “Not penetrated.”

Caleb was starting his first year at a large middle school with standard drills to practice lockdowns and sheltering in place. Bella was going into 10th grade at Helena High, which had been the target of a threat in 2022 when a man was arrested with three semiautomatic rifles and explosive devices after telling an acquaintance he was planning an attack similar to the one at Columbine High School in 1999, in which 15 people were killed.

“Make sure you duck behind your backpack,” Brenda told them. “Cover your head and your heart.”

“Like this?” Caleb said, holding the backpack in front of his head, backpedaling and ducking away from an imaginary shooter. He tripped over his foot and stumbled into the couch as his father, Nate Dean, walked into the room.

“Don’t start the year thinking you’re about to get shot every day,” Nate said. “You’re smart. You’ll know what to do. You’re going to be fine.”

“If it was up to me, you’d be wearing a helmet,” Brenda said. “You’d be wearing a bulletproof vest, and I would home-school.”

Nate reached for her hand and felt it begin to shake. He was always monitoring her this time of year, looking for signs of the disaster that could be coming. Once, after the children went back to school in the fall, she took so many pills to numb herself that he threw her shoe box full of medications onto their roof. Last year, she left a goodbye note on Sept. 5 and disappeared until the police found her pulled over on the side of a mountain pass with a gun inside her backpack.

“All I want is for you to stay positive and for the kids to have a great year,” Nate said. “Maybe sometimes it would be easier if we just tried not to think about it.”

“All I do is try not to think about it,” Brenda said.

Bella and Caleb on their way to school.

She had gone to school that day at Umpqua Community College because she wanted to become a teacher, and she needed two more classes to complete her certification. She was a full-time student, the mother of two small children and the director of a bilingual Head Start preschool where she taught in English and Spanish. “The energizer bunny,” was how Nate had sometimes referred to his wife, until he got an emergency call that morning at work, navigated through the crowd of first responders and picked up someone who seemed almost like a stranger.

She couldn’t stand the sound of her own children yelling or crying. She had trouble making plans beyond the next minute. The trauma caused a clinical loss of memory and language skills, all but erasing her Spanish. She left her job at Head Start, gave up on becoming a teacher and rarely emerged from their bedroom for almost two years. The only time she traveled back inside a classroom was in her dreams: the harsh glow of the fluorescent lights, the people who played dead on the linoleum floor, the wooden desks they picked up and used to defend themselves, the windows and whiteboard splattered with red.

“Welcome to Helena Middle School!” the principal, Cal Boyle, was saying to her now, on the evening before the first day of school, as Brenda and her family arrived for a walk-through with all the new students. Caleb wanted to practice opening his locker and meet a few of his teachers. Brenda trailed a few feet behind him in the hallway, counting the number of windows and imagining places to hide.

“Do you feel nervous?” Caleb’s homeroom teacher asked him. “Any questions I can answer?”

“Nah, not really,” he said.

“Is this the only exit?” Brenda asked, pointing at the door. She tapped on the glass to test its strength.

“Yep. One way in and one way out,” the teacher said.

“It’s almost like being trapped,” Brenda said.

“We like having their undivided attention,” the teacher joked, but Brenda wasn’t listening. She was gripping a desk, holding her breath and staring at the door. She had mistaken the first few gunshots that morning for some kind of routine experiment coming from the chemistry lab. Her eyes registered the shooter as he began standing students up in the center of the room, teasing them, and executing them one by one, but her brain refused to catch up. More shots. More screams. None of it made any sense. She saw another woman, 59-year-old Kim Dietz, walk out of a computer lab and open the classroom door to investigate. The shooter fired at her stomach, and Kim was blown back from the doorway into the hall. She fell on her back and looked up at Brenda, and something about the fear or pain or desperation in her eyes brought Brenda’s mind into focus. She moved away from the windows. She called 911. “Active shooter! People are dying,” she screamed, and then she vomited and started to run.

“Mom, let’s go,” Caleb said. “Let’s keep moving.”

He wanted to check the cafeteria menu so he would know when it was pizza day. He wanted to talk to the band teacher about learning to play violin. Brenda followed him back into the hall and spotted the principal. She had already talked to Boyle once over the phone about her history with school shootings, and now she approached him again.

“Can we talk about the crazy scary things?” she asked.

“Sure,” he said. He led Brenda, Nate, Bella and Caleb back into his office and closed the door. “What kinds of questions do you have?”

“Well, I have a few,” she said. Her hands started trembling again as her anxieties tumbled out. “Do your students practice for these things? Are they aware? How many entries are there into the school? Is the glass bulletproof? Is there a resource officer? How are parents notified if something goes down?”

Meeting with the middle school principal, Cal Boyle, to discuss school safety.
Caleb was excited to start at a new school for 6th grade.

“OK, sure,” Boyle said, and for the next 12 minutes he answered each of her questions and patiently explained the procedures, because this was part of what it meant to be a school principal in 2023. He told her about the two monitored access points into the building each morning; and how visitors were vetted at the main office; and how every teacher was given a secret emergency code to punch into their phone if their classroom was under attack, immediately notifying the rest of the school, initiating a lockdown and alerting local law enforcement.

“It’s scary to go through all the what-ifs, but we control as much as we can,” he said. “Does that help you feel any better?”

Brenda looked at Caleb. His glasses were sliding off his nose, and he was making funny faces at his sister to get her to laugh. What Brenda loved about him on the precipice of middle school was that he still wrestled with the dog each morning, taped Hulk superhero posters to his bedroom wall, held his parents’ hands on the way to football practice and then hesitated to make tackles because he was big and he didn’t want anyone else to get hurt. He was still a child, with all the sweetness and innocence and levity she’d lost eight years ago, along with many of the other students at Umpqua. Sixteen people had survived in the immediate vicinity of the shooting. At least four said they had contemplated suicide in the years since. Two were addicted to opioids. One was in jail. One had a traumatic brain injury. And one was back inside a school and still haunted by the only question that really mattered, which also happened to be the one nobody could answer.

“Is he going to be OK?” Brenda asked. “I just want someone to tell me he’s safe.”

Brenda, Nate and their dog, Bear. The start of the school year is always hard on the family.

They drove home on two-lane roads through foothills and horse farms and up to a ranch house on the far outskirts of Helena, where they had decided to move in Brenda’s latest attempt at recovery. None of the medications had eliminated her depression or anxiety. Neither had a therapy dog, or counseling, or meditation, or a daily journal, or powerlifting, or EMDR therapy, so in 2021 they left Oregon for a fresh start in Montana. She could lie in bed and listen to the wind and the crickets at night. She could walk onto the back porch and stare at miles of uninterrupted grass and sky and watch the weather roll in, but even here, the panic attacks kept sneaking up on her.

“I can’t catch my breath,” she said, as she sat on the porch with Nate the night before school and watched lightning flash above the mountains.

“Talk to me,” he said. “Tell me what you’re feeling.”

“It’s constant panic,” she said. “It’s a tidal wave that holds you under water, and you’re only let up for a tiny bit of air before you’re pushed back down. Sometimes, it’s like: Just get it over with already. It’s like: If I could make this feeling stop for five minutes, what would that look like?”

“We know what that looks like,” Nate said. “It’s awful. It’s hell. We learned that last year.”

Back then he had been working a seasonal job as a crane operator in Seattle, driving 10 hours back to Montana each weekend to see the kids and check on Brenda. He began to notice signs in the late summer of 2022 that a breakdown might be coming: extra bottles of Brenda’s Xanax pills and mood stabilizers stuffed in kitchen drawers, her dishes piled in the kitchen, and her beloved house plants dying for lack of water. He offered to quit and move home, but they needed the money, and Brenda said she could hang on for another few months. In high school, she’d been put into a coma after a car accident and kept in the hospital for more than a year as she relearned to walk. She was strong. She was resilient. Nate convinced himself she was fine until one morning, when Brenda left a goodbye note in the house and sent him a picture of herself on the way into work in her Domino’s Pizza uniform, her eyes red, her expression desperate, her face swollen from crying as she looked into the camera with the big brown eyes that he’d fallen for 17 years earlier.

“This is how I got to work today,” she wrote. “I’m done. I can’t do all this stress. I don’t want to be in pain anymore.”

“Please call me,” Nate wrote back. He tried her number, but she didn’t answer.

“I’m driving,” she wrote. “I’m looking for a good place.”

“Please don’t,” he wrote. “Hey, I love you. Please.”

“You don’t know what it’s like.”

“Let me hear your voice. Yell at me. I don’t care. Just please answer.”

She didn’t respond, so he texted again: “Tell me about the day Bella was born.” And again: “Tell me about the day Caleb was born.” And again: “Please, I love you. Just know that.”

Her phone went straight to voice mail each time he called, so now it was Nate who dialed 911. “I need help in Helena,” he told the dispatcher. “It’s my wife. She was in a school shooting in Oregon. She’s very stressed. I don’t know. I don’t know. I love her a lot.”

The police were able to track her phone to MacDonald Pass outside Helena, where they found her dazed on medications, obstinate and combative. She fought with the officers as they pulled her out of the car. They took her to the emergency room and later to a Helena courtroom, where a judge involuntarily committed her to the state psychiatric hospital in Warm Springs. For several days, doctors evaluated her for evidence of mood disorders, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder and bipolar disorder while Brenda kept insisting on her own diagnosis: She’d left for school as a healthy and happy person one morning believing she was safe, and then she’d experienced a mass shooting — a horrific but common American trauma that had exacerbated her anxiety and also altered her brain. The doctors sent her home after a week, and she hadn’t taken any medications for a year.

In 2021 Brenda and her family left Oregon for a fresh start in Montana.
Photos in Bella’s room, including one of Brenda and Nate holding her as a newborn.

“I’m not crazy, right?” she asked Nate now, on the back porch. “You understand why I hate this back-to-school stuff?”

He put his arm around her shoulder and tried to find the right words. Together they had raised two kids who were smart, thoughtful and empathetic. He wanted to reassure both himself and his children that they were safe. He also wanted to reaffirm Brenda’s belief that the idea of school safety was itself the delusion. Sometimes, when he needed space to think, he took one of his guns and went into the woods by himself. He liked to practice scenarios of how he could respond in a mass shooting, and he pictured himself standing in Brenda’s position outside the classroom, barging through the door, aiming his gun at the shooter and hammering the trigger.

“You’re not crazy,” he said. “You didn’t ask for any of this. It’s not your fault.”

“Something happened to me,” she said.

“Right,” he said. “To us.”

Brenda watching a late summer storm from her back porch.

The night before both of her children went to school, Brenda lay awake for three hours and waited for Caleb and Bella’s alarms to go off at 6:30 a.m. She packed their lunches and wrote notes on each sandwich bag: “I’m proud of you!” “Smile.” “Have a great day!” She cooked them breakfast, but she didn’t have an appetite. She paced the kitchen and reminded them to call if they needed anything, to keep their cellphones on so she could track their locations throughout the day, and to put the rounded side of the bulletproof shield against their backs.

“I’m sorry school has to be like this,” she said. “I wish we could have fixed it for you.”

“Everything’s going to be fine, Mom,” Caleb said.

“You’re right,” she said, forcing a smile. “I’m excited for you, dude. Sixth grade. You’re going to have an awesome year.”

Nate left for work, so Brenda drove the kids. She pulled up to the high school to drop off Bella. “You look super cute,” she said, making a point, as she did every morning, to memorize Bella’s vintage blue T-shirt and her high-top black Vans, in case she needed to find or identify her later. They hugged goodbye, and then Brenda drove across the street to the middle school, where 1,500 kids were streaming into the building with all their own potential baggage — and with backpacks, duffel bags, purses and instrument cases.

“I love you, Mom,” Caleb told her, and before she could say anything more, he was hugging her and walking off with a few of his friends into school. She leaned her head against the steering wheel and checked the clock. Seven hours until pickup.

Brenda embraces Caleb on the first morning of school.
Notes Brenda left for Caleb in his lunchbox.

She turned on the radio and drove past her house to a reservoir 15 miles outside of town, where her therapist had once taken her to help her calm down. She parked next to the lake, rolled down her window and opened the location tracking app on her phone. Caleb was at school. Bella was at school. Brenda felt the wind on her face, closed her eyes and called Nate. “I think I’m actually doing OK,” she said, and then a little while later she got another call, from a number she didn’t recognize. It was the main office at the middle school, calling about Caleb. They wanted her to come right away.

“Oh no. What happened?” she asked, and she started driving as a counselor tried to explain the events of the last hours. Caleb and his friend had been talking about an upcoming drill, in which students were sometimes asked to leave behind their backpacks. Caleb explained that he always needed to keep his backpack with him. It was too important to leave behind. Another student overheard and asked why, and Caleb mentioned something about needing his backpack in case of a school shooting.

A few of his other classmates — savvy 11-year-olds born in the year of Newtown and raised in the era of Parkland, Roseburg, Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, Uvalde and dozens of others — overheard the conversation and wondered what might be inside Caleb’s backpack that was so essential for a school shooting. One reached out to a parent, who reported the concern to a teacher, and now the administration was searching Caleb’s bag as he waited in a counselor’s office. He’d tried to explain how his mother had survived a school shooting, and how the rounded side of the shield was supposed to go up against his back, until he was breaking into tears.

“Why is everyone driving two freaking miles an hour?” Brenda asked, banging her fist against the center console. “Come on. Come on already!”

She pulled up to the school and left her car in front of the entrance. She ran into the lobby, hugged Caleb and then met the principal and the counselor. They assured her that nobody was in trouble, and nobody was at fault. “A misunderstanding,” the counselor said. Everyone involved had been trying their best to feel safe in a place where safety was no longer guaranteed. Brenda had prepared her child to defend himself in a realistic scenario. Caleb had listened to his mother and held onto his backpack. The other students had seen something and then said something. Parents had alerted the school. The school had investigated a potential threat, and now that investigation was over.

These were the daily realities of the American school system, so the principal and the counselor suggested it would be best for Brenda to go home and for Caleb to stay at school. She hugged him again, walked back to her car and called Nate.

“I feel really, really bad right now,” she said.

“I know. I get it. But he’s going to be fine,” Nate said. “We just have to keep saying it: He’s going to be fine.”

“I wanted to bring him home with me,” she said. “He’s so precious. How are we supposed to just believe he’ll be fine?”

“What choice do we have?” Nate said. “It’s school.”

Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.

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