Telling the stories of the more than 1,200 kids killed by gun violence since Parkland

East High School's Allie Kelly: "This is not a partisan project. It’s a children-should-get-to-grow-up project."

A demonstration, organized by Teens For Gun Reform, an organization created by students in the Washington DC area, in the wake of Wednesday’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Lorie Shaull)

A year ago today, a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student in Parkland, Fla., entered the school and gunned down 14 students and three adults. Not long afterward, The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom focused on guns and gun violence, began working with teen journalists to tell the stories of the lives of every young person killed by guns in the year after Parkland.

The toll: 1,200 children and young people. More than 80 were infants or toddlers.

The teen journalists wrote of a 3-year-old from New Mexico shot by his father during a custody dispute. They wrote of a 17-year-old shot while apparently fleeing another car on Colfax Avenue in Denver. They wrote of an 11-year-old shot while hunting in Alabama. The collection of these 100-word profiles, the heart of a project called ”Since Parkland,” is powerful, wrenching work. The stories can be searched by state (Colorado here) and are intended to be works in progress. The Trace, the Miami Herald, and McClatchy Newspapers built on the student journalists’ work, examining patterns in these gun deaths.

The 1,200 killed do not include youth suicides, which are harder to track. The project’s editors estimate that had they been included, the number would swell by another 900 to 1,000 young people.

Among the student journalists participating in “Since Parkland” was East High School’s Allie Kelly. Kelly, a senior, is the editor of the school’s magazine, the Spotlight. As a writer and assistant project editor, she also brought into the project six of the school’s magazine staff: Audrey Abel, Maddy Levin, Javier Boersma, Yoni Manor, Anna Bock and Ethan Hale.

In an intro to “Since Parkland,” which Kelly helped write, the teen journalists say that the project was necessary “because it speaks for those who can no longer speak for themselves …

“Children are dying. They should get to grow up. Training wheels, skinned knees. Middle school, graduation. First love, heartbreaks, faces, experiences, aspirations, even mistakes are what comprise the lives we lose every day. In telling their stories, we want to overwhelm you. We want you to feel that every child’s gun death is unacceptable.”

I talked with Kelly Wednesday night by phone. She’d just returned from New York City, where she was on hand to help with the final edits of “Since Parkland.” Our conversation is edited for clarity and brevity — Tina Griego

Photo courtesy Allie Kelly

How did you get involved in this project and what was your initial reaction to it?

I became involved over the summer. I went to Newsroom by the Bay, which is a student journalism intensive at Stanford University that’s run by Beatrice Motamedi. She ended up being the senior editor on this project, along with Akoto Ofori-Atta, who was the project director. I had the opportunity to really be with the project from the very beginning … I think there was a part of it that was really intimidating and there is a very heavy, sad weight to it.

The way [the editors] originally framed it to us is as a celebration of their lives, rather than a notice of their deaths. We are writing about a person. We are writing about a peer and, unfortunately, they were taken from us through gun violence, but it’s our responsibility to write about their life and find out as much about them as we possibly can, which is why I remember their names and I remember their hobbies and I remember their home lives. And I think that that is so much more powerful than simply writing about the way that they died.

What was the reporting process like?

We were all given a link to the Gun Violence Archive, which is an American gun violence database that had kind of bare bones raw data of a shooting incident. From there, we would do our own research and then we would look through social media. We would look through police reports, through news reports and press releases. Occasionally, we would contact families to really try to get as complete of a picture of our person as possible.

And how did you cope emotionally? It’s intense work.

I think with a project like this it’s so important not to just turn off your emotions to try to kind of preserve yourself. It’s so important to recognize ‘I am still human and this is still a person and this is still incredibly sad.’ I wrote about a 3-year-old, Owen Propes. Before I could write that, I had to take a step back. I had to take a deep breath and I had to reframe my mind as, ‘I am going to do this because it is so important that Owen’s story gets told.’ And there are times to be fully conscious of how emotionally devastating these stories are and also to find that balance of being a reporter and stepping back and looking through the facts.

There’s a part of this that, when I come across a story of a victim who lives near where I live or who is a similar age to me or who had similar interests and hobbies, there is kind of a deep knowing that in different circumstances, it could have been me. I think that that is something I carry, but I think that is something a lot of us carry. These are the stories of our peers, and we get to continue our stories and they didn’t.  

What were some of the revelations for you as you worked on this?

I am so much more educated now about the full toll of gun violence on young people in America. School shootings are, of course, top of mind. This project is called “Since Parkland,” and lockdown drills are what a lot of us can connect to most as our experience of gun violence, but as I write these stories, so many are domestic violence disputes, drive-by shootings, children who found a loose gun in the home and accidentally shot themselves. And random, horrible shootings as they are walking home from school. It’s so much more. Not to diminish school shootings because they are horrendous and they are something I think really affects my perception of safety at school, but this issue is so much bigger, so much broader than that. It is overwhelming. 

What do you want people who read these profiles to take away?

I want readers to be educated on this issue. It affects students in their classrooms, but it also affects children as they play in their front yards or as they go to the grocery store with their parents. I think really understanding the broadness and urgency of this issue. I also think it is so important that this project is by teen journalists. Who better to tell the story of this shooting generation than us who are living it, who have grown up in it and not known anything different. Student journalists, just teenagers in general, are so often not included in this conversation over gun violence in America, even though it so deeply affects the lives of young people. I would like to think that this project opens up the doors for us to be part of the conversation and to be part of thinking of ways to thoughtfully save lives in the future. And finally, that powerful storytelling is so important and can make such a difference.

This is not a partisan project. It’s a children-should-get-to-grow-up project. It’s a we-are-telling-these-stories-because-they-matter project. It’s important, and in a way it’s our responsibility and it gives us a sense of voice and power to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves.

Any particular young people whose names kept going through your head, any details that you found yourself going back to?

Owen Propes, the 3-year-old, with the blonde hair. In the picture I found he was happily stuffing his face with snacks. He comes to mind. Such a baby, just a toddler and that’s really hard. That’s really hard. And Louisa Angela Aguilar also comes to mind. She was a 15-year-old girl from Littleton … Another name is Larenzo Smith, a boy from Chicago, Ill., who died last February and he was shot while walking in his neighborhood

Some of these children and teenagers have a significant amount of information about them across family Facebook pages and local news reports, but then there are some where a name was never released. Those are the unknowns. Those are the stories left to tell.

Tina was a city columnist for the late great Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post. She left Denver for Richmond, Virginia in 2012 and learned the joys of news editing at the city’s alternative newspaper, Style Weekly, and its premiere city mag, Richmond Magazine. She was also a staff writer for the Washington Post and its Storyline public policy/narrative journalism project. She has national recognition for her reporting on immigration, education and urban poverty. Tina lives in Fort Collins with her husband and two kids. She’s a native New Mexican and prefers red over green.