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School Shooting Memorials, A Uniquely American Phenomenon

by Maureen Cain.

Inspired by the El Paso Walmart shooting where families were shopping for school. Aug 2019

When I was an art teacher back in the 90s, one of my 8th grade students died by suicide with a sawed-off shotgun and one of my 7th graders was shot in the abdomen by a fellow student. These incidents were uncommon thirty years ago, but we all know that today gun violence happens at schools in the U.S. every day.

Five years ago a 19-year-old boy took his AR-15 and Uber-ed to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and murdered 17 people. In one of the classrooms where he killed two students, Ms. Schamis was teaching a lesson on combatting hate in her Holocaust History class. After the shooting, investigators found ammunition magazines that the shooter had painted with swastikas. As someone who also paints ammunition, this detail sticks with me.

I went to Parkland to photograph the site of the shooting on a very humid day about six months after it happened. There was a memorial set up in front of the school where I took the photo below.

Parkland, FL. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Shooter killed 17 people and injured another 17. February 14, 2018

Before Parkland, the shooting at Columbine High School had been the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history. What many people don't know is that the massacre at Columbine was intended to be a bombing more than a shooting. In addition to guns, the two high school boys had a total of 99 explosives including pipe bombs, carbon dioxide cartridges filled with gunpowder, Molotov cocktails and propane tanks converted to bombs. They were too young to purchase weapons themselves, so they had a friend buy firearms for them at a gun show.

Twenty years after the shooting, I visited Columbine and took the photo below. This is the only picture in my collection of 100+ images where the painted casings are not in focus. I wanted to spotlight the name on the front of the building.

Columbine High School where two teen boys killed 13 people and wounded 21 others. April 1999

School shootings, as we were reminded this week, also happen on college campuses. In my hometown of Tucson, there have been multiple shootings at the University of Arizona. I'm not picking on the U of A here; college-level shootings happen across the country. I'm highlighting this school because most of my family -- including my daughter, my son, my sister, my brother and my mother -- are either UA alumni or current Wildcats. In 2002, at the College of Nursing, a shooter killed three of his professors and then killed himself. In February 2021, student Forrest Beckett Keys was shot and killed near the garage on Cherry Avenue after a verbal altercation on the street.

Just a few months ago, a former student shot and killed a professor in the Department of Hydrology. My niece was in class in a neighboring building when she got an active shooter text alert. Her professor got the same alert, heard the sirens, and continued teaching.

Tucson, AZ. Site where professor Thomas Meixner was shot and killed. Oct 2022

Communities have set up memorials at many of the schools I've photographed. Memorials for teachers and students killed on campus are a uniquely American phenomenon that we've inexplicably normalized. I've seen too many of these memorials and, whether it's the $1.5 million memorial park behind Columbine High School or the pop-up memorial decorated with hand-painted stones in Parkland, they all rattle me. I just wish they weren't a thing.

Marysville, Washington. Site of school shooting. Oct 2014
Behind the scenes at school memorials. Top row Parkland. Bottom row Columbine

Maureen Cain

Artist & Speaker

Gun violence data from Gun Violence Archive.

You can view more photos at United States of Ammunition.

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