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Shooting survivor empowers students to build safer communities

TIMES PHOTO BY JAIME VALDEZ - Kristina Anderson, a victim of the Virginia Tech shooting, talks with students about how she survived at Arts & Communication Magnet  Academy's Visual & Performance Arts Center.

When Kristina Anderson was just a few years older than the group of Beaverton School District high schoolers gathered at the Arts and Communication Magnet Academy’s Performing and Visual Arts Center last week, her life changed forever.

In 2007, Anderson was a 19-year-old sophomore at Virginia Tech when a gunman barged into her French classroom and killed her teacher and a dozen of her classmates. In all, the gunman — Seung-Hui Cho, also a student at Virgnia Tech — killed 32 people and injured 17, including Anderson. She was shot three times.

“This event has touched every single part of my being,” said Anderson. “From my friends to how I think about safety and security.”

Last week, she traveled to Beaverton to speak to high school students bused from all over the district, encouraging them to be proactive in building a safe community.

Afterward, she participated in a panel discussion with mental health and law enforcement professionals, answering questions that students posed about everything from the role of guns on campuses to safety tips during crises.

“One of the main goals is for students to understand that there’s a personal responsibility, a personal role they can have in their safety,” Anderson told the Valley Times.

Anderson regularly speaks at schools, universities and law enforcement agencies across the country, and is the executive director of the Koshka Foundation for Safe Schools, dedicated to improving campus safety by empowering students.

Her visit was the kickoff to the district’s new public safety campaign, which uses the hashtag #SeeItReportItDontSpreadIt to reach students where they live — on social media. District officials hope to encourage students to report suspicious behavior without spreading dangerous rumors.

Recovering from tragedy

Anderson shared her journey of recovering from wounds which destroyed parts of her kidney and gallbladder.

“I had to relearn how to walk and how to eat,” she said.

More profound was the emotional impact the event left on her. She spent two years in counseling, learning how to work through her trauma.

Speaking to students and educating them about safety is a part of the healing process, said Anderson.

“When students take something away, it adds meaning to the work,” she said.

To this day, she steels herself against loud noises.

Safety efforts, mental health awareness

Anderson works with schools, law enforcement and companies on prevention and response efforts.

During her talk, she stressed the importance of signing up for email and text notifications from a school district or college’s public safety office. Two hours before entering her building, the shooter at Virginia Tech had already killed two people in a dorm.

While the shooter gave her class no time to prepare, Anderson shared what other classrooms in the building did to protect themselves, including using a table as a barricade.

“You have to have a personal plan for your safety. Think about your exits when you enter a room. Think about where heavy objects and places to hide are,” she said.

When law enforcement arrives, Anderson told students, don’t hold up anything that might look like a gun.

She also stressed the importance of paying attention to troubling signs of mental disturbances and reporting them.

“Individuals go down a pathway towards violence,” said Anderson. “People can intervene when they seen suspicious signs.”

The earliest intervention, she said, is to reach out to people who seem isolated.

“If you just reach out and show kindness ... Happy people do not commit these acts,” she said.

Anderson said that she did not want to scare students, but instead empower them to be agents of change before and during a crisis.

“You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond,” she said.

Building a safer community

The Beaverton School District is working toward creating a systemized tip-line and standard procedure guidelines for crises.

“We’re reaching out to schools to equip students and staff to be the very first responders,” said Kevin Sutherland, director of the district’s public safety office.

Student resource officers on school campuses, said panelists, are a crucial component of public safety.

“They’re much more than just law enforcement,” said Lisa Bates, a mental health professional on the panel. “They build relationships with kids.”

Holistic approaches to improving mental health and wellbeing range from the district’s Clothes Closet to the availability of free and reduced lunches, said Sutherland.

For Anderson, every impact she has on student empowerment and district safety policy is an immeasurable victory.

“I’m definitely on a survivor’s journey and I definitely want to make sure (Virginia Tech) is never forgotten, and that we honor their lives by keeping others safe, which I think is a hopeful ambition,” she said.