Cover Stories

Trigger Warning

Preparing for gun violence has become a way of life on school campuses—the Santa Fe school district is trying a new approach

“No more losing loved ones.”

“Teach peace.”

“Stop the violence.”

These were just a few of the messages students in the wellness and social justice clubs at Santa Fe High School, Capital High School and the Academy of Technology & the Classics painted onto rocks last month during a New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence workshop. The adorned rocks now sit outside the students’ schools—one small reminder of the ubiquitous threat of gun violence hanging over today’s youth.

In 2020, gun violence became the leading cause of child deaths in New Mexico, along with an 88% increase in firearm injury-related emergency visits between 2022 and 2023 for all youth under the age of 18.

Last September, in response to several youth deaths from gun violence, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a public health emergency, and doubled down on efforts to enact gun control measures in the most recent legislative session.

While not all gun violence involving youth occur on campuses, school shootings continue across the country—10 so far this year resulting in injuries or deaths, Education Week reports. In New Mexico, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database’s interactive map, between 2018 and 2023, nine people were wounded or killed across 16 school shooting incidents in the state, including the high-profile Albuquerque incidents at Washington Middle School in 2021, in which a 14-year-old student shot and killed classmate Bennie Hargrove, age 13; and a fatal shooting last year outside of Atrisco Heritage High School as result of two 16-year-olds playing with a gun.

While Santa Fe Public Schools has not experienced on-campus gun violence, some students have been preparing for such scenarios their entire educational careers. New Mexico has required school fire drills since 1967, and lawmakers added active shooter drills to the array of required preparation in 2019, two years after two students were killed at Aztec High School in an active shooter situation. For SFPS, the 2023-2024 academic year alone has also included six school lockdowns, one of which involved a student who brought a gun to campus on Jan. 22, impacting Early College Opportunities High School and Santa Fe High.

“We take all threats seriously and will always proceed with caution so that we protect staff and students,” SFPS Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez tells SFR. “Lockdowns are practiced during the school year as one of the layers of safety; lockdowns are initiated when the threat of harm calls for one.”

Those layers of safety have been growing—and evolving—as officials look for the best ways to protect students who have grown up in the aftermath of the Columbine and Sandy Hook shootings, and youth activists and policy-makers work to change the society that has made them need that protection in the first place.


At the start of 2024, Executive Director of School Security Mario Salbidrez shared a presentation with the SFPS Board of Education outlining ongoing upgrades to security since he began his position in 2018, including: replacing contract security guards with in-house safety aides; installing security window film to block intruders; creating reunification IDs for younger students to use during evacuations; and increasing camera views by 122% throughout the schools.

Salbidrez has also implemented a new protocol known as a reverse fire drill, developed in direct response to a specific active shooter scenario in which someone who intends to cause harm falsely pulls a fire alarm and then waits for everyone to evacuate the building to open fire. Two students who orchestrated the deadliest pre-Columbine school shooting in 1998 in Jonesboro, Arkansas used this method to target their victims.

Salbidrez tells SFR the district decided to implement the reverse fire drill to address concerns about potential assailants finding “holes in our defense mechanisms. We taught our students and staff so well that when they hear a fire alarm, they’re to exit their rooms and go to a designated location. But we thought, ‘What if it’s a ruse? What if it’s not a real fire, but somebody pulled the fire alarm, what then?’ So, that’s where we came up with this reverse fire drill, and came with a guide on how to run through it, and hopefully obtain the outcome and knowledge we’re looking for.”

Santa Fe Police Chief Paul Joye says for similar reasons SFPD generally refrains from discussing tactics they would use to handle, for instance, an active shooter on campus. “Individuals who would engage in this type of behavior—we assume that they want to know how we would respond to it, so they can try to prepare for it,” Joye says.

As for the reverse fire drill, he says he thinks the need for it is unfortunate.

“I couldn’t imagine being a young child and going through this type of drill,” Joye says. “It’s hard to know how effective they are, and hopefully we’ll never have to find out how effective they are.”

For the students SFR interviewed, such preparations are commonplace.

New Mexico School for the Arts junior Deisy Jaramillo recalls too many school lockdowns and drills to count since she was in elementary school.

“It’s very scary…but at one point, you just kind of become desensitized to it, at least for me,” she tells SFR. “Here in Santa Fe, there have been a lot of school shooting threats, so it’s definitely a thing that’s in the back of my mind. There’s always kids making posts about how they’re going to shoot up Santa Fe High, and then go to NMSA. I don’t want to minimize it, but they weren’t serious. But they could do that if they wanted to.”

The new reverse fire drill, as Salbridez explains it, works relatively simply: Principals at the schools activate a fire drill and staff, who know it’s a reverse drill, behave as though it’s a normal fire drill and have their students evacuate the classroom and head toward the designated location. Approximately 45 seconds into the drill, the alarm shuts off. Once the alarm ceases, the teachers also stop their students and ask them to look around and commit where they’re standing to memory. They then return to their classrooms, count the students and start a discussion centered around the drill: “What if this fire alarm was not for a real fire? What if it was somebody trying to get students to evacuate classrooms with a bad intention? What could we have done at that moment? Where would you go?”

Such discussions are the types “we’re trying to have with these students while retaining an age-appropriateness as well,” Salbidrez says. “I understand I’m not going to have a higher-level discussion with the second-graders…we’re just trying to get them to think of what they could do.”

Jose Jesus Granillo, who has worked as a seventh and eighth grade teacher at Gonzales Community School for the past six years, tells SFR his students have thus far responded positively to the new drill.

“Our students are really good at listening to the explanations and setting that expectation,” Granillo says. “I feel they trust what we’re doing is for their overall safety. Our conversations seem to be going at a pretty mature level, as they are seventh and eighth graders.”

Alicia Dickinson, a choir and piano teacher at Capital High School, also described the drill as running “pretty smoothly,” and “a good way to handle a very bad situation.”

“The only problem is the classes that have already gotten outside—we’re supposed to lock exterior doors. So, if a class was like, ‘Alarm!’ and they jump up and they go really fast, they might not be able to get back in the building,” Dickinson tells SFR. “So, we also talked about, ‘what do you do if you’re outside, and there’s a danger outside, and you can’t get back in?’ We walked around and looked for hiding places, basically. They tell us not to tell the kids to scatter, because that’s chaos. You have to keep your kids together so you know your people are safe.”

Julio Perez, a 10th-grade student who is currently on the leadership council for the WAVE club (Wellness Ambassadors to Voice & Empower), says he became nervous after he returned to the classroom and his advisory teacher explained the reasoning behind the drill.

“That made me feel worried,” Perez tells SFR. “Like, what happens if someone would do that? I didn’t even think about that until we did [the drill]. It was kind of surprising that we had to do that.”


In recent years, drills preparing students and school personnel for potential on-campus violence have come under scrutiny for being potentially traumatizing. For instance, a drill in an Ohio high school included police officers firing blanks; one in Indiana involved shooting teachers with plastic pellets. During an un-announced drill in Florida, students were told: “This is not a drill,” upsetting students, as well as their parents, who said they received no notice, according to Florida newspaper The Ledger. “Getting a random mid-day text from my son that says ‘I love you—there is a shooter on campus’ is not the way I want to be notified of a drill,” one parent commented.

Prior to COVID-19, Santa Fe Community College conducted drills every 12 to 18 months, the most recent occurring in early 2020, in which students and staff could choose to participate as actors, playing either assailants or injured victims. The assailants use loud noises—such as slapping two-by-fours together—to simulate gunshots. Police act out their tactics for stopping the assailants, while EMS workers “tend” to the wounded. Officials say the drills double as training for SFCC faculty and security team as well as police, fire and emergency medical services, who arrive outside of the school and behave as if an active shooter is currently in the building.

SFCC Director of Safety and Security Chris Gettler tells SFR he’s been hoping to “really rejuvenate” the idea of campus-wide active shooter drills. Gettler says the school alerts the campus community ahead of time and adjusts the specifics to the drill as needed.

“There’s a sensitivity to the content,” he says. “It’s very coordinated, and the marketing and information about how the drill is going to go is very clearly detailed prior…and there’s a debriefing after to make sure everyone was comfortable with it; there were no issues with it.”

Not so, says at least one student. Destiny Krupnick, who now works as a campaign organizer for Earth Care New Mexico, was a 10th-grade student attending The MASTERS Program for grades 9-12 at SFCC and was present for one of the drills.

“It was very stressful,” Krupnick says. “Before, when I went to St. Michael’s [High School] and we had an active shooter drill, it was basically just ‘get into a lockdown position, hide, move chairs against the door,’ versus like…the sounds of guns going off…and then, if you actually did go into the hallway, there was just fake dead people laying on the floor. It was quite a graphic active shooter drill for kids to be at, in my opinion. I had no clue it was happening. I didn’t receive an email, I didn’t hear about it from my professors or MASTERS Program staffers—nobody had told me about it.”

New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence founder and Co-President Miranda Viscoli says while she can understand the motivations behind more intense drills and lockdowns, she also feels the way some schools conduct their drills can be traumatizing for students.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t be doing everything we can to keep our kids safe,” Viscoli says, “but the schools are war zones.”

New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence’s myriad programs emphasize public outreach, including workshops at schools across the state. Even those have been interrupted several times by lockdowns. Viscoli recounts one experience she had last year at a school she declined to name that went into lockdown after a man near the school was shot. When the principal announced the lockdown over the loudspeakers, she and her coworkers believed an active shooter was in the building.

“We immediately started putting old tables up against the doors, putting books in our shirts and texting our loved ones with our hands shaking…living the whole thing and watching the police driving toward the school without their sirens on, every single indicator that this was a school shooting,” she says.

Afterward, she says, when they returned to the classroom, she asked the students, “‘Are you guys OK?’ and they said it was the seventh one this year. What are our kids living through?”

The new reverse fire drills, Salbidrez says, are designed to be as non-traumatizing as possible for students.

“We want to be able to control the scenario as best as possible and be able to answer questions for them, but also, if you could imagine us trying to run this drill live, we’d have students going in every direction,” Salbidrez explains. “I’m not in the business of creating harm to our kids in trying to protect them, so we evaluate and come to the best possible deployment of a new process, and I felt that this was the best way to get them on board. Could we step it up? We can, if we ever get there. I can’t say that we ever will, but it’s definitely a consideration for next steps forward.”

Capital High teacher Dickinson agrees the district’s approach to the drill keeps students’ feelings in mind, noting that the high schools practiced the reverse fire drill first so the district could “work out the kinks” before introducing the drill to elementary and middle school students.

“This generation of young people have grown up with active shooter drills,” Dickinson says. “With high school students, they’ve been doing this their entire school career. It is second nature to them, they know what to do, they don’t worry about it and they don’t get as upset.”

But when it comes to elementary students practicing active shooter drills, Dickinson says, “It’s hard. It can be very frightening to the kids, but unfortunately, it’s a fact of life now.”

Dickinson also worked with her students at Capital on how to approach gun violence prevention advocacy in the aftermath of losing fellow student Axel Gonzales last year to both gun and domestic violence.

“What can we do in a way that’s going to be most respectful and honor his memory, but also allow students to express how they feel about losing a classmate?” Dickinson asked her students.

Capital High’s WAVE students used their workshop as a springboard for ideas about their Gun Violence Awareness week, held March 11-15, and created a “Wings of Hope” art display in addition to encouraging students to sign the Student Pledge Against Gun Violence.

Viscoli notes that letting the students lead in programs like New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence and WAVE is key to building their engagement and investment in ending gun violence in their communities.

“Here, our young people feel that there are choices they can make to keep themselves safer, and that there are definite, concrete actions they can take to prevent gun violence,” she says.

Those efforts run the gamut and include political activism. Last year, WAVE students gave presentations to state lawmakers in support of “Bennie’s Law,” which created legal penalties for “negligently making a firearm accessible to a minor,” named in honor of the murdered 13-year-old in Albuquerque. This year, students issued a statement in support of the seven-day waiting period for firearm purchases bill that has since been signed into law.

“Students are some of the biggest activists when it comes to gun safety and the initiatives that we’ve been taking,” the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, tells SFR. “They’re the ones that are organizing and coming to the legislative session and are able to have that conversation about policy and what’s important to them, and those voices are really important to me.”

Romero, who also sponsored a bill to ban gas-powered semi-automatic weapons that died in committee this year, says one of her primary motivations behind sponsoring such legislation is to make New Mexico safer for youth, a situation with which she can empathize. When she was 18 years old, she says, one of her classmates was shot in the leg by a stray bullet after a concert the two had attended in Albuquerque, and she treated his bullet wound while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

“We hope that our efforts for prevention are going to keep this from being something we have to face in Santa Fe,” says Dickinson, who sponsors Capital High’s WAVE club. “I would much rather be on the prevention side.”


Earlier this month, New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence and WAVE members distributed handouts and 50 free gun locks to adult attendees at a Santa Fe High School basketball game.

“I think one of the biggest impacts I had was distributing gun locks,” Perez says. “I felt like, giving the locks, maybe it will save a kid’s life, because sometimes on the news, there’s stories about kids accidentally using firearms because they weren’t locked.”

Viscoli says New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence’s 10-week-long workshops include films, conversations, art projects and an array of speakers from trauma room surgeons to people who have committed or been affected by gun violence. The goal, she says, is to provide youth a “broad picture” and create space for them to discuss the issue.

“A lot of them have family members who are incarcerated, a lot of them have siblings who have shot and killed somebody, a lot of them have lost loved ones,” Viscoli says. “There hasn’t been that space for them to really talk about it, which we actually found kind of shocking—that in every classroom so many kids have been affected by gun violence.”

School Shootings in the United States

The K-12 School Shootings Database created by data scientist David Riedman includes data from every school shooting—”any time a firearm has been charged on school property”—dating to 1966. Users can search the data with a variety of filters and explore myriad visualizations that show locations and characteristics of the shootings, as well as how they have increased over time.

Total deaths includes shooter deaths.

Incidents: 2,716

Victims Wounded: 2,228

Victims Killed: 808

Deaths: 1,054

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