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Mother Of Slain Daughter Offers Advice To Matthews Community

Sandy Phillips/Twitter

Sandy and Lonnie Phillips have a job that no one wants, but it’s an important one. The couple, whose daughter Jessica was killed in the Aurora, Colo. theater mass shooting in 2012, travel around the country to locations of mass shootings to comfort those in grieving communities.

The couple was featured on a recent episode of "This American Life" when they traveled to Santa Fe, Texas. Sandy comforted a former student who knew several people who died in that high school shooting.

Their organization is called Survivors Empowered. WFAE’s Sarah Delia spoke with Sandy Phillips in the wake of the Butler High School shooting that occurred earlier today in Matthews.

SARAH DELIA: Let's start with parents first. What do you say to parents who just had their child on campus or about to be on campus during a very traumatic event like a shooting? What do you say to those parents?

SANDY PHILLIPS: First of all, if their child witnessed this shooting or just was in the vicinity, trauma therapy is a must. The PTSD that is among our young people in this country who witness mass shootings or witness gun violence or are a part of gun violence — they need that help to get through that initially. And then, of course, keeping a close eye on them and how they act out because there is a lot of anger involved with PTSD.

DELIA: And what do you say to those students that might have been on campus during the time of the shooting or might have witnessed it?  What do you say to those students in particular?

PHILLIPS: Start explaining how it feels to be in a school where you should be safe and you are wondering if somebody has snuck a gun in or has a vendetta out for you or your friends. It takes away the ability to learn in a relaxed atmosphere if you are always on guard that somebody may be carrying a gun.

DELIA: Since the organization has formed how many locations have you been to, to speak to survivors and their families?

PHILLIPS: Eight since Aurora. We went to Sandy Hook, that was our first one, which was, of course, devastating for anyone to see that kind of grief when there are 6- and 7-year-old children. In fact, I was talking to one of the parents last week and I was asking them if we were going to be seeing them in Washington, D.C., for the vigil that is put on every year. And they said no, that this was the first year that they were really stepping back from everything because this was the year that their child has been gone longer than they were alive. And that was wow, I haven't thought of that. I just knew it was going to be 6 years. But for a lot of them, their child was 6 years old and that was very sobering.

We've been to Parkland, Pulse, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Santa Fe and Sutherland Springs. I think that brings us up to eight, I'm not sure. And isn't that sad that you can forget?

DELIA: Is there something, do you think, unique to a school shooting compared to other mass shootings? Are they all the same? Different?

PHILLIPS: You know, that is an interesting question my husband and I discuss this a lot. They all have the sameness in many ways often with the type of gun that is used, especially with mass shootings. The AR-15 is the most popular gun. But they are all different and unique in their own way, too.

Parkland, for example, is a very good example because Parkland the students were involved in a debate from junior high school all the way to high school so they were very aware of this issue. So when it happened to them on their campus they came out swinging. Where in Santa Fe, much more conservative, rural area people retreated into their homes and they didn't want to talk about guns and they didn't want to acknowledge that guns are part of the problem. They just wanted it to go away and let God take care of it. God helps those who help themselves and to ignore this issue is giving permission for it to happen again. It’s almost like being complicit.

Sarah Delia covers criminal justice and the arts for WFAE. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.