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“It was going to happen eventually”: A popular lunchtime spot for Boulder students is now marred by gun violence

For Fairview High students, King Soopers on Table Mesa Drive was a “go-to place” to hang out with friends. Now, they wonder if they’ll ever feel safe there again.

Kristin Jeong, Fairview High School Sophomore, stands for a portrait on Thursday, April 1, 2021, in front of the chain link fence surrounding the King Soopers grocery where a gunman took the lives of 10 people on March 22, 2021. 3600 Table Mesa Drive, Boulder, CO. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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Before COVID-19, the sound of the midday bell at Fairview High School often cued Kristin Jeong to get ready to run. She had friends to meet and a crowd of classmates to beat down the street to grab a bus seat.

Kristin, a sophomore, would regularly beeline to the RTD bus stop in front of the south Boulder school, where students waited to board the 206, competing for a seat before the bus reached capacity. Their destination was just a 10-minute ride away: the King Soopers on Table Mesa Drive where 10 people were shot to death by a gunman last week. 

A crime scene has replaced the spot where students once flocked with friends, where they sipped on Refreshers from the Starbucks inside, roamed the aisles in search of sushi, chips and Gatorade, and got a reprieve from their schoolwork. And the parking lot they used to parade across without a second thought now is guarded by a chain link fence, woven top to bottom with bouquets of flowers from the community.

The shooting in Boulder has marred a rite of passage as important to students as getting their driver’s license and going to prom: the freedom of being able to venture off campus for lunch. 

And return to school alive.

For Fairview High School students, such an enormous tragedy so close to home initially shocked them, even as the mass shooting felt like just one more in a long list. They have spent so much of their childhoods watching the same kinds of catastrophic moments unfold near home and in other states. They learned where to hide or how to escape if gunfire were ever to erupt in their own classrooms. They’ve watched peers across the country participate in vigils and make calls for action after shootings at schools and other public places, with some adding their own voices to the pleas for change.

When mass shootings become normal

Kristin, 16, said she was surprised that a mass shooting happened nearby, but part of her had almost come to accept its inevitability.

“There was a lot of talk about how it was surprising but it shouldn’t have been because it’s been so common recently,” Kristin said. “It definitely was a surprise, but to an extent it was going to happen eventually.”

With each mass shooting, the shock of yet another act of gun violence diminishes, she said.

“It’s almost normal in a way, which is unfortunate, but it’s just the reality of what’s happening nowadays,” said Kristin, who also sometimes shopped at the store with her mother or went to the Starbucks with her family.

Her classmate Marilynn Su, who lives less than a mile from King Soopers, recalls her emotional response to the shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch in 2019 that killed one student and wounded eight others. She knew how awful it was, but her reaction waned quickly.

That “feels disgusting because the loss of life in that way is so awful and to have that feeling dissipate so quickly just feels awful,” Marilynn, 15, said. 

She sees those fleeting feelings as a symptom of a steady drumbeat of mass shootings throughout her life.

“I think it’s forced a lot of people my age to come to terms with harsh realities,” the sophomore said.

FULL COVERAGE

See all of The Sun’s coverage of the Boulder King Soopers shooting.

But with Colorado’s latest mass shooting taking place right in her neighborhood and at a place that her family has shopped for groceries since she was born, her emotions continue to weigh on her.

Marilynn learned about the shooting while visiting Gateway in western Colorado with her mother over spring break. The reality didn’t sink in for her until they returned to Boulder. Even seeing a speed limit sign indicating drivers have entered Boulder brought Marilynn to the verge of tears.

“Seeing that made it so much more real to me in my mind,” she said.

Temporary fencing around the Table Mesa King Soopers store in Boulder where 10 people were killed on March 22, 2021, has become a place for mourners to post memorials and protest signs. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Marilynn hasn’t gone to the memorial site at King Soopers that has continued to collect flowers, crosses, candles and hand-written signs from community members in mourning remembering the victims, including Denny Stong, a 2019 graduate of Fairview who worked at the store. It’s difficult to think about confronting a place that was such a fixture in her life and is now at the center of tragedy. But she knows she’ll walk down the aisles of the grocery store again one day.

“It’s definitely going to be hard and I know I’m probably going to cry, but I feel a certain obligation to go,” Marilynn said, adding that she wants to honor the memories of those who died.

“A mass shooting 5 minutes away”

Other Fairview High School students including Samuel Johnson-Saeger, a junior, don’t yet know if they’ll go back inside King Soopers once it reopens. At the very least, Samuel, 16, won’t walk into the store for a long time, fearing it would be too traumatic. He’s already scared at times to go to school, with the ever-present threat of a mass shooting hanging over him, and he knows that being in a building where one happened would be too anxiety inducing.

“I’ve had teachers talk to me and my class about how many bullets the door to that section of the school is able to withstand, and how much time that gives us to break a window and start running out.”

Samuel Johnson-Saeger, FairView High School Junior

Samuel describes the shopping complex on Table Mesa Drive as the “go-to place for Fairview students to hang out when they have time off of class to grab lunch off of campus.”

And it was a happy place. In the past couple months, Samuel had met friends from the high school’s speech and debate team to buy food and have a picnic together outside. He’d been inside the store dozens of other times, and his father shopped there regularly. He’s trying to wrap his mind around how a spot that was so ordinary, and had always felt so safe to him, could be shattered by a single person.

And yet, many of the lessons the teenager has learned in school have focused specifically on preparing him for such an event. He’s participated in lockdown drills since he was in elementary school that have both informed and scarred him.

“I’ve had teachers talk to me and my class about how many bullets the door to that section of the school is able to withstand,” Samuel said, “and how much time that gives us to break a window and start running out.

“A part of me doesn’t want to believe that that’s something that can ever happen at Fairview,” he added. “But it clearly is. We just saw a mass shooting 5 minutes away.”

Searching for hope

After living through too many mass shootings to count, Samuel said he has lost hope that they will ever come to an end. The 2018 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was the first of its kind that he was old enough to process. An eighth grader then, he walked out of school with his peers for 17 minutes of silence in remembrance of the 17 people killed. Since that shooting, he said, so many other shootings have devastated communities to the degree that they’ve become “commonplace.”

“I have hope that we can reduce their frequency and the number of innocent lives that they claim,” Samuel said, “but I haven’t seen action from leaders at a federal level or enough at a state level that gives me hope that one day we will never see a mass shooting.”

Photographs of people who died in a shooting at the Table Mesa King Soopers, including Rikki Olds, left, who was a manager at the store, and Denny Stong, a Fairview High graduate who worked there, too, are illuminated by candles placed on the paved pavilion in front of the Boulder County Courthouse on March 24, 2021. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

That’s why Kristin and her friend Alicia Zhang, also a sophomore, are sending letters to U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine. Manchin and Collins are powerful swing votes in the U.S. Senate and their support for gun-control legislation could be the difference between it passing and failing.

The students, who co-run a high school letter-writing club called the Lucky Letters Club, hope their words remind the lawmakers that gun violence continues to claim lives.

Both Kristin and Alicia, 15, want to inspire empathy in Manchin and Collins, urging them to reflect on how they would feel if a mass shooting impacted their own communities.

“I hope they understand that people are grieving and are really upset over gun violence, and it’s happening to families across the nation, not just Boulder,” said Alicia, who was at King Soopers about every week to get groceries with her mother before the shooting. Their home is a 4-minute drive from the store.

In a way, Alicia feels desensitized to mass shootings after witnessing so many in her lifetime and after years of drills to prepare for an active-shooter emergency. Much of her childhood has been shaped by fear.

When you walk into a store, you expect to walk back out alive.

Alicia Zhang, Fairview High School Sophomore

“When you walk into a store, you expect to walk back out alive,” she said.

Kristin is still deciding whether she’ll ever again hop on the city bus to the Table Mesa Shopping Center to hang out with friends. She likely will in time, but it’s a decision her parents and friends have to make as they consider “whether we all feel safe or not.”

With each mass shooting, it gets harder to hang onto hope that things will change, Kristin said.

“We’re trying to make change,” she said, “but we don’t know how long it’s going to take.”

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