By Patrick Lohman/Journal Staff Writer
ROSWELL – Now that Berrendo Middle School has reopened, and the satellite trucks from CNN and NBC have put Roswell in their rearview mirrors, church and community leaders here are focusing on what they see as a silver lining – the outpouring of support and faith that they say is unique to this town of 48,000 residents.
How to help
To donate to those most affected by the Roswell school shooting, visit the United Way of Chaves County website at UnitedWayCCNM.org and click on the “Roswell Prayers” picture. Donors must also select “Berrendo Middle School Support Fund” from the “Select Agency” drop down menu.
“It is absolutely amazing that, when tragedy hits in this community, people run to each other and connect,” said Rick Hale, senior pastor at Grace Community Church, one of the city’s largest. “When tragedy hits here, we run to each other rather than away from each other.”
Since the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., more than two dozen schools across America have seen classrooms converted into crime scenes, and communities have tried to figure out what could possibly drive a student or former student to bring a gun to school and fire upon fellow classmates.
It’s a list that residents of this southeastern New Mexico town never thought they would be on. But on a cold, windy morning last week, Roswell became town No. 30 – the fourth middle school in the nation to see such a shooting and the second school in the first two weeks of 2014.
“What is sad is that you never imagine that this is going to happen in your town,” parent Jennifer Patrick said after a parent meeting at the Roswell Civic Center on Wednesday night. “But it has.”
Around 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, 12-year-old Mason Campbell carried a 20-gauge shotgun loaded with three rounds into the gymnasium at Berrendo Middle School, according to State Police, where around 500 students had gathered to take shelter from the cold. Two of Campbell’s shots struck the floor and the ceiling, but a third was fired into a stand full of students, injuring 12-year-old Nathaniel Tavarez and 13-year-old Kendal Sanders. Tavarez was in critical condition at a Lubbock hospital as of Friday night and Sanders was in satisfactory condition. Campbell is facing three charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.
Hale said members of his church and others have organized to provide meals and other “practicalities” to the families of the shooting victims, in addition to Campbell’s family. Hale said that, even though Campbell is the suspected shooter, the town views each family as deserving of prayer and support.
“These are wonderful parents who loved their kids,” he said. “Nobody escaped the tragedy.”
Jim Campbell, Mason’s father, is a private contractor who built his home and his neighbor’s home. On Tuesday morning, two State Police officers armed with assault rifles stood in front of the large house’s driveway.
Mason Campbell faces three charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.
Mason’s mother, Jennifer, is the sister of prominent Albuquerque attorney Jason Bowles and one of the boy’s grandparents is a well-known Roswell dentist.
The tightknit nature of the community also became evident Friday afternoon when District Attorney Jeanetta Hicks decided to pass the shooting case to another jurisdiction, citing numerous conflicts of interest.
“On the day of the shooting, three of my nieces and two nephews were in the gym,” Hicks said in a news release announcing the handoff. “On the front page of our local newspaper was a picture of my father and one of my nephews … . Moreover, I heard my niece’s 911 call on one of the national cable TV shows and her fear was evident.”
City leaders say Roswell’s size and its large churchgoing population have instilled a sense of community that was evident among the 1,500 residents who packed into the civic center the night of the shooting to pray with the town’s eight senior pastors from different denominations.
It was also evident Thursday morning, when dozens of well-wishers gathered near the school to cheer on kids and their parents on the first day back after the tragedy – a sight that Sean Lee, acting director of the Berrendo parent-teacher organization, said made him swell with pride when dropping his daughter off.
“I got a lump in my throat,” he said. “I thought, what a wonderful gesture to tell our students that everything is going to be OK. I’ve never been more proud of my town than I was in that moment.”
Attendance was optional Thursday and many parents said they wanted to wait at least a couple of days longer before letting their kids return to school. However, some students said they’d might as well get it over with.
“You have to go back no matter what,” said Seth Peña, 13, on Thursday morning as he walked toward the school’s front doors. “The sooner the better.”
Lee said he believes the town will be OK eventually, but it has to answer some questions in the meantime.
Parents at the Wednesday night meeting briefly discussed anti-bullying initiatives and requiring backpack checks for students entering the school, but he said it’s too soon to tell what might come out of the shooting, especially because State Police have not yet determined Campbell’s possible motives.
In the coming days, a group of students from Arapahoe High School in Colorado, shooting No. 28, is possibly going to make its way to Roswell to offer comfort to the 600 or so students at Berrendo. It’s a role Lee said he hopes Berrendo students will take up should school shooting No. 31 happen.
“If something like this should happen again, God forbid, I would hope that our school would be the first to volunteer and say, ‘How can we help you?’”