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Recovering from a School Shooting

A rural New Mexico pastor is grateful his son narrowly escaped being in a killer’s path.

When Caden Stovall, 15, finally returned to Aztec High School on Jan. 4, he walked through a new commons area repurposed from bullet-riddled classrooms.

The son of Assemblies of God Pastor Cody D. Stovall hadn’t returned to school for nearly a month. He and 900 classmates fled Dec. 7 from the only high school in Aztec, New Mexico, population 6,000. That morning, police stormed the school after a former student entered with a backpack containing a semi-automatic pistol and a cache of ammunition, then unleashed a barrage of gunfire, killing two students. The shooter then killed himself.

The day had begun late for Cody Stovall, who since 2016 has pastored Timberline Church, Aztec’s only AG congregation. Stovall’s two younger sons had tests that morning at C.V. Koogler Middle School, where Stovall’s wife, Leah, teaches seventh-grade math. The family was running behind.

For his part, Stovall, 39, had a big day planned, too. About a year ago, Timberline partnered with Rural Compassion to hold a shoe giveaway, distributing 800 pairs to residents in need. The church in November 2017 gave away school backpacks containing supplies after Stovall met with principals of each local school, inviting them to devise a list of needed materials.

One need the middle-school principal shared was crowd control during outdoor recesses after lunch. Stovall immediately volunteered. When the school’s plans for a student mentoring program fell through, the principal asked if the church could get involved with mentoring. On Dec. 7, Stovall was to meet the Inspire mentorship program’s founder, who the next day would train volunteers from Timberline and the community.

Stovall took his two younger sons — Brennan, 12, and Jase, 11 —  to their school before dropping off Caden at the high school. Then he went to a café for coffee.

About the time Caden received a late slip from the office, a 21-year-old man passing himself off as a student entered the school with a small arsenal hidden in a backpack. The man had posted to online forums joking about the 1999 Columbine school massacre in Colorado and citing the teen who shot 26 children and staff at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut in 2012.

The man lived a block away from Timberline Church. His next-door neighbor, who attends Timberline, had invited him several times to the church. The shooter had declined the invitations.

Caden went upstairs to the second floor for first period American history class. He walked down the hallway past the men’s restroom. He passed Casey Marquez, 17, captain of the Aztec Tigers cheer squad.

Aztec High’s teachers often lock their doors after the tardy bell, which had already rung. A classmate let Caden in.

Moments later, everyone heard a noise that sounded like someone banging on lockers. Francisco Fernandez, 17, a football player, had entered a restroom, surprising the gunman as he prepared his weapon. The gunman shot Fernandez dead.

The killer exited the restroom into the hallway, where he happened upon Marquez. He murdered her, then began firing indiscriminately into the hallway.

At the coffee shop, Stovall’s smartphone began to buzz with alerts from a group of men from the church and community who play basketball Sunday afternoons. The group includes police officers.

Amid the barrage of texts about a violent incident at the school was the most chilling to Stovall: A farewell signed “I love you” from his oldest son.

“There was an active shooter at the high school,” Stovall says. “My son was right in the middle of it.”

A custodian recognized the initial shot and yelled alerts that prompted a school lockdown. Moments later, the principal got on the school intercom alerting all to the shooter’s presence.

Caden’s history teacher, Stephen Scales, had all his students huddle in a corner of the classroom where they couldn’t be seen from the door. Outside the room, gunfire echoed through the hallway as the gunman approached a computer classroom and sprayed it with bullets. Another Timberline youth group member was sheltered in place in an adjacent classroom.

Caden continued texting his dad a terrifying play-by-play of what he saw, heard, and felt: “I’ve never been so scared. I know I don’t want to die. God, save me!”

Stovall had officiated the wedding of the first police officer on the scene, who arrived 90 seconds after the first report of gunfire. Then the gunfire ceased.

By the time police reached the second floor, the gunman had killed himself. Officers ushered terrified students from each classroom to safety. Stovall picked up his son at the designated meeting point.

“There's not another target in any community that hits on so many levels as the school,” Stovall says. “It was an attack right at the heart of the community.”

Caden’s return to campus has been fraught with emotion. In a project funded and carried out by the school district and community volunteers, walls of classrooms where the shooting happened were removed to build a student lounge.

“I have a weird feeling when I walk through the same classroom I was in when I heard gunshots,” Caden says. “Every day I'm fighting pain and fear.”

But Caden knows the Lord is with him.

“Every time when I feel this panic, I just pray and feel this calmness,” Caden says. “I know that God protected me that day. There were so many other things that could have gone wrong.”

Afterward, police found the shooter’s written plans to hold a class hostage. The gunman’s small arsenal could have ended dozens of additional lives.

“I could have been a few seconds later and been shot,” Caden says. “I was that close to dying.”

Later Stovall visited the school and thanked Scales — who told students during the siege that he would take the first bullet if the intruder made it into the classroom.

“He actually demonstrated something we preach all the time,” Stovall says. “We are to give our life for other people. He was willing to do that.”

Caden says the school’s counselor, who is a Christian, as well as friends from church are helping him get through the aftermath of the ordeal.

Stovall notes the urgency of representing Christ to others.

“Darkness is there, but the light is brighter, all around us,” Stovall says. “We have the opportunity to engage with that light every day.” The church has reached out to the shooter’s family.

Stovall rescheduled for early January the pre-empted Inspire training session for 30 volunteers from the church and community. In mid-January, 12 weeks of classes for 750 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders will begin to combat bullying; teach social media safety; impart confidence; promote student respect, self-worth, goal-setting, and positive choices; and help students set boundaries in relationships.

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.