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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — On March 24, Romy Candon stood in front of thousands of Hoosiers protesting gun violence to read a statement from her best friend, a survivor of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting.

“We are angry,” she repeated during the student-led March For Our Lives rally.

But it has taken more than a month for the high school junior to get to anger. First came terror, disbelief, pain and isolation.

First came a text to Romy’s mother, Valerie Miller, on Feb. 14 that not only drastically changed their spring break trip, it changed the trajectory of their lives.

“There’s a shooter at my school. Tell Romy I love her.”

Miller got the text around 2:30 p.m. while getting ready to pick up Romy from school and take her to the airport. She asked if it was a joke.

It wasn’t. More than 1,000 miles away, 16-year-old Sarah-Coqueline Bentaieb, better known as Coco, was huddled under a desk in her Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School classroom, trying desperately to get enough cell service to text her mom, who still lives in Indiana, and FaceTime her dad.

Coco moved to Florida from Indiana in October. She met Romy, a Carmel resident, at The International School of Indiana in Indianapolis about two years ago.

The day of the shooting, she had gone to the bathroom and returned within minutes of the fire alarm sounding — which police now say was an attempt by shooter Nikolas Cruz to get students flooding into the hallways. For whatever reason, Coco said, her teacher decided it was likely a prank after the organized fire drill that morning and closed the door.

That decision saved their lives, Coco said. They turned off the lights and hid as the gunshots got louder, coming as close as the room next door.

“It was horrible,” Coco said. “It didn’t feel real, it didn’t feel real. I couldn’t believe it was happening even though I heard everything and I heard gunshots.”

The police officer who escorted them out of the building told them to keep looking straight ahead. But when she got to the first floor, Coco, in shock, turned her head just a little.

She saw blood.

Meanwhile, in Carmel, Miller immediately called Parkland police, who forwarded her to a hotline for the shooting. On the way to pick up Romy, with the teen’s suitcase in the trunk, she listened to news reports saying the shooter had not been caught and that there were “multiple deaths.”

Romy said she immediately knew something was wrong when she saw her mother’s pale expression.

Miller told Romy everything. They got Coco on the phone and the friends cried together. Then, Miller turned to her teenage daughter and asked if she still wanted to go. It wasn’t going to be the sun-filled, happy trip they had planned.

“I have to go. I don’t have a choice,” Romy said.

They were standing by airport security when they heard the shooter was caught.

“I questioned myself as a parent, putting her on that plane,” Miller said. “But that was a very courageous thing and I thought, ‘That’s what she’s going to have to do because that’s who she is.’ And that was that.”

When Romy landed, she found a different Coco in place of her typically bright and chatty friend. When Romy tried to reach out or talk about what happened, she said Coco would retreat back into herself.

“She was very blank, you could see that in her face a light had been turned off, in a way,” Romy said.

Over the next five days, the two attended vigils and candlelight ceremonies, which Romy said felt surreal. Everyone was hugging and crying, which, to her, felt like being in a movie. She hadn’t expected the sense of community and unity. Coco and her family brought food to each of the families who lost someone in the shooting.

The colorful Florida Romy had seen in photos seemed gray.

More than a month later, the shooting is still all-consuming for Coco and Romy, but when they talk about it now, they talk about activism.

“We really feel like, as high schoolers, we are really in the middle of this and we’re the ones who have to make a change because it’s our schools and our situation where it could happen,” Romy said. “I feel like it’s also our responsibility.”

Coco is French-American and lived in the Middle East — Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait — for most of her life, but spent summers in America.

“Never in my life have I ever felt afraid to go to school ever, in the Middle East,” she said.

Now her class still collectively jumps and glances fearfully around if a textbook falls, and her principal has asked students to use clear backpacks. But she said the action of her classmates, who organized the nationwide protest on March 24, has been healing.

“I’m doing better knowing that my classmates are working so hard,” she said.

Romy brought her experience back to Indiana by standing March 24 to speak with a handful of other teens against both national and local gun violence. They called on local lawmakers to improve school security and strengthen gun control laws by expanding background checks and raising the age for gun permits.

“I don’t believe this is a red or blue issue,” Romy said into the microphone, nodding to the applause. “This is about lives. This is a human rights issue.”


Source: The Indianapolis Star


Information from: The Indianapolis Star,