Editor's Note: This is one in a series of conversations with those who have survived high-profile shootings or lost loved ones to them. The other interviews, as well as background about the series, can be found here.
On December 14, 2012, a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary and turned left, toward the main office and first-grade classrooms; had he turned right, he almost immediately would have encountered Sarah Clements’s mother teaching in her second-grade classroom. This saved her mother’s life, and the lives of her students, and the close call turned both mother and daughter into gun-violence-prevention activists.
That day, 20 children and eight adults, including the shooter and his mother, were killed. I spoke with Sarah, now a senior at Georgetown University, to learn about how she processed the shooting, and how she has been reacting to the national conversation around youth activism and gun violence after Parkland. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Steven Johnson: Can you walk me through the day of the shooting?
Sarah Clements: I was a junior in high school, in my first-period class, physics. Our principal came on the loudspeaker and said that we were going into lockdown, and it wasn’t a drill. We realized that 30 minutes had passed, and maybe this wasn’t actually a drill. I saw that I had a text from my dad that said there was a shooting at Sandy Hook.
The town was just an absolute mess. People were trying to figure out if their kids were alive, so there were mobs of parents at every school. We went home, and for the rest of that night, I think we all just sat in my parents’ room and watched CNN to figure out who had been killed and who had lived. My mom was recounting what she went through, so that we knew. She always, even from that first day, wanted us to know what happened to her. I think her sharing her story immediately with us is something that affected me, and I got into activism. Of course we need to share our stories. Of course people need to know what that was like.
Johnson: And what was her story?
Clements: She was a second-grade teacher. When she first heard the shots from the hallway, she thought it was folding chairs falling. She walked into the hallway to check it out, and the janitor actually was sprinting by. That’s when she knew, when it clicked with her. She immediately closed the door, and told her students to hide up against the walls where their coats were hanging.
Somehow the PA system in Sandy Hook was flipped on in the main office. Everybody in the school heard every single shot. So my mom tried to read her class picture books, and sing songs to try and block out the sound. Eventually it stopped, and there was knock on her door, and they said, “It’s the police, it’s the police!” They slid their badge under the doorway, and that’s when she opened it.
Johnson: You mentioned how your feelings that day eventually turned into activism. How long did that process take?
Clements: I didn’t start doing activism until about a month later. I saw a Facebook event for a march on Washington for gun control. I had never done something like that. My dad and I went down to D.C. with a group of maybe 100 people from Newtown, and there were about 6,000 people there. That was also the first time that I met other survivors from other instances of gun violence, and saw that this issue was far, far bigger than just Newtown.
Johnson: And you focused specifically on youth activism.
Clements: A lot of people had different ideas of what healing looked like, and for me, it was taking action. But I felt this urgency: I was getting involved in these gun-violence-prevention groups, and [thinking], why weren’t students’ voices being lifted up? Why weren’t they being centered as the people that are most affected, disproportionately, based on gun-violence rates around the country? That’s something I recognized really early on, and advocated for. And that’s one reason why I’m just so proud of these Parkland students. I’m grateful for this moment that we’re in in terms of organizing. And I think it’s going to be a real shift in how we talk about guns.
Johnson: How have you felt in the past, each time news of mass shootings would come up?
Clements: When shootings happen, my biggest emotion is just anger and rage that this keeps happening. A lot of people ask, “Do you go back to that day?” I don’t think I do, and my mom says that she doesn’t either, necessarily. How can another community be facing what my family had to face, what my community had to face? That feeling is so overwhelming and so suffocating, especially when you’ve been fighting for change for so long. The biggest reason I do this work is so that eventually, no family, no community has to face this terrible tragedy of gun violence. And when it keeps happening over and over again, it’s extremely difficult to work through that rage, and to work through that impatience with the situation that we’re in.
Johnson: And now feels different?
Clements: It does, it does. It’s something that I didn’t expect to see at this point in time. I think one [reason] is that my generation and Generation Z see gun violence as an issue that doesn’t stand alone, that intersects with a lot of other issues that are happening in our communities and our country.
People always say, “Nothing changed after Sandy Hook.” And that angers me, because I actually don’t think that this moment would be happening without the change that happened after Sandy Hook. I think that there was a big culture shift, and a political shift—maybe not necessarily nationally, in terms of policy. I think after Sandy Hook, we forced the country to have a continued national dialogue. We built new organizations. That infrastructure of grassroots organizers in every state and in every community, and funding on these issues, and creating a leadership pipeline for young organizers—those things absolutely did not exist before Sandy Hook.
What did exist was [more] communities being affected calling for change, and many of those were communities of color that have been affected by gun violence disproportionately for years and years. What happened after Sandy Hook is that we, I think, came together and forced politicians to answer questions about guns. Small, simple things like that. And for five years, we’ve built that.