Gunfire Echoing Through School Grounds? Parents Are Terrified. Kids Stopped Noticing.

Gunfire Echoing Through School Grounds? Parents Are Terrified. Kids Stopped Noticing.

The gunshots rang out at 8:13 a.m., echoing across the high school football field and middle school garden. They continued for 49 minutes without interruption: an AR-15-style rifle, with .223-caliber bullets, ripping at 94 decibels through a community that did not even pause to wonder if a disaster was unfolding at the schools.

It was just a typical morning in Cranston, R.I., where more than 2,000 children attend school within 500 yards of a police shooting range. There, local police officers sharpen their gun skills, sometimes until 8:30 at night.

Some days they shoot Glock pistols, like the weapons used in the mass shootings at Virginia Tech, the Charleston church and Thousand Oaks, Calif. Other days, they use AR-15-style semiautomatic rifles, similar to the ones used in the killings in Newtown, Conn.; Las Vegas; Parkland, Fla.; Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas.

Many parents have tried in vain to have the range moved to a more remote area or enclosed to block out the upsetting sounds. They have written letters in support of a bill in the state legislature that would prohibit outdoor shooting ranges within a mile of schools. But the police opposed the legislation, and the bill is now being “held for further study.”

“This facility is necessary to train and qualify all department members with the weapons they carry to fulfill the mission of protecting the public,” said Col. Michael Winquist, the chief of police.

Excessive noise — even generally — is disruptive to the health and well-being of children, research shows, and medical experts say the sound of gunfire, which could elicit a fight-or-flight response, may be even worse.

But while many students say they recall being deeply disturbed by the gunfire at first — freezing, diving under desks — they now exhibit what public health experts say could be a potentially more dangerous reaction: desensitization.

“I remember thinking, ‘We shouldn’t be getting used to this,’” said Valentina Pasquariello, who graduated in June. “But it was at the point where you have to get used to it — you don’t have a choice.”

Sara Johnson, a professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who has studied how firearms and other chronic stressors affect child development, said the students are “doing mental gymnastics to feel safe in that type of environment, and make peace with it.”

Though the situation in Cranston is unique, Dr. Johnson and others said it is reflective of a country where the threat of gun violence has encroached upon the everyday lives of schoolchildren.

“Whether or not you go to school across from a gun range,” Dr. Johnson said, “you’re being asked to accommodate the challenges of growing up in an environment that has guns baked in.”

One morning last month, the first blasts of the day came as Maranda Carline, 17, a high school junior, was in first-period psychology class, snacking on Skittles and learning about how childhood trauma can affect a person’s long-term development. The sound of 50 rounds barraged Miranda again as she walked outside to her next class at 9:01 a.m.; another 50 came at 10:56 a.m., as she rushed to finish an essay on prohibition for her history midterm.

Maranda has long memorized the steps from active shooter training, as rote as solving an algebra equation: Barricade the door. Hide in the corner. If necessary, wield scissors and throw trash bins, or chairs, or whatever else you can find.

But her mother, Carmen Carline, was not confident Maranda would follow these steps in a real-life situation, for the simple reason that she wouldn’t know it was real.

“When a gunman shows up at my kid’s school, and they hear the bullets, and nobody even looks up — nobody has that healthy kind of fear that drives you to find safety — that’s what I’m afraid of,” she said, breaking down in tears.

Asked whether she found the gunfire distracting, Miranda paused, then said: “It’s kind of reassuring, I guess, because it means that there are police close by,”

Her mother interjected: “That’s how they sell it to the kids.”

Between the blasts that day, Cranston, a city of about 80,000, embodied the euphony of a New England autumn: leaves tumbling across driveways, basketballs drumming the pavement of cul-de-sacs; engines humming in a Dunkin’ drive-through line.

Decades ago, residents said, the gunfire from the range was sporadic and quieter, like popcorn popping in the distance, as local officers learned to use handguns. But police departments grew, and so did the number of federal agencies and other groups using the range. So, too, did the types of weapons — and with them, the noise.

During the Covid pandemic, adults who had commuted to jobs stayed home all day and could not believe what they heard. By 2021, the range became a source of tension. A petition for “peace and quiet” circulated.

In September 2022, residents went to the City Council with stories: the new art teacher crouching down and calling for a lockdown; visiting athletes at a track invitational “hitting the turf”; one resident stepping on a spent 9-millimeter casing in front of the high school.

One council member, Jessica Marino, said tradition should take precedence: “I do believe the range is in the right location, because it has been there for a long time,” she said.

Another council member at the time, Matthew Reilly, an alum of the middle and high schools, said: “It was never a traumatic situation. Me and my friends, and I can only speak from personal experience, it never really affected us.”

The police department’s training academy applied for $1.6 million through the American Rescue Plan to enclose the range, but the grant was denied.

The department said it reduced the number of outside groups using the range — ending agreements with the airport police and federal agencies like the F.B.I. — and had replaced sound-absorbing panels and added berms and shrubbery to dampen the noise.

“These are our last efforts,” the department’s second-in-command, Maj. Todd Patalano, wrote to the mayor and the chief of police in a February 2023 email obtained by The Times. “At this point, we will not be making any further accommodations.”

For Antonella Pasquariello, a mother of three, one memory of school pickup time plays like a slow-motion movie in her head: She pulled up in her car, rolled down her window and watched as “cute little kids are strolling out of the school, not flinching, as the sound of artillery whacked up against the building.”

She glanced at the bus lines and tennis courts to “make sure bodies weren’t falling.”

Haunted by the experience, she wrote to the superintendent asking why the shooting couldn’t be banned during school hours. She was referred to the mayor, who replied that it would “take time and financing.”

Ms. Pasquariello was leashing her goldendoodle, Cleo, for a walk when shooting resumed at 12:03 p.m. She listened for sirens: No sirens, no school shooting, she said. They cracked again at 2:47 p.m., as the junior varsity Falcons took to the football field for practice, and then at 3:21 p.m., as elementary school children climbed off their buses.

When Ms. Pasquariello’s youngest son, August, got home from school, she asked him about the gunshots. He said he didn’t hear any.

At dusk, Jose Giusti watched his 6-year-old, Gianna, practice cartwheels under a cacophony of bullets.

Mr. Giusti works for the city of Providence’s licensing department, which enforces noise ordinances. He and his wife, Alyssa, know that, in research studies, children living in noisy environments have higher blood pressure, increased levels of cortisol, and hyperactivity. So far, Gianna seems OK.

At bedtime, Gianna shuffled around in her cheetah pajamas and unicorn earphones. Then her parents put her to sleep with a white noise machine to block out the sound of the gunfire.

Audio produced by Adrienne Hurst.

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