Inside a packed church sanctuary, the seniors of Santa Fe High School and the prosecutor speaking to them confronted the challenges borne of the shooting that took the lives of 10 people at the school near Houston.
The young graduates have to grieve their slain classmates and cope with their emotions as they try to heal after the mass shooting.
“You are entering into a war zone in this world, and it’s a spiritual war zone,” said Jack Roady, the Galveston County district attorney, in his speech to them. Roady has to prosecute the capital murder case against the teenager suspected of killing eight students and two substitute teachers. He said later that the case presented the most deaths in one crime that he had ever faced.
This deeply religious community came together Sunday for prayer services at local churches and a traditional end-of-school baccalaureate service that acknowledged the pain wracking Santa Fe, a town of 13,000. Mourners also gathered at a Houston-area mosque to remember the life of a slain exchange student from Pakistan.
The baccalaureate is typically a religious celebration to honor school graduates. After Friday’s shooting, it was moved from the high school auditorium to nearby Arcadia First Baptist Church. Every pew in the church was filled, and folding chairs against the wall provided seating the pews couldn’t.
When “Pomp and Circumstance” played, the seniors filed in wearing green caps and gowns. Most had serious looks on their faces, though a few smiled at people they recognized in the crowd.
Speaker and Santa Fe graduate Aaron Chenoweth gave a short testimony about trials and tribulations this graduating class faced. He called on the community’s faith in God.
“If you give God the glory, you will always find comfort and love,” he said, receiving a standing ovation.
Roady told the students that they were “suffering in ways that no one else can understand.” He called on them to draw closer to their faith and each other.
Todd Penick, a graduating senior who is planning to attend Texas State University, said last year’s baccalaureate was attended by around 25 people. This year’s, which drew around 200 people, was a chance to reunite with his friends and classmates.
“Nobody is going to be OK in a couple of days,” he said. “Nobody can look you in the eyes and tell you it’s OK. But we’re going to be OK because everyone is so unified.”
He added: “Family and friends and God, that’s what’s going to get us through this.”
Meanwhile, hundreds attended a service Houston’s Muslim community held for Sabika Sheikh, a 17-year-old exchange student from Pakistan who talked about one day becoming a diplomat.
Her host mother, Joleen Cogburn, recalled asking Sheikh why she came to study in the U.S. She said she wanted to learn American culture and to share Pakistani culture with Americans.
“And I want us to come together and unite,” she told Cogburn. “I don’t know if they know us the way they should.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Sheikh continues to be a diplomat “because even in her death, she is pulling the relationships between Pakistan and the United States, specifically the Houston area, even closer.” Her body was to be returned to Karachi.
The shooting suspect, 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis, has been jailed on capital murder charges.
In their first statement since the massacre, Pagourtzis’ family said Saturday that the bloodshed “seems incompatible with the boy we love.”
“We are as shocked and confused as anyone else by these events,” said the statement, which offered prayers and condolences to the victims.
Relatives said they remained “mostly in the dark about the specifics” of the attack and shared “the public’s hunger for answers.”
Roady declined to answer questions about the shootout and investigation Sunday, including whether police may have hit any students in a gunfight with the shooter.
He also said autopsy reports won’t be released while the case is pending.
Although officials have praised a swift response, it remains unclear just how quickly police got to the art lab on the 1,400-student campus, where authorities say Pagourtzis opened fire with a shotgun and .38-caliber handgun. Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, the county’s top administrator, has said police exchanged rounds with Pagourtzis “for quite a while” before he surrendered a half-hour after the first reports of a shooter on campus.
“They said there was a lot of firepower and a lot of rounds exchanged,” Henry said.
One Santa Fe school police officer who responded to the attack was shot and remained in critical condition Sunday, according to the University of Texas Medical Branch.
The suspect’s attorney, Nicholas Poehl, said he was investigating whether his client endured any “teacher-on-student” bullying after reading reports of Pagourtzis being mistreated by football coaches.
In an online statement, the school district said it investigated the accusations and “confirmed that these reports were untrue.”
Poehl said that there was no history of mental health issues with his client, though there may be “some indications of family history.” He said it was too early to elaborate.