Just a few months before her oldest son, Weston, was about to start full-day kindergarten, Cassie Walton learned that an 18-year-old gunman had killed 19 fourth-graders at a Uvalde elementary school, a half-day drive south of the home she shares with her family.
Then the Fourth of July massacre happened in Highland Park, Illinois, a half-day drive north. The Walton family’s Oklahoma life is right in between both atrocities, smack in the middle of the American heartland – where mass shootings keep happening, over and over.
Within weeks, Ms Walton’s video, showing the concerned mother teaching her son active-shooter drills – with a bulletproof backpack – would go viral.
Aside from the bulletproof accessories, Ms Walton tells The Independent she’s just teaching drills she herself learned in school; the 23-year-old was born in the shadow of the 1999 Columbine massacre that forever changed the face of the American school experience.
She grew up learning how to hide and fight intruders who may or may not interrupt her daily lessons about how to read and write. And now, as school and mass shootings seem to increase in ferocity and frequency, the young mother is teaching her kindergartner.
“It’s so scary,” Ms Walton tells The Independent. “I don’t think that it should be like that. I think that we should be able to send our kids to school and have them not worried about it.”
The way she spouts of the tenets of her own active shooter training, however (ALICE: Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) shows just how much of a cycle this is becoming across the US.
“I feel like, when I was a kid and we were doing it … it doesn’t really sink in unless it’s actually happening,” says Ms Walton, adding that her own schools faced bomb threats, knife threats and all kinds of threats that were taken seriously, often if they only originated from students hoping to get school cancelled.
She believes her young son, however, “understands, like, yes, there can be bad guys [that] come in, and you need to be prepared.
“He’s taken in the info very” well, combined with her gentle explanations of current events, she says.
“I think it’s very important to have the conversations, because it’s happening everywhere,” she tells The Independent. “And just because it hasn’t happened at somebody’s school yet doesn’t mean that it won’t or that it couldn’t.”
She found out about bulletproof backpacks and inserts – offered by several companies – from another TikTok video, she says, then decided to purchase one for Weston and train him.
In the video, she teaches him to hide, be silent, and run – but also how to counteract a teacher who may stop him from grabbing his bulletproof bookbag if it’s not on his person at the time of any possible incident.
“I’d say, ‘I need it! It’s bulletproof!’” he says in the video, holding his Spiderman backpack.
Ms Walton says that, since her post went viral – it’s garnered 7million views since last week – other parents have contacted her who “were inspired by me to have the conversation with their kids, and that made me feel really good.
“I’d like to raise my kids to … expect nothing and be prepared for the worst,” says Ms Walton, who is a homemaker married to a car salesman. “I’ve always been told, you know, it’s better to have that and not need it than to need it and not have it.”
She warns about complacency because of “the boy who cried wolf … you never know [if] that one last time could be the last time.”
In the heart of American gun country in Oklahoma, Ms Walton says her training video for Weston is not a statement on firearms policy.
“I haven’t said anything against guns or pro guns; I’m pretty neutral,” she tells The Independent. “I’m all about the Second Amendment; I don’t care to take your guns away from you. I don’t think we necessarily have a gun problem.
“I think it’s more of a mental health and school security problem,” she says, pointing to an incident in which she returned to her old high school, waltzed straight in and had access to the classrooms after she’d graduated herself.
It makes her terrified as to who else could walk uninhibited into schools, despite all of the apparent protocols.
“Just because it hasn’t happened to you doesn’t mean that it can’t,” she says. “And your kids at least need to know the seriousness that could happen.”
She adds: “Today, it’s actually really happening to our kids … and I think they should be prepared, no matter what.”
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