Texans turn to God as school rocked by latest shooting

Sunday, May 20, 2018

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SANTA FE, United States (AFP) — Grief-stricken families in southwestern Texas gathered in churches throughout Santa Fe on Sunday seeking spiritual succor following a massacre at the town's high school, the nation's latest mass shooting.

As federal investigators search for a motive in the deadly attack, hundreds of people attended an emotional funeral service for a Pakistani exchange student, one of 10 people killed in Friday's rampage. Many of the men wore traditional Muslim garb, kneeled and prayed.

The gunman has been identified as Dimitrios Pagourtzis, a 17-year-old student who is alleged to have used his father's shotgun and revolver to kill fellow classmates and two teachers.

At Arcadia First Baptist Church, Texas Governor Greg Abbott hugged survivors of the shooting and their parents and urged them to stay strong.

"We're here to support you," Abbott said.

Some 500 congregants bowed their heads as interim Pastor Jerald Watkins offered prayers.

"It's time like this when all of us realize how fragile our lives really are," he said.

Santa Fe 10th grader Joshua Stevens, 15, said he was glad to see the governor in attendance, adding, "It's important that after a tragic event like this we just come together and worship."

Abbott later went down the road to the school itself and placed a wreath on the front lawn. Students and residents also have placed flowers, messages and stuffed animals in honor of those who died there.

"We come here today with hearts that are aching, knowing that there are parents today without children," he said.

As southeast Texas grieved, the political talk shifted toward how to better protect citizens and facilities like schools in a country where guns have become an inextricable part of the fabric of American life.

Speaking at the high school, Abott pledged "swift and meaningful action" to prevent future school massacres.

He hopes roundtable discussions set to begin on Tuesday, with both supporters of gun rights and advocates of stricter controls, can "build a pathway to reforms so that other students will not have to live through a nightmare like what these students had to go through."

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made the case for boosting security at schools by arming teachers, something US President Donald Trump advocated after a shooting in Parkland, Florida left 17 people dead.

"We need armed teachers -- trained, of course, not just anyone who has a gun, trained how to handle active shooters in the schools," Patrick told CNN.

"We need to harden the target. We need to get down to one or two entrances into our schools."

Monica Bracknell, 18, said she and other seniors were allowed in to the school Saturday to retrieve their belongings, and were "shaken up" by the condition of the hallways and classrooms.

"There's drywall and stuff all over the ground," she said.

After meeting with Abbott at the church, she stressed that reaction to the shooting should focus less on gun rights and more on improving security.

"This kid is obviously unstable and he knew that there were flaws in the school system to get into the rooms," Bracknell said.

Pagourtzis is being held on capital murder charges and could face the death penalty.

"We are as shocked and confused as anyone else by these events," his family said in a statement. "What we have learned from media reports seems incompatible with the boy we love.

"We are gratified by the public comments made by other Santa Fe High School students that show Dimitri as we know him: a smart, quiet, sweet boy."

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, who denied bail to Pagourtzis, noted that the suspect "said in his statement he acted alone." The case will go before another judge Monday.

The New York Times cited an affidavit written by one investigator as saying the suspect had confessed and said he spared "students he did like so he could have his story told."

US media have identified all the victims, who included two teachers and exchange student Sabika Sheikh from Pakistan.

J.J. Watt, a defensive end with the National Football League's Houston Texans, has told authorities he will pay the funeral expenses of those killed, NFL officials confirmed.

Calls for gun reform are less likely to resonate in the gun rights bastion of Texas after the Santa Fe murders, as they did after Parkland three months ago.

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