One year later

IN KANSAS CITY • A celebration of life ceremony  in memory of the victims of the April 2014 shootings in Overland Park, Kansas, concluded Monday evening with a candle-lighting ceremony to symbolize that light and kindness always defeat darkness, hate and evil. Photo: Kate Jacobsen/Kansas City Jewish Chronicle

By Barbara Bayer, Kansas City Jewish Chronicle

It was the day before Passover — April 13, 2014 — a day many Kansas Citians as well as many Americans, Jewish and not Jewish, will always remember.

Three people — Reat Griffin Underwood, William Corporon and Terri LaManno — were murdered that afternoon in suburban Kansas City. Reat and his grandfather were killed in the parking lot outside the Jewish Community Campus in Overland Park, Kansas on their way to a singing competition where Reat was auditioning. LaManno was outside of Village Shalom where her mother lived. Frazier Glenn Cross Jr., also known as Frazier Glenn Miller, who is accused of the murders and is being held pending trial by the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department, has said publicly he intended to kill Jewish people. None of the victims was Jewish.

Monday marked the first anniversary of this tragic day. While a lot has happened during that time, the memory of that day is still very vivid. As Marvin Szneler, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau|American Jewish Committee of Greater Kansas City explained, the event impacted the community in many ways and “there is absolutely no way to measure the sorrow that came with this tragedy.”

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“Knowing a murderer showed up wanting to kill me and other Jews, and in our place, and knowing that three wonderful Christians were slaughtered, compounded the difficulty to deal with it,” he said.

A series of events commemorating the tragedy and emphasizing love and hope over hate, Seven Days — Make A Ripple, Change the World began Tuesday, April 7 and culminated with a Peace Walk Monday night, April 13. 

The community copes 

Jim Sluyter, interim president and CEO of the JCC in Overland Park, notes that memories from the day can be hard.

“I don’t think the emotional scaring will ever go away for some individuals,” he said.

Matt Lewis, president and CEO of Village Shalom, said the residents are coping very well, just as they have since the day of the event.

“I attribute this to the caring, protective nature of our staff, who did whatever it took to shield our residents from the negative effects of the tragic incident and its aftermath,” he said.

In the wake of the tragedy, Jewish Family Services of Greater Kansas City was able to help a number of individuals affected by the shooting.

“In recent months, no one has requested services directly related to this tragedy. This demonstrates the resilience of our community as most people are able to cope with even very difficult events, as long as they have the opportunity to process and grieve appropriately,” said its Executive Director and CEO Don Goldman.

Many were worried how students at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, which is located at the JCC campus, would react when they returned to the building following their Passover vacation. 

“Some of them were in the building during the incident and were very shaken, while others had not been back to the campus since we began Passover break,” said the school’s psychologist Ayala Rockoff.

The school administration, along with help from JFS and Project CHAI, the trauma and bereavement arm of the international organization Chai Lifeline, provided programming and counseling to ease the students’ transition back to school.

“Generally speaking our students are doing well and have been very resilient,” Rockoff continued. “They participated in projects to commemorate the victims and we are proud of the way they have responded. Some of our students still had difficulty from time-to-time after the visit from Project CHAI but our teachers, administrators and support staff have worked hard to connect with and support these students as best we can.”  

Security improvements 

Following the shooting, Todd Stettner, president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, immediately sought experts to assess security. Several days later, representatives from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Jewish Federations of North America’s security arm, the Secure Community Network (SCAN), were in Overland Park surveying the security situations at the JCC campus and Village Shalom.

“We all recognize that there is a new normal since last April 13th, and it will be a permanent change in how we operate going forward,” Village Shalom’s Lewis explained. “We need to identify risks, prioritize and implement changes that will be phased in over a period of years. We want to make good decisions that enhance our security, but also make the best use of our resources — and we have limited resources. Security really has to come to the forefront — it is no longer a collateral position or a sub-set of our safety committee. It now stands on its own.”

He pointed out that Village Shalom, as well as other Jewish entities in the area, has adopted the phrase, “If you see something, say something.”

“We’ve empowered staff to err on the side of over-reporting anything that is questionable or suspicious in nature. We’re not taking anything for granted anymore,” Lewis continued.

SCAN recommended a community security director be hired, and the position was filled by Sept. 15 when Blair Hawkins became Director of Community Security.Some of the security changes are readily noticeable, such as more uniformed police officers at activities and locked entrances in places that were not locked before. Other changes cannot be seen and have not been publicized in the interest of public safety.

The JCC’s Sluyter said having Hawkins in the building has been extremely positive. “The insight and knowledge he brings and the guidance he can give to the organization is very, very helpful,” Sluyter said.

Hawkins says the Jewish community has embraced him over the past several months. Even though he is not Jewish, he feels very much a part of it. 

“I can say that Todd has gone to great lengths to get me acclimated and because there are so many agencies and synagogues, it takes a little while to build those relationships. I think the ones that have been created are very solid and we’re going to continue to move forward with the security,” Hawkins said.

Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of a Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, agrees that continuing to improve security is an ongoing effort and a top priority.

“We are always working with the appropriate authorities and our board to ensure we are providing the best possible safety and security for everyone at the J,” she said. “This started before the incident in Kansas City and has continued after it. We are vigilant about security.”

Coming together as a community 

Village Shalom’s Lewis said the tragedy “has drawn us closer together as an organization and as a community.”

“There is better communication and collaboration, and a sense that we’re all in this together,” said Lewis, who is also not Jewish. “It has also brought the Jewish agencies closer together because we share a commonality. We’re closer than we’ve ever been. I think it’s that shared strength and cohesiveness that got us through the initial crisis. If we can continue to build on that, I think it will benefit our entire community for a long, long time.” 

Jewish Federation’s Stettner believes the tragedy united the Jewish community and the general community around the issues of hatred and anti-Semitism.

“I’m sure we’ll see it again at the Faith Walk on the anniversary. You have to look at those kinds of things as a positive message of anti-hatred and bigotry. It’s a shame that it has to come at the cost of the lives that were lost, no question about that,” Stettner said. 

JCRB|AJC’s Szneler, through the agency’s interfaith work, has cultivated many relationships throughout the community. He said the “outpouring of condolences from scores of individuals and organizations was moving and profound.”

Barbara Bayer is Editor of the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, where a version of this article originally appeared. Article is reprinted with permission.