Survivors of the Highland Park shooting reflect on the incident over seven months later (Courtesy of Janene Kessler, SALT, and Elaine Metz)

Photos courtesy of Janene Kessler, Elaine Metz, SALT

Survivors of the Highland Park shooting reflect on the incident over seven months later (Courtesy of Janene Kessler, SALT, and Elaine Metz)

Sharing Survivor Stories: Honoring Victims of Highland Park 

February 10, 2023

Content Warning: The following article discusses topics of gun violence, which some readers may find distressing. 

For many, it’s no surprise that the uniquely American problem of gun violence happened on a uniquely American day. 

More than seven months later, victims of the Highland Park mass shooting continue to cope with the physical and emotional trauma stemming from the fatal Fourth of July parade that killed seven people and injured 48.

Gun violence plagues communities across the nation and is the leading cause of death among American children, adolescents, and young adults between the ages of 1-24. This year alone, there have been over 50 mass shootings.

However, beyond alarming statistics, many believe that sharing survivor stories represent underrepresented perspectives.

In honor of National Gun Violence Survivors week, which occurred from Feb. 1-7, The Forest Scout is paying tribute to survivors of the Highland Park shooting, and how trauma still impacts their everyday lives.  


Mrs. Elaine Metz, Math Resource Director and Highland Park resident

Mrs. Metz and her daughter at the Highland Park Fourth of July Parade

Courtesy of Elaine Metz

Mrs. Metz and her daughter at the Highland Park Fourth of July Parade

Before Winter Break, Math Resource Director Mrs. Elaine Metz asked students to share their favorite holidays. Christmas and Halloween were popular, as they always are. A student then said hers was the Fourth of July. 

Metz’s stomach immediately dropped as she remembered the horrors of the Highland Park tragedy. 

For almost 20 consecutive years, Metz’s family has attended the annual parade. She calls it one of the most festive experiences: the music, the families with kids riding on tricycles decorated with red, white, and blue ribbons — traditions loved by most across the North Shore. 

2022 marked the first parade that Metz and her family had attended in two years since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Metz remembers the bright smile and pure excitement beaming on her face. She also remembers how all that joy faded into heartbreak when the police officer told her family they had to evacuate. 

Just a few days ago, Metz watched an episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, which featured a high school football player who survived the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting. He talked about how hard it is for him to go to school, even 10 years later. Metz relates to his experiences as she’s reminded of the tragic event just simply driving through Highland Park.

“He has no choice but to face the very place where he witnessed such trauma all those years ago,” she said.

Metz doesn’t think about the parade often, as she doesn’t want to, but when she heard that Highland Park was planning another parade this year, she knew immediately that she wouldn’t be in attendance. 

“It is so sad that this sick person took away something so joyous for my daughter, for me and for all the people at the parade that day,” she said.

Metz knew people who were shot, her neighbor and her eye doctor, among the dozens of people injured that day. Talking about her experience makes her realize how much, even six months later, how much the ever-lasting horrors at the parade still impact her life to this day. 


Imaan Bokhari, Highland Park High School junior

Months after the Highland Park shootings, members of SALT visited Washington as part of a national effort to combat gun violence. Photo courtesy of Imaan Bokhari.

Photo courtesy of Imaan Bokhari\

Months after the Highland Park shootings, members of SALT visited Washington as part of a national effort to combat gun violence. Photo courtesy of Imaan Bokhari.

Imaan Bokhari, a junior at Highland Park High School, was working as a counselor for a children’s summer camp during the July Fourth shooting. 

“I heard gunshots, but I didn’t see anything, I just remember hearing that there’s a shooting and that everyone should run,” said Bokhari. 

The fatal tragedy devastated the Highland Park community. However, it also sparked her and many others to speak out against gun violence and advocate for change.

The SALT team visited with members of Congress to discuss gun legislation. Photo courtesy of Imaan Bokhari.

Bokhari is an intern for community organization SALT, which stands for Service and Learning Together. Though she’s worked with SALT since 8th grade, Bokhari highlighted her leadership by delivering shirts and other apparel featuring the “Highland Park Strong” slogans. The shirts were free, yet the group raised about $55,000 through optional donations.

SALT’s designs also aimed to spread awareness about victims of the shooting. Many shirts included messaging in Spanish, as the Hispanic population in Highland Park and Highwood is approximately 10% and 36%, respectively. 

Bokhari believes it was important for the organization to recognize these demographics in relation to the shooting that “not many people are aware of,” she said.

In early December, only five months after July Fourth, Bokhari was selected along with three others to travel in an all-expenses covered trip to Washington, D.C, due to her hard work and activism. 

SALT was given the honor to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National Arlington Cemetery in remembrance of the victims of the tragedy. Additionally, they talked to Illinois Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, as well as local representative Congressman Brad Schneider. 

“We talked to them about their views [on gun violence], what they’re doing to help, and how they’re representing the people of Highland Park in congress,” said Bokhari. “It was really refreshing to hear them listening to us taking our suggestions, and validating our feelings, since before, they were just figures I saw on TV.”

Bokhari felt satisfied with her time in D.C. However, it wasn’t until after the trip that she realized the impact of her involvement with SALT. Two weeks after their trip, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Illinois Protect Communities Act, which banned the distribution of assault weapons. 

Bokhari, pictured right, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Courtesy of SALT)

“Even though there’s a much longer process to passing laws, I still felt honored that maybe our voices helped contribute to the change,” said Bokhari. 

However, Bokhari still sees the implications of the shooting in her community seven months later. 

“Even just the loud noises trigger people, including myself. A lot of people are still shaken up. I still sometimes picture the umbrellas, shoes, and toys that people left at the parade,” she said.

Despite many survivors’ trauma, Bokhari is still motivated to advocate for her community and progress gun violence legislation. 

“It’s obviously a sensitive issue, but I’m proud to be a part of a generation that wants to make change,” said Bokhari. 

Mrs. Janene Kessler, Band Teacher and Highland Park resident

Mrs. Janene Kessler alongside members of the LFHS Band, who supported the Highland Park High School Band

Courtesy of Janene Kessler

Mrs. Janene Kessler alongside members of the LFHS Band, who supported the Highland Park High School Band

Like Metz, Band Director Mrs. Janene Kessler and her family were excited to attend the Fourth of July celebration following the pandemic. 

That excitement quickly turned into fear as Kessler realized someone had opened fire during the parade.

“I first heard the gunshots as the Highland Park High School Marching Band was marching by. I don’t even think I heard them at first because the drums were right next to me, and it sounded like drums,” she said.

Kessler and her family escaped safely, taking cover in stores like Anthropologie in Downtown Highland Park. As they got to their parked car, Kessler noticed a group of band members hiding behind a corner of a church across the street. 

“I stopped, I had to go help them. I was trying to calm the kids down, but I looked up and saw my daughter in the car, in tears,” she said Kessler. 

Kessler felt conflicted as a teacher and mother: “I wanted to help the Highland Park students, but I didn’t want to traumatize my daughter more than she already was.”

Kessler’s own son is a part of the Highland Park High School Band, though he was away at summer camp during the shooting. She says one of the most challenging moments of the tragic day was looking at the text messages from her son’s friends to his iPad, which he left at home. 

“We were just sitting in shock at home [after the shooting], and I could hear the pinging from my son’s iPad,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to see his friends texting each other things like ‘are you alive?’ Kids shouldn’t have to go through that.”

As a result of the tragedy, Kessler believes that her roles as a mother and teacher have shifted. 

“I put myself in their shoes, thinking ‘gosh what if that was my band.’ We perform out in the community, we do things all over the place, so I think, what would I do in a situation like this?” she said. 

Earlier this school year, Kessler and the LFHS Band attended a football game to support the Highland Park High School band. Since the shooting, she says her situational awareness has increased and “made [her] much more aware” when traveling with students or playing in public. 

“Both as a parent, as a teacher, and just as a human being, it’s a horrible thing to see young people have to go through that,” said Kessler. 

Kessler says that she isn’t afraid to be near where the shooting took place. However, she is still constantly reminded of the images of “a tsunami of people” and “police force amassing in full tactical gear,” even just by driving every day to school. 

“It was hard to reconcile that with being in Highland Park, being in my hometown,” she said. “It was really striking.” 

As a survivor, Kessler wants people to understand the lasting trauma that continues to haunt victims of the shooting.

“I was unharmed, I was safe, and I was really lucky. But the trauma is something that is collective,” she said. 

Kessler also believes that society should take a deeper look into the survivor stories in the wake of mass shootings, which have become increasingly normalized in the US. 

“We hear in the news that seven people are killed and many are injured, but the effect is so much broader,” she said.

Kessler also still sees the impacts of gun violence on her daughter, who is only six years old. 

“My daughter is still having nightmares. She’s afraid to go to school, she’s afraid to be alone, she’s afraid of so many things that she wasn’t afraid of before,” Kessler said. 

“To think that our entire community, and all these kids are going through that, it’s going to be a long road ahead.”

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  • S

    SeraJun 13, 2023 at 5:53 pm


    I’d like to respectfully offer a resource for anyone impacted or struggling with Highland Park’s day of remembrance.

    My name is Sera. I’m a resident of Southern California and survivor of community violence. I work for the Disaster Distress Helpline’s Online Peer Support Communities. Our organization recently spearheaded a new online peer support community for Survivors of Mass Violence (including any first responders, families or friends) on Facebook.

    We welcome anyone who might benefit from connection with others who have been through similar times and are willing to listen. Survivors need one another more now than ever. We are here to listen without judgement or giving advice. It’s not therapy, but we do have crisis counselors available 24/7.

    If you know of someone who might benefit from this group, please let them know that we are here for them. I am also looking for survivors who might have been from out of town during the incident and are looking to connect. Please consider joining us.

    Thank you. I am not permitted to add the link to the group, but please find us on Facebook:


    Please also consider our group for those who have not been impacted by mass violence but can use the support:

    Survivors and Responders of the Covid-19 Pandemic