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Oxford, One Year Later: The family

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Ronia Cabansag
Michigan Radio
Steve St. Juliana (left) and Reina St. Juliana

In the St. Juliana family’s home, a Christmas tree covered in glittering decorations stands tall in the living room. But the air is heavy.

“I feel like I wake up every morning kind of figuring out who I am now without Hana,” Reina St. Juliana said. Her sister Hana was 14 years old when she was killed in the mass shooting at Oxford High School last November. “I think each day is different, and again, it's like nothing is normal.”

Hana played volleyball and basketball, and would have been a star lacrosse player, Reina said. Late at night, when she should have been doing homework, she could often be found making jewelry in her room. Earlier this year, her family sold shirts featuring a design that incorporates all of Hana’s favorite things. Dozens of hand-drawn symbols — a volleyball, various fruits, a Converse sneaker, an origami crane, a piano — are arranged in the leaves of a tree shaped like the Upper Peninsula, as the family used to travel up north for Christmas. The money raised through the fundraiser will go towards a memorial garden in Seymour Lake Township Park.

“I just want people to remember her for her sarcastic remarks,” Reina said, “and then her contagious laugh that followed after. And even though she was sarcastic... Her thoughtfulness, and her ability to notice the smallest of details, and her big heart. ”

Over the past year, Reina has spent much of her energy on working to ensure her sister is remembered. On January 22, Reina approached school administrators to ask for a temporary memorial to honor the victims of the shooting until a permanent one could be arranged. Her request wasn’t granted until the following school year.

“It's small and doesn't even fit the whole wall, and it's inaccessible during school hours,” Reina said. “It's also inaccessible after school hours. So I'm wondering when students are even able to access it, or even look at it, because it is hidden in a corner.”

In the midst of their grief, Reina and her father Steve have been fighting for accountability. They’re both listed in a lawsuit against Oxford Schools and some school administrators. The civil suit contends that district personnel sent the shooter back to class despite being made aware that he was suicidal, and possibly homicidal. It also argues that the district is attempting to shirk accountability by claiming that the accused shooter did not meet the criteria for keeping a student out of the classroom.

“Part of the community, they just want to move on,” Steve said. “And how does that stop it from happening again? It doesn't.”

Steve and Reina sat across from each other at their family dining table to share memories of Hana, and to talk about the toll that this year has taken on them. It’s clear in their voices that they’re tired.

“My focus is trying to keep the momentum moving forward, because I'm afraid if we stop, that it'd just be too difficult to get moving again,” Steve said.

Steve and Reina's Conversation

Steve: So Reina, since we lost Hana, how has your daily life changed?


Reina: Well, I think the things I think about and the things I find important are a lot different than they used to be, and I feel like I wake up every morning kind of figuring out who I am now without Hana. I think each day is different, and again, it's like nothing is normal.

Steve: And since you're— you don't go to the high school for your classes. You're taking community college classes. How does that feel as far as being away from the school and away from your senior year?

Reina: It definitely makes me mad. I feel like there was so much stolen from our family, from me, regarding the school. It's just, I mean, it is my choice to not go back there, but I do find it unfair that I... Like, I want my childhood. Like I want my last year of my high school. I want to be with my friends. I want to mess around in my classes and walk the hallways. I guess I don't find many things that I can relate to with people my age, right now, at least. I have a hard time, I guess, being around them and feeling OK because my mind is always somewhere else. How has your life changed as a whole after the shooting?

Steve: So for me, there's been a major shift in outlook and priorities. I mean, I think before this happened, for the last few years, I've been prioritizing family life more than work. A little bit more every year, you know, going to your sport activities and things like that. Now, it's difficult to... It's difficult to prioritize anything other than our family at this point, to tell you the truth. I think it's taken a lot of drive from me. Whether it's work, or community, or anything, I'll just... The desire and energy, motivation, is just lacking. I think my view of society has turned a lot more cynical. I can remember when I first traveled overseas and lived overseas, I would speak very, very proudly and of being an American, of defending...

Reina: Patriotism!

Steve: ...the American way of life. And I have a hard time doing that now. I look around and I think that our country's in trouble.

Reina: I think it's just sad. I think some people just have a hard time coming to terms with reality. My friend was just showing me a text that she received after posting about gun control after the shooting. Obviously, anyone with common sense would understand that if the gun had been locked up, it would not have been used to shoot four and kill them, and shoot seven and injure them. And yet, there are people who were there that day saying that that wouldn't have prevented the tragedy. And it shocks me. It shocks me because, like, people lost someone that day from a preventable tragedy. Like, again, like, school shootings are preventable, and they're going to confidently state that nothing would have stopped it? That some type of gun reform would have saved Hana's life? I don't understand. I really don't.

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Ronia Cabansag
Michigan Radio
Steve and Reina St. Juliana

Steve: You know, there's still trying to deal with the public, deal with the media, deal with all of these new outside forces...

Reina: And even inside.

Steve: ...on us. And even inside.

Reina: The school?

Steve: Yeah, so I think those are the two biggest shifts for me is the priorities, and then having all of this additional— these additional things to deal with on a daily, constant basis.

Reina: What do you think the school has done right?

Steve: What have they done right? So, that's kind of a tough question. If you would have asked me that a few months ago, my answer might have been a little more positive. But looking at every move the school's done for every thing that was slightly in the positive direction, it just seemed like there was never quite done correctly. The idea might have been good, but the execution was fumbled. So, I mean, one of the direct impacts of the school's actions, or in this case, inaction, obviously, for us, was the lack of information, the lack of accountability.

Reina: The lack of transparency.

Steve: All of the above. As we waited day by day, week by week, month by month, for the school to come forward and take some action to bring out what happened, so that it can be addressed and can never happen again, it was just delaying tactics, then excuses. So Reina, how would you describe your feelings with the way that the school has handled the whole situation?

Reina: I think it really opened my eyes up to the fact that some people will continue to choose wrong. I just, like, I guess that was mind-boggling for me. I lost my sister. I lost my favorite person. And it was murder. It was a preventable tragedy, and I could have had my whole life with Hana, and I don't get that. And now I don't even have — I don't even get to be heard. And so what I thought, at least at the beginning, was that the school would come and say the truth so that they can change their internal system that's obviously broken, so that no other kid was going to be murdered, at least in Oxford High School. And I thought they would honor my sister's life, and Justin, Madisyn, and Tate's as well. They speak so pridefully of, "Oxford Strong," "Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat." You'd think, you know, okay, so you got four students who lost their lives in that building. At least their memories will be held alive there. But no, that wasn't the case whatsoever. And I think on top of trying to deal with losing Hana, and then fighting for her memory, it just, it really took a toll on me. I think— I don't wake up a day where I'm not angry. I don't wake up a day where I'm not sad. Like, in most days I can't even feel my emotions because there's just too much of it.

Ronia Cabansag
Michigan Radio
Steve St. Juliana holds a photo of his daughter, Hana.

Steve: It's been mind boggling to see the absolute, total lack of accountability or responsibility. I mean, to this day, the same people that were in charge and made the mistakes, they're still there. They've been shuffled to different positions, but they're all still at the school. The school has taken absolutely zero responsibility for anything that happened. And the community in general— there's a large chunk of the community that has been outraged, has been supportive. But I have to say, you know, we just came out of the elections, and the fact that a sitting school board member was reelected... I'm sorry, I question, what is this community thinking? You know, how are they — are they really taking what happened seriously? Part of the community, they just want to move on. And how does that stop it from happening again? It doesn't. So Reina, the school finally implemented a temporary memorial, and that was largely due to your efforts. How does what has now been done meet up with your expectations, and how do you feel about it?

Reina: Well, the fact that I went in on January 22— I went in to ask for at least something temporary until a permanent one was even in discussion. It was up and done in September. It's small and doesn't even fit the whole wall, and it's inaccessible during school hours. It's also inaccessible after school hours. So I'm wondering when students are even able to access it or even look at it, because it is hidden in a corner. We fought so hard and it wasn't just me. It was the students, and it was the friends, and it was the families also, who stood up and asked for this, and to even get a picture and a few paragraphs under... It was ridiculous. We had to get students, about around a hundred, I'd say, students and parents to come to a school board meeting and beg for pictures, because apparently, the smiles of Hana, Justin, Tate, and Madisyn were too triggering. And when we asked for the students to be able to have a say in where it's going to be put, the location of it, we were denied. And so when I first saw the temporary memorial, the second week of the school, I cried. I cried— I was so frustrated when I saw it, because all the sweat, tears, and everything that went into fighting for them to honor Hana, Justin, Tate, and Madisyn ended with that. So how do you keep moving forward from all this negativity?


Steve: How do I keep moving forward? Been asked that several times. Don't really have a good answer. It's just maintaining a focus on what's good for my family and taking one day at a time. One step forward is— My focus is trying to keep the momentum moving forward, because I'm afraid if we stop, that it'd just be too difficult to get moving again. What has helped you the most to deal with the follow up for everything that's happened?

Reina: To be honest, I think seeing others fight for the truth and asking questions, demanding answers. I mean, like the parents who showed up at all the school board meetings. And it's— the parents are emailing the superintendent constantly, you know? I just— I think I gain a little bit more energy watching them do that. It makes all of us, I think, who are fighting for the exact same thing feel less alone.

Steve: Yeah, I totally agree. I don't think that I would have been able to get through this without being able to see at least some of the community step up and take the fight forward. Because I didn't have— I just didn't have the energy to do it. And like you said, just to see that there were some people in the community who just really stepped up... They formed, you know, different groups and are just fighting to get the truth out and to make changes and to keep the kids safe.

Reina: I mean, like, right after, you know, you feel pretty down meeting with some district members and not really going anywhere. I just, I seriously look to the other people for inspiration. Like, when I am at my lowest, and it's taking everything in me to not stop, I guess, I just, I mean, I tell myself, like, there are others who are doing it too. Like, it's the right thing. But I think what has helped the most out of everything is the things people do for Hana. For example, when we had our Hana Blooms pop up shop, I guess, fundraising event for which the original plan was to have a tree and a bench at Seymour Lake — I call it Hana's garden — and honor her. But because of the unbelievable amount of support we got, and, like the unimaginable amount of people that like, showed up, that was beyond expectation. Like, we were able to do more with the garden idea. I have not felt happiness since the shooting until that day. Like, I genuinely, it was— I wasn't faking anything. Like, it was my real smile. If someone told me, "How are you?" or asked me, "How are you?" that day, my actual answer would be "good," and it wouldn't be a lie. It wouldn't be something to please others.

Steve: To have it happen, you know, even though it was in the neighboring community, people showed up, and they stood in line literally for hours to get into this little store. And it was from the time it opened at 8 a.m. to close at 6 p.m. The line was out the door, around the block, constant, all day long. Yeah, so the garden is "expanded," as Reina stated. It started with the idea of a tree, and a bench, and a couple of flowers, and has now grown to a quite beautiful vision. We're working with [Seymour Lake Township Park]. We're hoping to break ground in the spring. The design is now incorporating something for all four of the victims. I think when it's done, it's going to be just a beautiful thing for the community. Someplace just to, you know, where you can look around and you can see life blooming, and appreciate what you have.

Ronia Cabansag
Michigan Radio
Some of the detail of the T-shirts the St. Juliana family has designed in honor of Hana.

Reina: And then also for the shirts we designed for Hana... I think just seeing someone wear it makes my day. Like, I love seeing random people that I don't even know wear it. It genuinely means so much to me. I just think it's something really small, but it really like...

Steve: It's a nice little boost.

Reina: Yeah, it's like, that people are remembering Hana for Hana, and it's just... It's everything I want.

Steve: So, Reina, can you explain the design on the back, of the tree? What was— what are all the things inside of the tree?

Reina: It's all the things Hana likes. So there's a lot of pictures of food, because she really loved food, especially Japanese food. The sports she played, volleyball and basketball, and then she was going to play lacrosse with me. Which she really would have been a magnificent player. Like, I thought she could easily make varsity her freshman year, but that's beside the point. She loved Converse. She was always wearing Converse, so we have Converse on there. She was making jewelry instead of doing homework late at night, usually, so there's jewelry on there. Just small things, I guess. We would go fruit-picking — my mom, Hana, and I — often. So there's strawberries and raspberries on there also. And there's trees in the shape of the U.P., because we'd go to the U.P. for Christmas every year.

Steve: How do you see Hana being remembered?

Reina: Well, I'd want Hana to be remembered for Hana. She was always so true to herself, and always knew right from wrong. Like, I just want people to remember her for her sarcastic remarks, and then her contagious laugh that followed after. And even though she was sarcastic, I just... Her thoughtfulness, and her ability to notice the smallest of details, and her big heart.

These conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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April Van Buren
April Van Buren is a producer for Stateside. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.
Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Radio from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.
Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 9 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.