On Wednesday, following a fatal school shooting near Spokane, Washington, local parents were forced to endure a now familiar American ritual: the desperate scramble to find out if their child would return from classes alive.

Parents raced to Freeman High School in the town of Rockford until there were so many of them sharing two-lane Highway 27 with emergency vehicles that the race ground to a crawl.

So some moms and dads did what moms and dads anywhere would do: They left their cars on the side of the road and walked the rest of the way, checking for updates between strides, clutching themselves for comfort.

At the back of the line, it was reported, the trek stretched to nearly a mile.

At least 135,000 students in America have lived through a shooting at school during the 18 years since the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, according to an examination from the Washington Post. That number is the multiplier for the even larger population of parents who have had to endure the agony of wondering if their son or daughter is OK. If they have survived.

In Rockford, the parents who had abandoned their cars made it to the school complex and joined the others massed in the staging area hastily set up behind the high school. A reporter from the Spokesman-Review newspaper described the scene. “The cruelest lottery imaginable,” he called it.

Parents filled the parking lot outside the high school, waiting for word, desperate for news. Texting furiously. Phones to their ears. Eyes wet, faces red. Hands over mouths. Some had heard from their children inside, and some had not. Everyone knew one child was dead. But not who it was.

Before authorities had released that information, the community knew. Family and friends started sharing memories of the lone boy killed, sophomore Sam Strahan, who had confronted the gunman to try to talk him out of carrying out his plan.

Hours later, another gathering: at the mall, a memorial for the victim. Three girls in the hospital. Their charts list them in “satisfactory” condition. It will be a long while before the community feels that way.

A Gallup poll this August showed that fewer parents feared for their kids’ safety at school than at any time since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. But when it’s your child’s classroom or cafeteria or corridor that becomes a crime scene, the relief that your own son or daughter has been spared does not prevent the shock of the event itself from lingering.

Evonne Lack is one of the many parents across the country who know that feeling well. Several years ago, her children’s North Carolina elementary school was placed on lockdown after multiple shots were fired on campus.

Regular dismissal time came and went as parents massed behind the building.

“We were all the same,” Lack wrote, “blank and scared.”

It turned out that a man had fatally shot his wife outside the school. Lack’s children finally emerged with their classmates. She wrote of what she wanted to do after her children were returned to her, shaken but unscathed. 

Fling myself on them and crush them. Crush them so hard that I absorbed them into my bones, my body, back where they came from.”