Feb. 14, 2018, began like any other day for Kai Koerber. He was running late for his early morning AP English class at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. When he got there, he was handed the class’s biggest assignment of the year and groaned. “At the time, I was like, ‘Man, this is going to be the worst part of my day,'” says Koerber, now a first-year student majoring in computer science at UC Berkeley.
After English, he had honors chemistry, followed by pre-calculus, then guitar class. At 2:18 p.m., he asked to use the restroom, but another classmate was out, so his teacher told Kai to wait. Two minutes later, the fire alarm went off. And what followed was a tragedy that his school would become known for — one that Kai would decide to speak out about, changing the narrative about the impact of gun violence on youth in the United States.
At Berkeley, in between classes and studying, Kai works to promote his nonprofit and mental health curriculum — something that he’s become passionate about since surviving one of the deadliest school shootings in the country.
Read a transcript of Fiat Vox episode #62: “After Parkland shooting, student fights for mental health resources in schools”:
[Music: “Highride” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Narration: It was Feb. 14, 2018. Valentine’s Day. Like most days, Kai Koerber was running late to AP English. To be fair, the class was at 7:30 in the morning, which, to me, seems absurdly early for a high school class.
But that’s how it was at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It was known for rigorous classes that set students up to attend the best colleges. And Kai, whose family had moved from New Jersey so that he and his two younger sisters could get a better education, was determined to make the most of it.
And it paid off. After he graduated, he got into UC Berkeley, where he’s now a first-year student majoring in computer science.
What Kai didn’t know that day about his high school was that it would also become known for a national tragedy — one that he would decide to speak out about, changing the narrative about the impact of gun violence on youth in the United States.
You’re listening to Fiat Vox, a Berkeley News podcast. I’m Anne Brice.
The worst part of his day?
Narration: When Kai got to AP English, his teacher handed him the class’s biggest assignment of the year — a 20-page rhetorical analysis essay.
Kai Koerber: At the time, I was like, “Man, this is going to be the worst part of my day.” But, you know, as the day went on, obviously that wasn’t the case.
Narration: Next, he had honors chemistry, followed by pre-calculus, then guitar class in the band room — his most relaxing class of the day.
At 2:18 p.m., he asked his teacher if he could go to the restroom. But one of his classmates was already out, so the teacher told Kai to wait until the student returned.
Kai Koerber: I feel like that’s divine intervention, almost. I can’t think of any other way to explain that, really.
Narration: Two minutes later, at 2:20 p.m., the fire alarm went off. Kai and all the other students were evacuated to a grassy field. No one was really worried. They figured it was just another emergency drill, like they had from time to time.
[Music: “Zither Sprak” by Blue Dot Sessions]
But one student, whom Kai says was known as the class hypochondriac, said he heard gunshots. The other students kind of laughed it off and told him to relax.
Turns out, though, that time he was right.
Within minutes, the teachers had gotten word that there was an active shooter somewhere on campus. Everyone ran back inside to take cover.
Kai’s teacher locked the band room’s steel doors, covered the windows and turned off the lights. Students did their best to hide in closets and behind tables.
Kai Koerber: Nobody really knew where this person was. Nobody really knew what they were armed with, what they were doing, what they were capable of. At the time, we felt like sitting ducks.
Narration: Huddled in a closet, Kai texted his parents.
Kai Koerber: I remember texting them, like, “Don’t call me, because I don’t want them to hear if they’re in the building. If they hear that someone’s on the phone, that could be it for all of us.” I just kept saying, “I love you, and I’ll see you again later. Things like that.”
Narration: Kai’s mom, Alana Koerber, was driving on the freeway when she got his text. At first, she assumed it was just one of her son’s everyday texts, asking if she was picking him up from school that day.
But when she got a moment to glance at her phone, she froze.
Alana Koerber: It said, “Hey, Mom. Something is happening at my school. I’m not sure, but I just want to let you know that if anything happens to me, that I love you.” I’m like, “What does he mean, ‘If anything happens to me, just know that I love you?’” That just made my heart drop.
Narration: By then, she was driving on the highway. Police cars with sirens blaring began to fly past her.
Alana Koerber: And I’m like, “Oh, my God!” I just started shaking, like panicking, just not understanding. Like, “Oh, my God, something is happening! What is happening?”
Narration: She called the Coral Springs Police Department. They told her there was an active shooter on the school’s campus, and that they didn’t have any more information.
Alana headed straight for the school, parked and ran across the street to join a group of parents. The sheriff was there. Helicopters were landing on the baseball field. SWAT teams were rolling in, and huge ambulances were racing to the scene.
Alana Koerber: And I’m like, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God! I don’t care. I want to go. Why the hell are you guys all out here? All these cops are out here. You need to be in there where the kids are to save our kids.” And then, the parents around me start to receive videos of dead bodies, blood. They’re passing their phones around. They’re passing these videos around. And it’s a group of like 30, 40, 50 parents.
The crowd is growing, and we’re starting to cry and hug each other because our kids are still in that school. And now we have videos of dead bodies. I was praying to God. I was just saying, “God, please, please, please, please God. I don’t know what I have to do. I don’t know what I have to sacrifice. I don’t know what I have to give up. But, Lord, please get my son out of there.”
[Music: “Lunette” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Narration: Back in the band room, Kai was doing his best not to panic. Of course, just like most students in the school, he didn’t know what was going on — who and where the shooter was, if anyone had been hurt, if that day would be his last.
But he did know how to stay calm through stressful situations.
Kai Koerber: I tried my best to not think the worst. When I was really stressed out in certain situations, my family always told me to picture myself being safe at all times, no matter how dangerous the situation actually is. It’s really gotten me through some rough times and kept me safe in a lot of different ways.
Alana Koerber: You know, I taught my son how to metaphysically protect himself, surrounding himself with white light, picturing wings of an angel, just soothing him from harm.
Narration: So, Kai sat perfectly still in a corner of a closet, imagining himself surrounded by a bright protective light.
And Kai and his mom say that it worked that day. He was protected. If Kai’s teacher had let him go to the bathroom at 2:18 p.m., like he’d asked, he would have been in the exact hallway at the exact time the gunman began shooting.
After about three hours, the high school was taken off lockdown, and students were allowed to go home.
It wasn’t for another day or so that Kai would learn, along with the rest of world, that 17 people had been killed — 14 students and three staff members — making it one of the deadliest school shootings in the country. The killer was Nikolas Cruz, a former student at the high school.
[Music: “Fifteen Street” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Kai would go on to become an influential voice in the fight against gun violence. He did dozens of interviews with national news shows, radio programs and magazines. He attended protests and rallies, where he spoke to reporters whenever they had questions.
It was his responsibility, he says, to share his voice and try his hardest to make a difference in the way that mental health is understood and treated in the U.S.
An advocate for mental health education
Narration: After the shooting, Kai wasn’t sure he wanted to be in the limelight. Other Parkland students had begun appearing on TV, speaking out against gun violence and pushing for reforms in the country.
But Kai questioned if it was right. He wondered, “Should they be putting themselves out there? Was it going to create positive change, or was it sensationalizing the tragedy?”
He talked it over with his mom, and decided that he wanted to add his voice to the narrative — to take a stand and speak authentically about gun violence and mental health, bringing the perspective of a young black person living in the South.
Here he is on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah with four other Stoneman Douglas High School students:
Trevor Noah: “Kai, on your side, giving teachers guns isn’t the safe space that you would want to be in. A teacher having a gun doesn’t make you feel better. Why?”
Kai Koerber: “If I’m being honest, I don’t want to seem like that guy, but me being a minority in the South and having a teacher with a gun … does not make me feel comfortable. Even when you have resource officers who are taking matters into their own hands, I don’t think lethal weapons should have a place in the school environment. If you need to have a weapon to defend people, I do believe it should be a non-lethal option.”]
Narration: Kai soon became committed to promoting mental health curriculum in schools.
In April 2018, he founded Societal Reform Corporation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting mental health programs in schools — programs that teach students of all ages to “mitigate emotions, relax, learn and grow as human beings.”
He teamed up with the Crown Prince of Norway and Berkeley alumnus, Haakon Magnus, who runs a program called Global Dignity. He also partnered with a leading author on mindfulness and personal transformation, Jack Canfield. (Both Magnus and Canfield had seen Kai talk at different events and contacted him about a possible collaboration.)
Kai Koerber: I have found that a lot of people who are tremendously successful or who are in those positions do share a lot of the same beliefs that I do, in terms of how mental health works — the power of intention, goal setting and not letting things stand in your way, no matter what they are. It seems to be a universal language to them.
Narration: Using both Magnus’s and Canfield’s curricula, Kai has put together what he calls his Empowerment Curriculum — some 400 pages of more than 100 lessons that he says will be a growing library of self-improvement resources.
Kai Koerber: It not only counters the culture of pharmaceutical dependence that America has, in terms of regulating emotional states, but it also teaches people that they don’t need to depend on things outside of themselves to live happy and healthy lives.
[Music: “Greylock” by Blue Dot Sessions]
That was a really big part of my upbringing and I really wanted to share that and create a curriculum that reflected those beliefs.
Narration: A big part of the curriculum teaches mindfulness exercises that help to channel positive energy and mitigate negative emotions.
For one exercise, there’s a script, but the idea is that someone might look in the mirror and say something like, “I can overcome any obstacle standing in my way.” By channeling the power of intention, it becomes a reality.
Narration: Kai has already donated his curriculum to several school districts in Florida and to some alternative high school programs that help high-risk youth get their GEDs. Broward County Public Schools — the sixth largest public school system in the nation — is looking to incorporate some of its teachings into next year’s lesson plans.
As a student at Berkeley, Kai plans to major in computer science. He’s always loved math and finding solutions to problems, and his family has a long history in the field. His grandfather worked on Wall Street as a mathematical statistician. His uncle worked at NASA as a rocket scientist.
Kai Koerber: It’s almost a right of passage to take calculus and all those classes.
Narration: And when he has time between classes and studying, he’s speaking at events across the country about mental health and the impact of gun violence on youth.
In November, Kai was the keynote speaker at the Florida Gulf Coast University, Children and Youth Mental Health Conference, where he received a standing ovation after leading several exercises from his curriculum with the audience.
And earlier this month, Kai spoke at an informational hearing chaired by California Assembly Member Buffy Wicks in Oakland. He was one of more than a dozen witnesses who testified on the impact of gun violence at the California Assembly Select Committee on Youth Mental Health.
[Music: “Dirty Wallpaper” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Kai says, ideally, he would like to see some of the lessons in his curriculum be used in high schools right away. The lessons on goal-setting and self-improvement, he says, are essential for students as they enter more challenging chapters of their lives. Eventually, he hopes the curriculum will be incorporated into all levels of education, from elementary school to college.
Kai knows it’s not going to be easy, but that’s never been a roadblock before. When people tell him to consider other options or to think about what could happen if something failed, he says he doesn’t have the energy or time to waste.
Kai Koerber: You just keep moving forward. You know, people, they’re very confused by that belief. But I don’t know. It’s something that I grew up with and it’s something that’s worked for me as a student, as an entrepreneur and as a person. So, I think I’ll carry it with me for the rest of my life.
Narration: Kai continues to build new partnerships to grow his curriculum. He recently secured partnerships with two neurotechnology companies that create devices for focus, relaxation and guided meditation. He hopes to install neurotech lounges on campus that use real-time biofeedback to promote relaxation and focus.
At only 18, Kai has already accomplished a lot, but I have a feeling, it’s just the beginning.
For Berkeley News, I’m Anne Brice.
To learn more about Kai’s nonprofit, Societal Reform Corporation, visit societalreform.org/. If you work at a school or for an after-school program and are interested in using the Empowerment Curriculum, email email@example.com.
Subscribe to this podcast, Fiat Vox, on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. If you liked this episode, consider sharing it with a friend. And check out our other podcast, Berkeley Talks, that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can find all of our podcast episodes on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.