I still remember the first time I ever learned about a school shooting. I had just turned 13 years old, and I came home from sixth grade to learn about the Columbine High School shooting, and I was not able to truly comprehend what was playing out on the television screen in front of me; until that moment I had no idea that there was potential that I could walk into my school and never walk out again. I watched transfixed for days at the coverage as more and more information was reported about the details of what had transpired, how many lives had been lost, and how to hopefully prevent something like that from happening again.
As I grew older and eventually went to college, I decided to follow my passion for education and was accepted into the education program at a well-respected university. One day I returned to my on-campus dorm to learn that the Virginia Tech shooting had taken place while I was completing my classroom observation hours. At first, I felt stunned, and then I felt terrified, I had never really given any thought to the fact that I was not safe on my college campus. I started to feel as if nowhere was safe and that potentially any building I entered could be the last. I went to several campus forums and informational meetings that the college I attended and the school I was completing my observations at hosted to learn of their emergency protocol and procedures. Hopefully, to give myself the best chance of surviving if I ever found myself in this highly unlikely situation of facing an active shooter.
As I edged closer to completing my degree, I had to become comfortable with the fact that there may come a day where I may have to stand between my students and a person with a gun. I had no idea that that notion would come to fruition during my first year of teaching. I had taken a position as an eighth-grade language arts teacher in a rural middle school, and we were coming to the end of our year. We cycled through the monthly drills, including an intruder/ lockdown drill the first Wednesday of every month, and I knew all the code words and protocols the school had in place to keep us safe. I hoped that I would never need them and that we could all just go to school and learn and teach, but all that changed one April afternoon.
My planning period had just ended, and I had 22 students coming in, finding their desks, and settling in for our lesson that day. I was starting to get into the groove of my lecture when the intercom beeped, and the code word went out – I froze. My brain started running through the list of all the things we had practiced, and I stumbled for a second, looking around at the 22 pairs of eyes that were all wide and staring at me. I ordered the students into the corner of the room, farthest away from the door as I ran to the lock the door and covered the small window that allowed us to look out into the hallway.
I ran to the other side of the room to the large back of windows that looked out into the parking lot and main road around the school. We were on the second floor, so there was no way to get everyone safely to the ground, and as I closed the blinds and sank to the floor, I knew that for better or worse, I had barricaded us all in. I grabbed my cell phone off my desk and crawled over to my huddled and terrified students. I told everyone to turn their phones on silent, and I assured them with every piece of calm I had in my body that we were going to be ok and that we would be safe as long as we were quiet. I texted my husband and my mother a very simple text stating that we were on lockdown, and it was not a drill; I did not want my mother to hear about it from the local news.
That was when I realized that I had done all that I could do. I could not run and barricade the door Wile E. Coyote style, I could not leave my students and save myself, I could not get us out of the building safely because unlocking the door and running to the nearest exit was more dangerous than sitting still. The police station was not too far from the school so I told myself that the police would be at the school very soon, all we had to do was wait. That was when we all heard frantic banging and yelling outside our door, a voice begging us to let them in.
It was a voice I recognized, but I knew from our drills that I should not respond, and I should not open the door since it could potentially be a trap or a hostage situation. No matter how loud the banging got or how scared the yelling sounded, I sat in silence, too afraid to move all the while knowing that the police would get into the door one way or another, and all we had to do was wait for them.
In the end, we sat there for almost three hours, believing that each second could potentially be our last and simultaneously trying to comfort each other and stay calm. Finally, the police entered the building and were able to shove their badges under the door for us to see before getting the door open and taking us to a safe location. We eventually learned that the active shooter was an intoxicated man walking around the school with a shotgun.
Were we ever really in danger? I don’t know what this man’s intentions were, but there was the potential for something catastrophic to happen, and for that, I’m thankful that the administration acted quickly, and for the practice that made the safety measures feel like second nature, so we had the best possible chance of making it out alive. We barricaded ourselves in, and because of that decision, we walked out, able to continue on with our lives.
The lesson learned that day was that we never know when or where we might need to set up a shelter in place or a defensive position. A good first start is the awareness of our surroundings and a quick mental exercise of what we might do if danger comes our way. Training and drills prepared us for the static location of our classroom, but what if we were somewhere unfamiliar, a restaurant, mall, or movie theater?