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Waqaa from Woolnough

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When the unthinkable occurs

    Santee, California. Littleton, Colorado. Moses Lake, Washington. Jonesboro, Arkansas. Bethel, Alaska.

    Bethel, Alaska? Yes, it belongs on this list of tragic school shootings of the past decade. In 1997, a student who brought a gun to school here killed a student and the principal. As a result, the district and the school implemented numerous safety measures including a school safety officer, cameras, radios for staff, phones in all rooms, lockdown procedures and increased communication and cooperation with various agencies—law enforcement and social services. A full-time social worker is on site along with a juvenile probation officer (part time).

    I had heard the stories about how the principal and student had been killed five years ago and thought, with all the precautions, we were safe—lightning wouldn’t strike twice in one place. I was wrong.

    Despite these precautions, the unthinkable almost happened again. On Oct. 10, a student brought a loaded weapon to school with the intent to kill another student. I know because I was the first adult to happen upon the situation. What follows is my account of the situation and my immediate reflections as I write these words 24 hours after the incident.

    Whoever says they don’t have time to be scared when a life-threatening situation happens is either lying or a very different person than me. When I saw the student pointing the gun (at first I didn’t know if it was a toy or a water pistol or the real thing), I assumed the worst and I was scared. Very scared. There were more than a dozen other kids in the immediate area. I was scared for all of the kids in the hallway and scared for myself. I saw the outstretched arm holding the gun sweep across the hallway. I saw the gun pointed directly at me for an instant. It is not true that the barrel of the weapon looks like a cannon. It simply looked like an instrument of death and destruction—perhaps mine, perhaps somebody else’s.

    I was confronted with an instantaneous decision—what to do? Try to clear the hallway? Call for help? Play hero—maybe dead hero—and try to take the gun away? In the split second in which I made my decision, time did seem to stand still. I know there was the omnipresent teenage chatter of students at their lockers just before the bell rings but I didn’t hear it. I also didn’t see students react to the weapon—there was no running or screaming or signs of panic. It happened too fast. One minute things were normal and the next instant there was a gun.

    I didn’t know the student. Later I found out the student had been enrolled less than a week. The student’s eyes looked terrified and somehow I thought (or hoped or prayed) that shooting wouldn’t start in the next couple of seconds. I ducked into a doorway, got on my radio and called for help.

    I turned around and watched the student walk toward me with the gun in an outstretched hand. The gun was dangling from the handle with the barrel pointed down. I was handed the gun and the student put hands up.

    Relief? Oh my god, yes. The adrenaline surge that occurred during the five seconds total that the incident took nearly caused me to collapse immediately afterward. Nevertheless, the controlled chaos continued and I still had to act. A teacher arrived and we hustled the kid into a classroom and removed the other two or three that were there. A lockdown announcement was made. The police showed up. An assembly was held. A press release was prepared. Things, on the surface at least, began to return to some semblance of normalcy. That is, of course, if I ignored the tears of staff that were present in 1997; if I ignored the dozens of students picked up by panicked parents; if I ignored the incredible feelings of fear, mortality and anger that resulted from having a loaded weapon pointed at me.

    Lucky? Damn straight! Does it matter that all of the procedures worked yet none of them would have prevented tragedy if the student had started shooting? Yes. What’s next? I’m not sure. Physically, it’s easy. Maybe metal detectors (we only have two main entrances). Emotionally and psychologically, I simply don’t know. Time will tell. Fortunately, our district has an employee assistance plan (EAP) and I know I will be taking advantage of it.

    If, an hour later, someone had offered me a one-way ticket to Idaho, I would have been on board the plane and left everything here. A few hours later, I would have wanted to at least pack a few things. Right now, I’m not sure. My primary concern is how this will affect my incredibly supportive and sensitive wife. We’re already struggling with the separation this job requires and this (in an incredible understatement) won’t help much.

    If anyone is looking for answers to youth violence and school shootings, don’t look at me. Right now it’s all too fresh and I’m dealing with it at a visceral level. Talk to the researchers and the professors for answers. Better yet, talk to parents. Perhaps best of all, talk to a kid. Not KIDS—just A kid. Maybe if we deal with them one at a time as unique and worthy individuals, we can break this awful cycle.


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AC Woolnough

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