School Shooting In Rural America

First Year Teacher Shares Incident Experience

Sarah is a first year teacher and daughter of a veteran police officer. She knew of crime but never realized she’d be so close to a shooting until a student opened fire inside her school during her 1st month on the job. This is Sarah’s account of September 30, 2015 in rural Harrisburg, South Dakota, population 5000.

I’ll never forget this day. I was supervising a study hall of diligent students when just after 10:00 AM; the intercom came on with static and white noise. Quickly following was the administrative assistant’s voice saying, “We are in lockdown. We are in lockdown.” She did not yell, but panic was heard in her voice. In fact, still today, over and over in my head, I hear how she said those words. Instantly I knew this was not a drill. Instead, a real incident was happening somewhere in the school.

Immediately I instructed my classroom of 25 students to get as close to the back wall as possible so they were not in direct site from the door. As they moved, I ran to shut and lock the door, turn the lights off and close all the shades. The next few minutes of uncertainty felt like an eternity. Students rightfully asked if this was a drill and what was going on. I had no answers. Finally our principal, who I later learned had just been shot, came on the intercom announcing the person causing the lockdown was apprehended and authorities were enroute.

All breathed a sigh of relief knowing with near certainty we were no longer in danger. Then I realized my loved ones, who’d in all likelihood heard about
the shooting, were probably trying to find out if I was okay, only I didn’t
have my cellular phone. For once, I was thankful for social media because I took to Facebook to contact my friends and family, letting them know that my students and I were safe.

I was on the job a month when this incident happened. I never imagined having to follow active shooter procedures ever while teaching, let alone in the first month of my career. The staff had practiced a lockdown drill just two weeks prior to the shooting so I knew what to do in the classroom that day and automatically did as we were taught.

September 30th I became a more confident teacher. Confidence in the classroom and relationship building with students typically come with time and success. Ironically, this experience jump-started both. I know, if faced with a similar incident, I will be confident in my actions. That morning those 25 students and I bonded and I feel closer to them now then I think most teachers in their first month of their first year could wish for.

I will admit that on the day of the shooting I really didn’t have any feelings about it. But the next day, when seeing the students and our principal, who thankfully was only slightly injured, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of what happened and the realization of how it could have been much worse for all.

October 1, 2015 when I got home from school, I learned of the Oregon college campus shooting and what happened the day before at our school really hit me hard. I thought to myself how easily that could have been my school, and my students. Yes, all of us at Harrisburg High School went through a traumatic event but it could have been a tragic event as well.

I was thankful then that I am close to my family. Some of my co-worker’s families live in other states and could only communicate through telephone or text messaging. I was lucky enough to have my family in the same city, offering me support and talking me through this incident.

I believe one of the biggest factors in this situation was that the student doing the shooting was new to the school. No one really had a chance to know him. And it is hard to say why he chose to use this act of violence with the limited background information we had on him.

What I can say is that parents should always be mindful of what their teenagers are doing and who they are hanging out with. As a sister to a brother seven years younger, I know keeping tabs on teenagers can be challenging because they don’t always want to talk to their parents. As a teacher I try to develop relationships right away with my students so they feel comfortable opening up to me about their struggles in and outside of school.

I don’t know if I am really the right person to dispense warning signs indicating a child might be considering an act of violence. I will say parents should try their best to be involved in their children’s lives and to pay attention to how they normally act. If abrupt change is noticed, it would be best for all to sit down right away and talk about it. As a teacher, and also someone who not too long ago was a teenager, I do know students absolutely want their parents to be involved and to talk to them, even though they may appear resistant and non-receptive.

Today I feel safe at Harrisburg High School. How I enter the school and go about my day has not changed. Honestly, being in lockdown was the last thing I ever expected when I decided to be a teacher. Yet, September 30, 2015 changed so many things for me. Teaching is as much about my learning as it is educating my students. That day I both taught and learned and I’m more confident for the experience.
What message would you like to convey to Sarah and all teachers? Leave a comment below.

©Copyright. October 2015. Linda Leier Thomason

All Rights Reserved.

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