The crisis was over, the danger had passed, and Saugus High students were wandering bewildered through a sea of squad cars and news vans, trying to wrap their minds around what had just transpired on the campus quad.
“I never thought this would happen in Santa Clarita.” That familiar refrain was all many students could think of to say when a newscaster stuck a microphone in their face.
They’d felt safe in the cosseted security of their close-knit suburban community, the hometown of so many law enforcement officers. Now, they were those kids who’d lived through a campus shooting. They were suddenly swathed in vulnerability.
“It doesn’t seem like this is something that should happen here,” a sophomore named Adriana told a reporter. She’d heard the gunshots from her home, as she was setting off for campus. Hours later, I could hear the mix of fear and outrage in her voice.
“I’m honestly terrified to go to school. You never really know if something like this could happen again.” She didn’t feel prepared for this, she said.
But how on earth do you prepare for the prospect that one of your classmates — an ordinary kid, a Boy Scout who played chess, ran cross country, had a girlfriend, took AP classes — would begin the school day by pulling a gun from his backpack and shooting into a crowd on the quad?
How do you protect yourself from something you can’t predict and don’t understand?
That’s a question we’ve been asking ever since the shocking massacre 20 years ago at Colorado’s Columbine High School. The murder of a teacher and 12 students by a pair of misfit classmates on a deadly rampage jangled us free from the notion of school as a safe space.
That tragedy is blamed by experts for sparking a wave of school shootings that have taken more than 350 lives, shows no sign of ending and spawned an industry of school-shooter protection programs to prepare for what was once unthinkable.
“Students today should be as familiar with active shooter protocols as they are with fire drills or protocols for earthquakes and other natural disasters,” says USC professor Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and director of the university’s Safe Communities Institute. For the last 20 years, he’s been visiting schools across the country, assessing everything from where the classroom windows are to how many kids sit alone in the lunchroom.
In some ways, protecting students has become its own sort of arms race, with schools going to such extremes that school-shooter training might actually traumatize the students it’s intended to protect.
“There’s a school of thought that you have to enact sensorial training drills — firing blank guns and tackling individuals — to make it a real life experience,” said Melissa Reeves, a Winthrop University professor who helped write a national curriculum for school crisis interventions. “But we don’t light a fire in the hallway to do fire drills.”
In fact, that kind of visceral experience can provoke such an intense emotional response that students wind up more scared than prepared.
Most schools prepare teachers and students as Saugus High did, with routine “lockdown” drills, often built on a hierarchical mantra of survival options: Run, hide, fight.
Critics worry that’s not enough to equip young people; that students will panic and freeze when a real crisis occurs.
But the response of Saugus High students and teachers to Thursday’s crisis suggests otherwise. They married instinct with preparation and did their campus and community proud.
I watched their stories unfold in news interviews on a day of relentless television coverage. Their presence of mind astounded me.
Students who could, fled the campus at the sound of gunshots and shouted warnings to others. There was panic and confusion, but there was no stampede.
Teachers guided kids away from danger, yanked them into classrooms, shoved them into safe spaces, and calmly issued orders — turn those cellphones off — that teenagers efficiently obeyed.
Behind locked doors, desks became barriers, fire extinguishers were marshaled as weapons, and students armed themselves with scissors, “just in case you have to fight back,” one boy told reporters.
And in the eerie quiet of a choir practice room, an injured student who’d stumbled in bloody from the quad assured worried schoolmates that she would be OK — as a teacher dressed her two bullet wounds with supplies from the classroom’s gunshot wound kit, lamenting only that she didn’t have a second kit.
The mere idea that classrooms today need gunshot wound kits makes me want to cry.
But that’s our new reality in this country. And no neighborhood can expect to be immune.
I could sense the students’ soul-searching as they tried to answer the question that virtually every reporter asked: How do you feel?
This was unfamiliar territory for them. They’d grown up in a community considered one of the safest cities for children in America. They went to school with kids they’d known all their lives.
And there they were, walking off campus in a single-file line, many in tears, with their arms above their heads like criminals on TV, being herded away from a crime scene.
They felt scared, confused, grateful, angry, stunned. And all the grown-ups had to offer them in the moment were hugs and refrains of “Thank God you are OK.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about Adriana casting about for some sign that things could be made OK, longing for the kind of protections that urban schools are trying to get rid of.
“We have open gates,” she complained. “We don’t check IDs. There’s no metal detectors. Maybe we need metal detectors.”
But who wants schools to look like penitentiaries?
“You could put all the physical protectors in place ... and still there’s no way we can stop everything bad from happening,” said Reeves, a former president of the National Assn. of School Psychologists. “The more you make it like a fortress, the more they feel unsafe.”
Her advice has nothing to do with searches or equipment: “We’ve got to deal with this on the front end with kids, so they’re not feeling so hopeless and angry and desperate.”
It seems to me we’re all feeling a little desperate right now, wishing there was one right answer — just do this and you will be safe.
But that doesn’t really exist, inside or outside of school, in our world today.