Sunday, June 18, 2000

A real lesson

Sounds of shots fired in school

        My back to the door, I didn't see them coming. They fired two or three shots and screamed at us to get on the floor. “Face down. Don't look at us. Or you're dead.”

        I almost believed them.

        Next to me was Sally Shields, assistant principal at Mason High School. I could hear Roy Swift breathing. He's a teacher at Schiel Primary School in Corryville. One of the men kicked Roy's foot. Fired another shot. And another. My ears were ringing, and I could smell gunpowder.

        “Get over next to the wall. Move. Move. Move.

        More shots fired. Blanks. I knew it was fake bullets and fake bad guys. But my heart was pounding for real.

        That was the idea.

Emergency training
        This drama was for teachers, counselors and school administrators at Xavier University's Safe Schools Workshop, led by visiting professor Roger Effron. About 40 area educators studied conflict resolution, natural disasters, environmental hazards, fire, evacuations, guns, gangs and bomb threats.

        Well, you get the idea.

        Safety. Schools.

        “Most schools do not have major crises,” Mr. Effron says. “But if you know how to manage the big emergencies, you can handle the smaller ones.”

        Even the smaller ones can feel pretty big to a kid trying to cope.

        Nearly one in four Tristate teens feels unsafe in school, according to a USA Weekend Teen Survey, an admittedly unscientific compilation of questionnaires.

        A more scientific survey by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. in 1996 — three years before Columbine — reported 26 percent of students surveyed have “very serious problems” with physical fights.

        Another study a year later by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 4 percent of students missed at least one day of school a month because they felt unsafe.

Keeping pressure on
        So, these real educators were working to resolve a faux crisis. The “hostage-takers” kept the pressure on those of us inside the room. “Dance. Sing,” one of them ordered, shooting at my feet. I couldn't help it. I smiled. More gunshots. “Wipe that smile off your face.”

        Michele Gummer, principal of Blessed Sacrament School in Ft. Mitchell, was the principal in our crisis, working behind the scenes with police to get us out. “We think something like this is not going to happen,” she says, “but we need to know it can. And do our best to learn how to handle it.”

        I am remembering Steve Sorrell, the principal who in 1994 persuaded Clay Shrout to give up his gun after the boy killed his family, then took a math class hostage in Union, Ky. There were 24 potential victims in that Ryle High School classroom. A teacher. Students.

        As I was lying on the floor, my face pressed into an unforgiving industrial carpet, wondering if I would be haunted in later years by the videotape of me singing and dancing to “Happy Trails,” I listened as a gunman bullied someone across the room. “Tell us why you should be allowed to live,” he sneered.

        The teacher talked haltingly about his wife and two boys. Somebody sniffled. Another man talked about how much he loved teaching, his students. This part was real. As was the reason we were there. Columbine. Jonesboro. Paducah. Clay Shrout.

        And more than the threats, more than the sound of a gun cocking behind my head, more than the yells and the smells, this wiped the smile off my face.

        E-mail Laura at, or call 768-8393.


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