My name is Twila Smith, and for the past 30 years, I have been a teacher. On 25 August 2015, I survived a teacher’s worst nightmare: a student in my classroom with a loaded gun.
It was seven days into the school year, and so far things were going well at Philip Barbour High School, a small high school of around 700 students in rural north-central West Virginia. Though a veteran teacher, this was only my fourth year of teaching freshman world studies. I had only recently returned to regular education after decades of teaching students with complex behaviour and emotional issues.
The bell rang to begin class, and my classroom door was left open – as was encouraged. Before I could start my lesson, a student who had been absent from my morning class rushed in, and stood in the middle of the room. I smiled and asked him cordially what he needed, thinking he was there to pick up missed work or explain his morning absence.
Instead, he walked directly to me, raised a gun and pointed it at my head.
I’ll never forget what he said next: “People are going to die today. You are going to die today.”
For a split-second, I thought that perhaps this was a failed attempt at a joke. That thought quickly fled as the armed student started barking orders: “Shut the door! Cover the windows! Lock the door! Throw the keys across the room!”
His commands were cold and terrifying.
I followed his orders, the whole time talking to him as gently and as calmly as I could. I thought back to all my training in how to de-escalate a student with an emotional or behavioural disorder. I asked him what was wrong. I tried to keep my voice steady but constant; all the while I was locking us in with a young man who said he was going to kill us.
Initially, he ignored all of my questions. He told the students to take out their mobile phones, put them on the floor and put their hands in the air.
They did. Some of them began to cry.
He didn’t like that. He told me, “Make them stop.” So I did. I told them as confidently as I could that it would be OK, even though I wasn’t sure that it was going to be. And they listened to me.
They tried to stop crying, muffling their sobs and holding each other. A girl whom the armed student had been romantically involved with approached him and asked him for the gun. Instead he gave her his wallet and phone, saying he didn’t need his personal things any more. The girl collapsed into a chair, sobbing. Despite fearing for their own lives, other students gathered around her, comforting her, trying to help her to stop crying. I have never witnessed bravery like the sort I saw that day in my students.
Then he began to talk. He said his life was messed up. He had made a mistake. I told him that we had all made mistakes. I told him about my own mistakes. I told him there was love in the room. Several students nodded their heads in agreement.
I opened a desk drawer and asked him to put the weapon in the drawer, telling him that he hadn’t yet gone too far.
He shook his head, pointed the gun at me, and said, “No. People are going to die today.”
He began to single people out, telling them to stand up. He would ask them questions and told them that if they answered wrongly, they would die. I knew, no matter what, I had to do everything I could to stop my students getting hurt.
Whenever he put the gun on a student, I started talking, making noise or moving, redirecting his attention to me. Sometimes I was moving and didn’t realise it. Any time he focused his attention on the students, I did what I could to divert it. At this point, I thought, “This is my day to die.”
Sometime after 1pm, I realised that the bell would soon be ringing for the next class. We had been hostages in my room for close to 25 minutes, and no other people in the school knew about it. All around me teachers were still teaching and students were still learning. But in about 20 minutes’ time, the bell would ring, and more lives would be put in danger.
I announced to the whole room, “The bell is going to ring soon, don’t anyone move.”
I looked at the armed student and said, “If someone moves, don’t do anything. We’re conditioned to move on the bell. More students are going to want to come in here. What are we going to do? What’s the plan?”
He answered, “The plan is they can come in here, and some of them will die too.”
I paused then, and from a higher place came the courage to say, “We need another plan.”
I thought I was never going to make it out of that room, but I was determined that no other students were going to come in and meet the same fate.
'I knew I had to do everything I could to stop my students getting hurt'
After some careful negotiations, the armed student agreed to let me retrieve my keys, open the door and, as students knocked, tell them to go across the hallway to another class.
When the bell rang and other students began arriving, the hostages stood out of sight, while I turned each new student away through a crack in the door. The whole time, the armed student stood just out of sight with the gun pointed at me. I greeted each student abruptly, hoping that my strange behaviour wouldn’t go unnoticed by them.
Soon, the teacher across the hall realised that my class was still in my room and that I was turning students away at the door. She knocked, I opened the door, and she leaned her head in and scanned the room. The student placed the gun to her head and ordered her to come in. Acting quickly, she pulled back, slammed the door shut, and was gone.
The armed student became more agitated than ever, saying that now there would be a lockdown. I was truthful. I told him that yes, there would be.
He was panicking, and said that the police would come and shoot through the window. I told him to stay away from the window, that we would go out together. I continued to try to earn his trust, constantly telling him that things had not yet gone too far.
Then came the announcement through the loudspeaker: “We are in lockdown.” We heard voices outside door. The local chief of police arrived, and negotiations began between the student and the police.
Finally, the student agreed to let the other students and I leave the room. He stood behind my desk, put the gun to his own head, and warned that if the police intervened, he would kill himself.
I stood by the door while my students filed out quietly, some of them still doing their best not to cry. I heard the policeman yell, “Teacher! Run!” But I didn’t want to leave him, hurting, angry and scared, with a gun now pushed to his own head.
Before I left, I turned to him and said, “It’s going to be OK.” I don’t remember if he answered me or not; my desire to live now pushed me out of the door and away from my classroom.
After another hour of negotiations, the young man’s pastor was finally was able to walk him out of the room.
There were no tragedies that day.
The healing process
I returned to school the next day, not knowing how many of the students would come back. Almost half returned. We had 100 per cent staff attendance that day, but we were forever changed. The remainder of the school year was difficult. We often felt unsafe, and it’s hard being afraid to go somewhere that you have always loved going to before.
We soon realised that in order to heal, we had to work together as a school. With the help of our student council and pledge.org, a campaign to stop gun violence, we organised a number of safety assemblies where students could take a pledge that begins, “I will not bring a gun to school.”
These assemblies were effective, but there is still much work to be done.
As terrifying as the events of 25 August were, the lack of preparedness for this event is the thing that continues to unsettle me. My age, experience and background in special education helped me to keep us safe that day, but not every teacher has had training in emotional and behavioural disorders and how to de-escalate these students. Teachers and schools need more specialised training in these areas, as the US faces more and more of these situations. School-based mental health support is necessary.
Luckily for all involved, August 25, 2015 ended peacefully. I know that we cannot change every student or make every one of them feel safe, but every single school needs “another plan”. One that will make our schools a place of peace.
Twila Smith teaches world studies at Philip Barbour High School in West Virginia, US