Saturday, Sep 22, 2018
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Shooters, makeshift barricades occupy imaginations of local schoolchildren


    Start High School student Kelis Williams, 16, talks about school shootings from her home in Toledo on Thursday.

    The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
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    Start High School student Kelis Williams, 16, talks about school shootings from her home in Toledo on Thursday.

    The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
    Buy This Image

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    Buy This Image


For children growing up under the specter of shootings, school supplies and sports equipment have taken on new meanings.

Textbooks, staplers, and pencils are some of the items local students have been told to throw if an active shooter ever entered their classroom.

Rebecca Hovey and Marisol Gonzalez, both 13, think of the emergency buckets at their future high school, Waite, when news of another school shooting breaks. Each classroom has one, and teachers stock them with first-aid kits, rope for securing doors, water, toilet paper, and snacks. A few teachers stockpile projectiles — like softballs — for use in a confrontation.

Rebecca and Marisol are well-versed in unorthodox uses of classroom implements. They’ve considered how to build makeshift barricades and how to use primitive weapons like school supplies and furniture for self-defense.

“If they threaten to hurt you, you can throw anything at them. Chairs, brooms,” Rebecca said.

The pulse of school shootings has at once desensitized and terrified local students. During active shooter drills this year, some told jokes while others huddled stony-faced behind desks. The possibility of getting shot hovered in the back of students’ minds — dormant, for some — until the next school shooting brought it forward. Few described the worry as debilitating. Instead, for most, it’s in the background between rounds of fire, part of the fabric of student life.

But the calculus of what to throw and where to run is part of their education.

WATCH: Kelis Williams on school shootings

Planning their defense

So far, 2018 has surpassed 2017 in the number of school shooting deaths and injuries, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonpartisan research group. In March, local students held protests and spoke at forums in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people. Shots fired in the past two weeks — killing 10 in a Texas school and injuring two in Indiana — did not inspire new action locally, but they echoed. As students prepared to leave school for the summer, some reflected on the year and looked ahead to the next. Young children mulled the logistics of survival.

Right after a shooting, Rebecca said she feels “terrified” and doesn’t want to go to school. In the weeks following, she tends to worry on and off.

Others worry daily, like Keasia Thomas. In her mind, Keasia, 12, often runs scenarios depicted in the news, visualizing what would happen if an armed intruder broke into her school, Glendale-Feilbach Elementary, which is a TPS school in South Toledo.

“It’s basically a replay in my head of what I would do if I were in that situation,” she said, sitting on the steps of Stranahan Theatre during Bowsher High School’s graduation. “Most likely, if somebody came into my school and started shooting, and if there was a close-by window and I saw nobody out there and I was in a safe place where I could jump down, that’s what I would do.”

Active shooter drills require students and teachers to think in darkly practical terms, and added securities are tangible reminders of the possibility of a shooting. In Toledo Public Schools, surveillance cameras and 47 security personnel keep watch on school grounds, including six armed police officers, seven other armed law enforcement officers, and 34 unarmed campus protection officers district-wide, said the school district’s security chief, Diana Ruiz-Krause.

In Temperance, Bedford Public Schools have built protective gates to corridor off courtyards and walking areas. In August, the school board is expected to decide on whether to place a tax levy before voters in November. It would create a $34 million bond for school upgrades, including safety-related repairs, Superintendent Carl Shultz said. Anthony Wayne schools are also adding protections to buildings, including shatter-resistant film on windows and extra security devices on doors. The district upped the number of active shooter drills it conducted this year, Superintendent Jim Fritz said. The drills simulated the sounds and some of the sights of a real shooting.

“It’s a little more realistic when you hear the gun going off in the building,” Mr. Fritz said.

Many local districts, including Bedford and Toledo, follow the active shooter response protocol, ALICE, which empowers teachers and students to respond to emergency situations as circumstance dictates.

“We don’t want to limit our personnel to either lock down or evacuate,” Mrs. Ruiz-Krause said. As part of ALICE protocol, classroom buckets are equipped with items for hours-long lockdowns and, in some cases, confrontation. But security officials and administrators hope it will never come to that.

Still, students imagine. And young children know that, unlike other boogiemen occupying their imaginations, school shooters are real.

Michaela Thomas, 12, sat beside Keasia and gazed out at the parking lot as seniors graduated in the theater behind her. News of school shootings “makes you afraid to even go to school,” she said.

“You just can't really focus,” she said. “You're thinking, ‘If someone comes in, what will happen?’”

The girls spoke quietly as robed seniors received diplomas inside. It will be six years until Keasia and Michaela graduate.

‘Not at Scott’

Other students have more confidence in the measures their schools have put in place to protect them. During a band practice on Scott High School’s front lawn, students took a break from their cymbal-crashing and baton-twirling to trade opinions about whether a school shooting could happen at Scott.

Yai-Zierra Jelks, 16, said many of her classmates don’t think so because most school shooters have been white, and Scott’s student body is majority black.

“They don’t think black people are crazy enough,” she said.

“When we have drills, they be laughing, giggling, screaming,” Ra-Kizha Ford, 16, added.

Yai-Zierra is skeptical that Scott’s security would be enough to stop an armed intruder if one were to enter.

“As much as we practice and rehearse ... I don’t think it would be effective,” she said.

The students had different ideas about why school shootings happen, mirroring, in some moments, national conversations.

In the United States, opinion is divided over whether mental health or gun control should be the focus of discussion. The split has tended to map onto party lines, with Senate Republicans pushing mental health initiatives and Democrats advocating stricter gun control. Others argue that both issues need to be addressed, like Lisa Pescara-Kovach, director of the University of Toledo’s Center for Education in Targeted Violence and Suicide, who said the question of cause “isn’t either/or.”

Both concerns — mental health and gun availability — were voiced at Scott. Ron’Naysha Smith, 16, worries that students who have access to guns might use them in a fit of anger.

“I noticed that some boys own guns,” she said. “When they get in an argument, anything could happen.”

Others felt bullying was to blame.

By Scott’s side entrance, a small group of students lounged on the stairs and tossed a basketball around. Two incoming sophomores — Asha Jones, 15, and Kelis Williams, 16 — spoke matter-of-factly about the reasons people shoot up schools. Asha attributed school violence to victims of bullying feeling helpless.

“If you know you can’t whup someone, you’re going to get a weapon,” she said, fiddling with her phone.

Asha doesn’t think a shooting could happen at Scott, though. There isn’t much bullying there, she said, and students at Scott are “like a big family.” They have their differences, but students generally settle their disputes outside, she explained.

“If one student had a beef with another student, I could see that happening any, every day in the parking lot,” Asha said.

“Who would wake up and want to shoot a bunch of kids?” Kelis said. Then she paused. “You never know, though.”

Last resort: Fight back

Clustered on a path behind Waite, Rebecca, Marisol, and Rebecca’s younger sister, Adalyn Hovey — a fifth-grader at Garfield Elementary School — recited instructions given by their teachers: If the shooter is in the hallway, stack chairs to block the door. Throw furniture and supplies to distract him — and nearly every documented school shooter is a “him” — if he breaks through the makeshift barriers.

The chances of a gunman entering their classroom may be minuscule, but, for these girls, the reality of the possibility has registered, and their school’s message has sunk in: be prepared for the worst.

Security officials with Toledo Public Schools encourage students to use “any items they have available” if they have no choice but to confront an intruder, security chief Mrs. Ruiz-Krause said — “but that’s an absolute last option.”

Taught to view school supplies as tools for self-defense, the girls weighed the potential of classroom items to inflict harm. Books and pencils — even chairs — probably wouldn’t seriously injure an armed intruder, they acknowledged, but at least the students would have the element of surprise on their side. Shooters don’t expect resistance.

“Most of the time, people shoot at schools because kids are easy targets,” Adalyn, 11, said.

Marisol added, “People who won’t fight back.”

Contact Lily Moore-Eissenberg at, 419-724-6368, or on Twitter @LilyM_E

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