Busy in Bristow: The End of the World as We Know It

| December 21, 2012 | 2 Comments | Busy in Bristow

A week ago today, the unspeakable happened, and tomorrow – three days before Christmas – three more tiny coffins go into the ground.

If we are so inclined, we – the living – can comfort ourselves with stories of heroism like that of Victoria Soto who apparently threw herself in front of flying bullets to form a bodily barrier between the madman and her students, who, according to some reports, crawled out of cabinets where Soto had told them to hide, only to get gunned down as they tried to run to safety.

Or, because these heroines deserve our thanks and because it eases our sorrow to focus on the positive, we can — across this nation — take pride in the bravery and resourcefulness of teacher, Kaitlin Roig, who saved the lives of her 15 students by rushing them into a classroom bathroom, barricading the door with a bookcase, and keeping them calm and quiet with reiterations of how much she loved them.

Look to Connecticut for consolation in the countless stories of those who thought on their feet to get students to safety, but look too for emerging details about six slain adults and 20 murdered children who were not lucky, who did not live.

Of course we can — and should — comfort ourselves with these stories of teacher heroes.

Of one unarmed principal and a school psychologist armed only with her knowledge of how she might penetrate the mind of a mentally ill man … both women courageous enough to directly confront a killer who had just blasted his way through a locked door with a military style AR15 semi-automatic rifle.

We can comfort ourselves with these stories of heroic but poorly paid teacher assistants who died, using their bodies to shield special needs students and like-minded bus drivers like the one who accompanied six first graders of Ms. Soto’s class who DID make it out alive to a nearby house where someone’s kindly grandfather gave them stuffed animals to play with and cocoa to drink.

Or … we can look to Connecticut and let our righteous anger rage.

We can look to Connecticut and remember – in our righteous and well-deserved anger – all of the other mass shootings such as our own Virginia Tech, the only massacre deadlier than Newtown’s. Remember more recent shootings like the Oregon mall and the Aurora movie theatre. You can go back in my column’s archive and read about my experience as a hostage at Bull Run Middle School right here in our very own Prince William County, a memory revived by the March killings at a high school in Chardon, Ohio and re-lived yet again now that the madness has spread to infect the youngest and most vulnerable in our keep.

Look to Connecticut and go back to 1999, when I had been teaching for only four years. Columbine helped shape current school security plans.

Security plans that are still lacking.

Security plans that, though well-intentioned and apparently enacted with expert advice from top brass around the country, are still woefully inadequate and should make every parent shudder.

You have to face the facts: the main thing that will keep your child alive if ever this happens in your son’s or your daughter’s school is a quick thinking and fast moving teacher or school nurse or librarian or custodian.

Look to Connecticut.

In an elementary school, there is typically one unarmed administrator. I know of no elementary schools with security personnel and none with School Resource Officers (S.R.O.).

Middle schools, at least, in Prince William County, have a security officer and maybe a policeman.

But on June 18, 2004, at 8:20 A.M., at Bull Run Middle School, in Gainesville, Virginia, our S.R.O. was out of the building. Rumor has it that the boy wielding the weapons knew just that.

Some things, however, went right that day, including fast action on the part of our assistant principal, who happened to be walking by the boys’ bathroom when he heard the sound of a gun being cocked. Discovered but not stopped, the 12 year old “would be shooter” made it into the front office with his rifle and held ten of us hostage, including the unarmed security officer who told us to get on the floor and do what he said. Right before the boy turned on his heel, left the office, and walked toward the library and classroom pods, he looked down at me, and from behind the terrorist-style kerchief he’d tied around his face, said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Smaltz,” to which I replied, “I know you are, honey.”

I was his teacher, and he was my student.

Perhaps our assistant principal should have leaned out of his office at that moment and thrown a stapler at the boy. You know, the heavy kind that can staple an entire sheaf of essays on The Great Gatsby. The kind that we teachers buy with our own money because the ones in our supply cabinets are flimsy and don’t staple, much less work as a weapon of self-defense.

At high schools around the country, depending on the size of their student body, there are usually anywhere between three to twelve administrators armed with staplers and paperweights and whatever else can be fashioned into a projectile object, which … if aimed just so and thrown with just the right degree of force, could in fact be used — these office objects  — to strike a shooter in the tender spot of his temple and knock him out cold, compliments of Swingline.

While school employees are told to inform parents that a security plan is in place and that to share any specifics of said plan would put our students in danger, I – as someone who has done this job for close to 20 years – can tell you that there is no secret cubby where we will hide your children if they come under attack, but thank God we DO have filing cabinets with which we can block the door. There is no underground bunker (but perhaps there should be) where we’ll all cower until the police sweep the building, stepping over the bodies of those who were the closest to the “hot spot.”

In 2004, I was not conflicted about any of this. I was simply a school employee doing her job. A teacher who – the morning after – received a phone call at my home but who refused to speak to a Mr. Shapira of The Washington Post. As we were directed only days ago, all requests of school employees for communication by media – who’d like to take a local spin on the school shooting in Connecticut – should be directed to the Communications Office of Prince William County Public Schools.

But now I am also a parent.

And parents are told to take their concerns to the children’s administrator.

Sadly, it would seem that school administrators are very like the politicians we see pumping their fists and pointing to one scapegoat or another – be it gun control or mental health debates. They tell us teachers we just have to keep doing our jobs – probably because it is what they are told by their superintendents. But is this really the job that Victoria Soto was excited about getting? Is this the job that I – too worried that I’d get held up as a bank teller to return for a second summer at Sovran Bank – signed up for?

They tell us parents that they know it could happen anywhere but that there is a security plan in place and that our kids are counting on us to go about our business, to follow the experts’ advice and continue with our regular routines even if “the world is ending.”

Looking to Connecticut, I think maybe the Mayans were right. Maybe the world as we know it IS ending. Maybe it began ending last Friday at 9:35 when a 20 year old – still too young to order a beer at a bar – shot his mother in the face with her own guns and then did the same to Victoria Soto, his fourth female victim that day.

Certainly if we stand in the corner and wring our hands, repeating over and over again that it’s terrible, it’s just terrible, but there’s nothing we can do, then we might as well watch the world end.

If we accept the political posturing of Presidents and Congressmen, and their constant backpedaling when met with unpopular opinion, like we accepted the polished statements of school officials who put a positive spin on what happened in Prince William County in 2004, if we let everyone in charge hypnotize us with magical rhetoric and more empty promises, then we are in denial.

In denial that we now live in the world’s only industrialized nation where 20 … count them … 20 children under the age of eight can literally be torn apart by the barbarous bullets of a crazed killer’s untreated sickness …

… where an Adam Lanza can decide, for no particular reason, that he will take his place among other infamous American madmen,

and where we the people are given no reassurance, no redress to our remonstrance. Where we are simply handed the newest reality of the sickness and lack of accountability that has ransacked our country, where teachers and parents are told to adapt. Because there’s nothing else we can do.

Look to Connecticut and understand that we live in a country where a murderer/suicide shooter can slaughter the most innocent babes and no one, not even “the most powerful man in the world,” can do a damn thing about it.

Look to Connecticut, and look inside your hearts as you go about your business. And do not, whatever you do, be fooled with the cold consolation that lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, because that – like so much of what we’re now being sold – is an old wive’s tale.

If life hasn’t changed for you since last Friday, look to Connecticut this Christmas, and pray for the courage to become that change … for our remaining children … before more tiny coffins go into the ground.

Like many moms, Kathy sends her children off to school every day – including this past week when it was extremely hard to do – and expects teachers who are trained in pedagogy and childhood development, but not in self-defense or counterterrorism tactics, to not only educate her four children, ages 5 to 10, but also to protect them from bodily harm, with their own lives if called to do so. Every school day, she leaves her darkened house at 6:30 A.M., after making the sign of the cross on each one of her children and entrusting them to God, and drives her 2002 Honda Accord to the high school where she works – educating 16 and 17 year-olds and protecting them from bodily harm if called to do so, thankful that there is not one, but two tall filing cabinets in her classroom. She is also the proud owner of one heavy Swingline stapler and a pair of very sharp scissors.

© 2012, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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  1. WorriedBullRunParent says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. As a parent of a Bull Run student, I would like to know more about the shooting incident. Your column’s archive does not go back to 2004, so can you post the column about your experience as a hostage again?

    • Kathy Smaltz says:

      I apologize for my delayed response. Thank you for your feedback. The column I was referring to was posted on March 1, 2012. Here is the link: http://bristowbeat.com/busyinbristow/keeping-our-children-safe/
      Many years passed before I could write about what happened.
      School security is one subject about which I am most passionate. I know we can’t prevent bad things from happening, but I also feel we can always work to improve our readiness and prepare for worst case scenarios.
      Thank you again for your interest, and now that I know people are posting comments to my column, I will be on the lookout for them, so I can respond in a timely manner.
      Kathy S., Busy In Bristow

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