According to the Washington Post’s data on school shootings, more than 215,000 students have experienced gun violence since the killings at Columbine High School in 1999. And that number doesn’t even include teachers and other school workers. To understand what it’s like to survive a school shooting and then return to the classroom as an adult, I spoke with three educators who have experienced gun violence in their schools.
Heather Martin is currently a high school English teacher in Aurora, Colorado, but on April 20, 1999, she was a senior at Columbine High School, where 13 people were shot to death. The shooting began while she was in choir class.
Mary Ann Jacob was a library clerk at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, when 20 children and six adult staff members were fatally shot in 2012. It was a Friday morning, and Mary Ann remembers that those mornings were often reserved for short dance parties to celebrate the end of the week. As she prepared for a library class with a group of fourth-graders, she heard noises coming over the school’s intercom.
Ken Yuers is a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Rancho Tehama Elementary School in Northern California. He recalls that the shooting spree began on Nov. 13, 2017. The gunman ultimately fled the school and later shot and killed himself as police closed in on him.
Heather Martin: A student ran up through the doors and just said, “Someone has a gun downstairs, and they’re shooting.” We all kind of immediately jumped up, probably out of shock, and the teacher yelled at us, “Get down.” So we kind of sat down, and then the gunfire erupted right outside the doorway.
So a bunch of people scattered. I did not scatter. I’m not really sure why. I think I just was in shock and didn’t want to overreact. Definitely not thinking that this could happen at my school. There’s a chance I went outside to investigate what was happening. A friend of mine says that we went outside the door where we saw Mr. Sanders take a bullet. I don’t have any memory of that, but we did come back into the choir room and eventually barricaded ourselves into the teacher’s office. We put the two desks in front of the door. There were about 60 of us barricaded in there for three hours. So we heard the gunfire happening in the library, which is where most of the murders took place. And after three hours, we heard a knock at the door, and we all looked at each other like, what should we do? One of the students was like, “Who is it?” “Denver SWAT team, open the door.” So we moved the desks and came flying out the door. We couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
From there, they did question us and search us. And then led us out of the school in groups of 10. The gunman had a lot of pipe bombs that they had set off throughout the building. So the fire alarm was going off; the sprinklers were on. I remember walking through water, and when I was walking through the commons, that was very surreal. It was empty, but there were water and backpacks and paper plates floating on the water. It was eerily quiet. I often think about the—I don’t know why it reminds me of this, it’s kind of gruesome—but the scene in the movie Titanic, with all the bodies sort of just like floating in this water.
It wasn’t bodies, it was backpacks and things. There were chairs that were melted because of the bombs—and then they hadn’t covered the bodies yet. So we did see the bodies on the way out.
Mary Ann Jacob: I thought, What are they doing in the office? Could they have hit the button by mistake while they’re fooling around having their Dance Party Friday? So I got up and walked over to the circulation desk and picked up the phone and called down there to let them know we could hear them … and I start hearing some loud noises, but it’s not really making any sense. And from under her desk, one of the school secretaries picks up the phone and says, “There’s shooting.” And I hung up the phone without even responding. Yelled to Yvonne Cech, who is our librarian, “Lockdown,” and I ran out into the hallway to the two classrooms across the hall from us and yelled “Lockdown” in their doors, and slammed their doors shut. And when I got back to the library, Yvonne was ushering the kids to the spot along the wall that backed up to the hallway, in between two bookcases where we had practiced our lockdown drills, and there were two other adults in the room.
We put some bookcases around us and waited, looking at each other, the adults. We were sort of spread out among the 19, 18 kids looking at each other like we’re thinking, “What is going on?” I mean, clearly, at that point we could tell they were gunshots. It was, “Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.” And even hearing all that, the reality of it just wasn’t sinking in.
A few minutes go by, and we thought we had locked all our doors. There were five separate doors in the library. We hear a door open, and I look up, and I see the barrel of a shotgun come around the corner. And honestly, we all thought it was the gunman but very quickly realized it was the first policeman who’d come in the building. His head came around the corner.
He looked at me and said something, and I said something in response, I don’t know what. And he put his finger to his lips to tell us to be quiet and turned around and left. And Yvonne went over to check the door again, and we realized it wasn’t locking properly. We’re still thinking we’re in grave danger. So we instruct the kids to crawl along the floor to a closet. And then we closed the door and pushed two filing cabinets in front of it and waited.
So we heard a guy yell, “Police,” so we made him shove his badge under the door and then we pulled the file cabinets out of the way, and I opened the door. And standing outside the room where we were in was a room full of police in riot gear, and I sort of crumpled at that moment thinking, “Oh my God, it’s real. Whatever’s going on is really bad.”
And I said to the police, “What do you want us to do?” And they’re like, “We want you to come out two by two, and an adult will take each child in each hand and we’ll exit the building.” And I remember thinking that I had to compose my face before I turned around to face the kids, and so I did and said to them, “OK guys, the police are here, they’re ready to take us out.” When we emerged from the library, the hallway was lined with police in riot gear with their guns drawn, like there was a very present danger. And we ran out of the building.
I remember getting to the firehouse, which was adjacent to our school, and the kids just sort of melted out of my hands. I don’t remember what happened to them, and the first selectman and some people were standing there, and I said, “What happened?” And she said to me: “It’s the worst thing this country’s seen since Columbine.”
Ken Yuers: This man in our community of 1,500 people had murdered his wife the evening of the 13th and, we’d come to find out later, cut open up the floorboards of his home and put her body in there, and he had been feuding with his neighbors. So the next morning, about 7:51 a.m., he shot a couple and stole a truck and began a rampage in the community.
So for me, I was at the school office, trying to arrange a meeting with a parent, and then I was on my way toward the classroom. I was between the quad in my classroom, and I stopped to talk to the head of yard duty, Patty Smith, and we were talking, and we heard a series of gunshots, about a quarter mile away, rapid fire, and Patty said to me, “We may need to get these kids inside.”
I proceeded westward toward my classroom. I was walking very fast, just heightened alert, and we got them lined up. I got the door open. A couple of kids looked really scared, and I was getting them inside. And [I said], “Hey, did you see someone?” He said, “I saw a guy with a gun.” And then the gate crashed and not all the students were in the door yet, some of them were on the ramp. They looked, and they saw this guy with a gun, and they let out a big—you could just hear an audible gasp. And I kept standing there at that door, “Come on, get inside.” And they did. And, “Get under your desks.” They knew what to do. They were experienced with a lockdown. And then I did my best army crawl toward the phone and said loud enough, “Lord, forgive me for my sins,” because the phone was right by the ramp, and I picked it up, and I called 911, and I couldn’t get out.
So I called my daughter’s grandmother, and I told her, “Hey, we have an active shooter at Rancho Tehama Elementary. Call 911, active shooter at Rancho Tehama Elementary, call 911,” and hung up the phone. And the kids were whimpering. I just repeated, “Our eyes are our ears, we need to remain calm.” Fortunately, Mr. May and Mrs. Smith and the custodian and the teachers were now getting out too, and the secretary, everybody got those kids inside. So by the time he came around the corner, they were all inside, which was pivotal because this man went around shooting at the quad area.
He started in Room 1 where Ms. Bauman was. … Her Lock Blok was malfunctioning, so she was holding it with her body trying to pull that door closed with all of her strength. And then Room 2, where Mrs. Almand and Mrs. Smith and Mr. May were. And then he continued on toward the office. Just opened up on there where the secretary and the custodian were, and then continued on toward the eastern part of the quad, the library, shot the kindergarten and first-grade classrooms where a bullet did get a student, a 6-year-old. And a lot of the students were injured by flying glass, but we were lucky. According to the school officials, he fired off about a hundred rounds on that campus. We were extremely lucky. God help that community. I mean, five people died, but the shots going off were enough to alert us to get those kids inside.
Dahlia Lithwick: Hearing these stories provides a jarring look at what we ask of teachers in America. They also remind me of a piece I wrote for Slate back in 2013 about active shooter drills in our nation’s schools and their unintended consequences of making children anxious and worried. My own son, during an active shooter drill at his school, was told to “run like a pack of wild dogs is chasing you.” Do you think lockdown drills are a good thing, or not?
Mary Ann Jacob: What’s happening today, just five years later than what happened in Sandy Hook, is different. When we did lockdown drills before 2012, we would say to the kids, “This is in the event that there’s a stray dog or a bear, so we’re just making sure that we’re safe.” Today, it’s all about an active shooter, and every kid in America knows that. … We’re traumatizing kids today in a vastly different way who haven’t actually experienced gun violence themselves but are acutely aware of how much danger they’re in. I mean, school has always been a safe haven for kids, and it’s not anymore.
Dahlia Lithwick: Heather, you actually are teaching protocols. I know that you clearly feel that it’s better to be forearmed with knowledge and a plan than to just be shocked. How do you finesse it when you teach it so that you’re not essentially terrifying the kids you’re trying to protect?
Heather Martin: Well, there are a couple factors here. One is: I teach seniors, so they’re 17, 18 years old, so I think it’s really different talking to those students than it would be talking to younger students. I’m very upfront and honest about my story, and I tell my story to my students every year. And with my students, many of them have experienced gun violence in their lives. There’s a lot of gang activity. And I also have a lot of students who are refugees who are fleeing civil war. So the trauma from a red lockdown, well, they hear my story, and they can sort of … they can imagine it happening.
I don’t notice that my kids are that impacted by the drills. As a matter of fact, even the real lockdowns that we had—we had a student shot outside, and then we had a student with a gun in the building. For me, I do like to be prepared given what I’ve been through. I’ve got my plan, and I’ve got my backup plan, and I have a backup plan for my backup plan. And part of being a survivor is really going through those what-ifs.
Mary Ann Jacob: I do the same thing. I mean, I have a lot of plans for emergency situations, and they go well beyond what the school has put together, because we know that sometimes what the school puts together is inadequate.
Ken Yuers: I am onboard with that. I’ve prepared thinking about what could happen, not only at the school but when I’m away from school after going through November.
Dahlia Lithwick: One thing that we keep hearing after events like this is just how much confusion there is in the moment—from confusion around the number of shooters, confusion about who the victims are, their names, what happened. It seems like all these years after Columbine we would be better on these communications and protocols.
Heather Martin: I think sort of to your question is law enforcement’s response. When we were first busted out of that room, and we came flying out of there, we were cussed at. We were searched, and not nicely, and they were yelling, and it was loud. It’s a very high-stress situation. I also learned that when they saved us, they thought that there were still four gunmen on the loose. Because, again, initial reports were that there were six. They did find two in the library. Obviously, they were deceased then. The two on the roof were the air conditioning repair guys, so they’re still thinking that there are two gunmen on the loose. When they cleared our room, they searched us.
I’m sort of circling the issue here, but I think we do learn stuff from every situation, and I know that at least the law enforcement conferences that I’ve been to and that I’ve spoken to, they’re really working on their response to these things. Not just tactically but also how to minimize the trauma of the people who are going through these situations.
Dahlia Lithwick: You’re all describing, I think, PTSD, right? Some version of, “The way I make sense of this and go forward in the world is to just be hyperaware of the world around me.” Part of what’s so difficult is that I guess all of your students in the aggregate have some version of that, too, right?
Ken Yuers: It made for a very surreal year because this happened in November. It was the first one-third of the year. We had two-thirds of the year left to finish. There’s the combination of [having a] class of traumatized kids, and also you’re an educator. You’re there to help kids advance and learn, be successful in life, be part of their community locally, nationally, and here you are just now focused, and the district backed us on this, on their mental health. That had to come first. And you have to keep reminding yourself these kids have to start rebuilding their mental health. It just made for a very, very different year trying to process it all.
Heather Martin: I just wanted to commend you guys for that because, as a senior, I know it was different because we graduated and sort of moved on, but one of my biggest struggles was not having that system of support as I went off to college. I did try college. I dropped out. There was a fire alarm, and I lost it. So it’s really nice to hear that your district was supportive.
Ken Yuers: And we have a great staff. Every teacher, and staff, they didn’t have a sick day the rest of the year, which to me is just—we were there for the kids because that’s, as you know, that’s why we do what we do.
Mary Ann Jacob: The adults were just so traumatized, too, but nobody could imagine allowing the kids to go back without being there for them, because they needed us as much as we needed to be with each other. But the amount of learning that went on the rest of the year was far below what would have occurred, and every day you encountered something with a student that you were wholly unprepared to deal with. And I remember sitting at my computer one day and swiping a girl’s ID to check out a book, and her picture came up. She said, “Oh, that was before Ms. Soto died,” who was her teacher who died. I said, “I know, honey. That’s so hard.” Because we had 11 children, 6-year-olds, who survived in the two classrooms where the shooters were, who ran by him when he was killing their classmates. It meant, again, putting aside our own grief and trauma every day. I mean, Ken, you were probably exhausted the rest of the year, I’m guessing.
Ken Yuers: Yes, it was an exhausting year, but, as I said, we were there for the kids. And sometimes before I went in that classroom, I would be in that staff room just trying to get myself together before I’d leave to go do it, and that’s where the support from other staff members was great, because everybody could relate to what you had gone through. You weren’t alone in the experience.
Dahlia Lithwick: And two of you have talked about having to kind of compose your face and compose your voice and what it feels like in this moment of extreme crisis to have to almost put on a mask. When you’re reliving this and thinking about it, this question of, “How did I hold it together for these kids?”—that must be such a huge part, something you probably didn’t think you had in you, right?
Ken Yuers: Oh, yeah. It’s surreal. And yes, I didn’t know I had it in me. I didn’t know I had it in me when all of it was going down, when the perpetrator was out there shooting. You know, inside, you just want to scream and use a bunch of bad language, but I have a classroom full of 18 kids, and they’re turning to you, and they do turn to you. And it’s a form of therapy for myself. … You can’t help but grow closer to these kids after going through such an experience.
Mary Ann Jacob: One of the things that I think we didn’t do a great job of as a school community was take care of the adults in the school. The focus was on getting the kids back into a normal routine, and that was so important that it was done at the expense of the adults in the classroom, and in the building, who were basically told, “If you can’t keep it together, we’ll get somebody else to come in.” And it was a year before there was help in the building for the adults.
Dahlia Lithwick: I’m so glad you said that, Mary Ann, because as I was listening to Ken, I was thinking: It’s so easy to construct a story in which everybody’s a hero in these moments. We need to focus on heroes because it makes us feel better. But I love what you’re saying, because what you’re saying is, the minute you start calling teachers heroes, you’re taking away a little bit of the possibility of them being in trauma and grieving themselves, right?
Mary Ann Jacob: Yeah, and you know, it was interesting because, a lot of the people in the community, and in the nation—I mean there was so much attention on us, like there was after Columbine … the first responders are getting awards and these people are getting awards and these people, while those of us who are going to school every day, like Ken, you know, going back to the school every day and teaching those kids, it was like: What about them? They were the first responders. We were the first responders. We protected those kids every day in and out, and nobody wanted to be a hero, but we wanted people to understand that, as a community, we needed their support. And I think people felt like we must have been getting that support, because of who we were. But, in fact, we weren’t necessarily getting the kind of support we needed.
I remember even my own physician saying to me, “Well, you’ve been through a terrible trauma, you need to get help.” And I can remember driving away from her office that day thinking, “That was not helpful.” Because people who are most traumatized are least equipped to help themselves.
Dahlia Lithwick: I guess that leads to the post-Parkland conversation, which must break your hearts, because you’ve had this conversation a thousand times before. “Maybe we should arm teachers, and maybe we should hire veterans.” Is there anything of utility here? … What do you do when we have these conversations for the thousandth time?
Mary Ann Jacob: Frankly, I think the only person having the conversation about arming teachers is the NRA leadership and the president. I think regular people, in general, think that’s a ridiculous idea. Because on a practical basis, it’s almost unmanageable. And it’s also the extreme. You know, most schools in this country have about a hundred things they can do between nothing and arming teachers that are very effective for safety and security of their students. So, there are a lot of things we should be doing to make our schools safer. That’s not one of them, in my opinion.
Dahlia Lithwick: Heather, Ken, I want to give you an opportunity, if you’re proponents of arming teachers, to rebut what Mary Ann just said, or just to reflect on what you think would be measures that would make a difference, instead of this incredibly tedious “thoughts and prayers” conversation.
Ken Yuers: There are a lot of things that could be done, I agree, and unfortunately, a lot of it requires funding, and here in California, they’re trying to do some things to make schools safer.
A local assemblyman, [James] Gallagher, he tried to get it where every school had an armed security guard, which, that’s an outrageous amount of money, no way it’s gonna happen.
Speaking to the day of Nov. 14, for me, I was a military policeman, so I carried a sidearm for three and a half years. I’m not a guy who goes out and shoots for fun. I’ve never hunted, I’m not a member of the NRA. But in Northern California, in a rural area, there is a little more Second Amendment type of thinking, so, because of where I live, I do have a concealed weapon permit. I never really thought about being armed so much at school, but I will say that morning, I wouldn’t have thought about using the gun, but I did, once I got that Chromebook cart slid up against the door, I was thinking, “Gosh, if I had my sidearm on me, this would be a good way to set up a defensive posture, with the police so far away.”
I think at that exact moment, we have a rare exception where, if you’re in a rural area and there are no other protections already in place—please, get those protections in place, but in the meantime, you know, I think it should be something at least considered. I don’t think it’ll happen in California. I’m a member of the California teachers union here, and they’re supporting Gov.—he will probably be our governor—[Gavin] Newsom, he’s lieutenant governor right now, and they asked him what he thought about arming teachers, and he had a one-word response: ludicrous.
And I get what he’s saying. You know, teachers, we want to bond with our students, build a rapport; we don’t want to be thinking about a gun. But, if there’s gonna be an exception, I don’t think any teachers should be forced to have to carry … it could be strictly voluntary, with intense training. And, when I was going to get my permit, the instructor told me, every bullet you potentially fire has a liability lawsuit attached to it. Anyhow, I don’t want to come across as a gun nut. I don’t think I am.
Dahlia Lithwick: You’re not.
Ken Yuers: OK. And I heard about some knucklehead who’s supposed to be a police reserve or something firing off a gun in a classroom in the past year, and just, there should be no gun unholstered ever in a school unless you’re trying to save someone’s life. Anyways, that’s my thought on that.
Heather Martin: Well, I think as a teacher, when we’re talking about arming teachers, I personally would not like to carry a firearm, mainly because my what-if scenarios are all the things that could go wrong, and my what-if is, “What if I accidentally shoot one of my kids? What if the gunman is a student, and then I have to shoot one of my kids? What if the police come looking for the gunman and here I am holding a gun?” There are so many what-ifs in that scenario.
I would not feel comfortable carrying a weapon. And then, you know, I appreciate what Ken said just about, you know, mandating it. If somebody mandated that I carry a gun, I want to be like, “Um, I was at Columbine? Like, why would you want me to have a gun?” There are teachers out there that maybe shouldn’t have scissors, I don’t know.
But I would be very careful with, you know, mandating that and making teachers carry guns, because, again, especially in the community where I work, people in authority with weapons, that’s not always a good thing.
Mary Ann Jacob: I also come from a home that has guns. My husband and sons actually spent Father’s Day at the shooting range doing skeet shooting, and my husband grew up in the Midwest where the first day of hunting season was a day off from school, and, you know, my family has always respected the Second Amendment and considers gun ownership a privilege that comes with great responsibility.
That being said, I’m not anti-weapons in school, but I think, you know, in Connecticut, for example, we have a law that you can have a school security … it’s called an SSO, and that position was created by the state Legislature. It’s part of the police department, it’s a part-time position that is a retired police officer, and they belong to the police department, so they work under the authority of the police department with all the same training, and our schools have those in some of our communities. I think that’s perfectly acceptable. They man the front doors and they protect the internal community.
In Ken’s community, this doesn’t sound superpractical from a financial standpoint, so there may be something else that has to happen. But, you know, in many communities there are other solutions other than arming teachers, I think. Teachers need to focus on what they do for a living, which is teach kids.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.