Dahlia Lithwick: Hello, I’m Dahlia Lithwick, and this is a special audio presentation from Slate. 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. Today, I’m talking with three people who experienced gun violence in their school.

Dahlia Lithwick: We’ll begin with Heather Martin. She’s currently a high school English teacher in Aurora, Colorado. But in 1999, she was a senior at Columbine High School, where 13 people were shot to death. Heather remembers the shooting began while she was in choir class. 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, like probably out of shock, and the teacher yelled at As soon as I 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.

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Dahlia Lithwick: Definitely, you know, not thinking that that could happen at my school. There’s 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 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 with we put the two desks in front of the door. There were about 60 of us barricaded in there for 3 hours.

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Dahlia Lithwick: So we heard the gunfire happening in the library, which is where most of the murders took place. And after 3 hours, we heard a knock at the door. We all looked at each other like, what should we do? One of the students is like, Who is it? And, you know, Denver SWAT team, open the door. So we moved the desks and came like 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 ten. 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.

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Dahlia Lithwick: So I remember walking through water and when I was walking through the commons, that was very surreal. It was empty, but there was water and like backpacks and plate, like paper plates floating on the water. It was eerily quiet. I often just sort of think about the. I don’t know why it reminds me of this. It’s it’s kind of gruesome. But the scene in the movie Titanic with all the bodies sort of just like floating in this in this water, it wasn’t bodies, you know, it was backpacks and things, but there were chairs that were melted because of the bombs. And then they they hadn’t covered the bodies yet. So. So we did see the bodies on the way out. Heather Martin and her story of surviving the Columbine school shooting on April 20th, 1999. We’ll hear more from her later.

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Dahlia Lithwick: Next is Marianne Jacob Story. She was a library clerk at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, when Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults staff members in 2012. It was a Friday morning, and Marianne remembers that those mornings were often reserved for a 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. I thought, What.

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Speaker 2: 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 be behind the circulation desk and picked up the phone and called down there to let them know we could hear them. And as it was happening, I started hearing some loud noises, but no nuts, not really making any sense. And from under her desk, one of the school secretaries picks up the phone and says, they’re shooting. And I hung up the phone without even responding, yelled to Yvonne, check, who is our librarian locked down. 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 door shut and came back to the library.

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Speaker 2: When I got back in 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. They were gathering there as well. And we put some bookcases around us and. Waited, looking at each other. The adults, we were sort of spread out among the 98 kids looking at each other like thinking, what is going on? I mean, clearly at that point, we could tell they were gunshots. It was bom bom bom, bom, bom, bom, bom.

Speaker 2: And, you know, even hearing all that, the reality of it just wasn’t sinking in. A few minutes goes by and we had thought we had locked all our doors. There were like five separate doors in the library. And when 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 and very quickly realised 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.

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Speaker 2: And. Yvonne went over to check the door again and we realised 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 close the door and push two filing cabinet and 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 I pulled we pulled the file cabinets out of the way and I opened the door and standing in the room outside the the room we were in was like a room full of police in riot gear.

Speaker 2: And I sort of crumpled at that moment thinking, Oh my God, it’s real. Like, whatever was going on is really bad. And I said, 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 we’ll exit the building. And I remember thinking that I had to, like, compose my face before I turned around to face the kids. And so I did and said to them, okay, guys, the police are here. They’re ready to take us out. And when we emerged in the library into the hallway, 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 sort of to the firehouse, which was adjacent to our school, and the kids just sort of melted out of my hands. I don’t know. 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 has seen since Columbine.

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Dahlia Lithwick: Marianne Jacob in her memory of the Sandy Hook school shooting.

Dahlia Lithwick: And finally, we’ll hear from Kenya. He’s a fourth and fifth grade teacher at Rancho Tehama Elementary School in Northern California.

Speaker 3: The shooting really began the evening before November 13th. This man in the community, 1500 people, he had murdered his wife that evening and come to find out later, put her under or cut open the floorboards of his home and put her body in there. And he had been feuding with his neighbors. So the next morning, about 751, he shot a couple of them and stole a truck and begin to begin a rampage in the community. So for me, I was at the school office trying to arrange a meeting with a parent and and then I was on my way towards the classroom. So I was between the quad and my classroom and I stopped to talk to the head. Your duty.

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Speaker 3: She’s also a resource aid’s Patti Smith. And we were talking and we heard a series of gunshots about a quarter mile away, Rapid Fire. And Patti said to me, I really need to get these kids inside. I proceeded westward towards my classroom. I was walking very fast. Just heightened alert. And the we got them lined up. I got the door open. A couple of kids looked really scared and I was getting them inside. You see someone once I saw a guy with a gun and then the gate crashed. And this not all the students were in the door.

Speaker 3: Yes. With some of them on the ramp, they looked and they saw this guy and they saw him with a gun and they let out a big you could just hear an audible gasp. And I kept, you know, stand out the door. Come on, get inside. And they did. And, you know, get in under your desk. They knew what to do. Experience with and without a lockdown involved. And then I did my best arming crawl towards the phone and I just said loud and nothing. And Lord forgive me for my sentence because at was right by the round and I picked it up and I called 911 and I couldn’t get out. And so I called my daughter’s grandmother and I told her, Hey, we have an active shooter match at an elementary Collin and one active shooter at an elementary call in one one and hung up the phone and the kids were whimpering. And I just repeated our eyes, our ears with be to remain calm.

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Speaker 3: Fortunately, the two Mr. May and Miss 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 quarter and he started room one where Mrs. Bauman was buried and her daughter lockbox was malfunctioning. So she was holding them with her body, trying to pull that door closed with all of her strength and room two or missile in it. And Mr. Smith and Mr. Mann or and then he continued on towards the office just opened up on there were secretary and a custodian was and and then continued on towards the eastern part of the quad.

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Speaker 3: The library shot the kindergarten first grade classroom where a bullet did get a student, a six year old, and a lot of students were injured by glass, wine, glass. But we were lucky. According to school officials, he put about 100 rounds. He fired off 100 rounds of even on that school campus. We were extremely lucky. God help that community. I mean, about five people dying, but the shots going off was enough to alert us to. To get those kids inside.

Dahlia Lithwick: Kenya’s and his memory of the shooting at Rancho Tajima Elementary School in November of 2017. The gunman ultimately fled the school and later shot and killed himself as police closed in on him. Hearing their stories provided a jarring look at what we ask of teachers in America. Their stories also reminded 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, quote, run like a pack of wild dogs is chasing you. So I asked Marianne from Sandy Hook Elementary whether she felt lockdown drills were a good thing or not.

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Speaker 2: What’s happening today is just five years later than what happened in Sandy Hook is different. You know, when we did lockdown drills in before 2012, you know, we would say to the kids, this is in the event that, you know, there’s a stray dog or a wild, you know, or a bear. So we’re just making sure that we’re safe, you know? Today, it’s all about an active shooter and every kid in America knows that. So the trauma of what were were traumatizing kids today in a vastly different way who haven’t actually experienced gun violence, violence in the selves, 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: But 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? Well, there’s a couple of factors here. One is I teach seniors so they’re, you know, 17, 18 years old. So I think it’s it’s really different talking to those students than it would be talking to younger students.

Dahlia Lithwick: 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, while they hear my story and they can sort of, you know, they can imagine it happening. You know, I don’t notice that my kids are that impacted by the by the drills. As a matter of fact, even the real lockdowns that we had, we had we you know, we had a student shot outside and then we had a student with a gun in the building where the two different lockdowns, those are the scenarios. And for me, you know, I do like to be prepared, given what I’ve been through. You know, 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.

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Speaker 2: I do the same thing. I mean, I have a lot of plans and of emergency situations and they don’t necessarily they go well beyond what the school has put together, because we know that sometimes what the school puts together is inadequate.

Speaker 3: I am on board with that. There are another two guests here. I prepared thinking about what could happen not only at the school but one on the way from school after going through November.

Dahlia Lithwick: So, Heather, 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 to 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. What are your thoughts about this?

Dahlia Lithwick: I think sort of sort of to your question is, you know, law enforcement’s response. And when we were first, you know, busted out of that room and we came flying out there, we were 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.

Dahlia Lithwick: I also learned that, like I said, when they saved us, they thought that there were still, let’s see, four, four gunmen on the loose still, 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. And like when they cleared our room, they searched us. And I’m sort of circling the issue here. But I think, you know, we do learn stuff from from every situation. And I know that at least the law enforcement conferences that I’ve been to and that I’ve spoken to, you know, they’re they’re really working on their response and how they respond to these things, not just tactically, but also. You know, how to minimize the trauma that that the people who are going through these situations, what that’s like for them.

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Dahlia Lithwick: So 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 hyper aware of the world around me. I think is you know, part of what’s so difficult is that I guess all of your students in the aggregate have some version of that, too, right?

Speaker 3: It made for a very surreal year because this happened in November. It was in the first one third of the year. We are two thirds of the year left to finish the combination class of traumatized kids. And if you’re an educator, you’re there to have helped 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 that backed us on this, on their mental health and that had to come first. And you have to keep reminding yourself this is what these kids up to start rebuilding their mental health. It just made for a very, very different year trying to process it all.

Dahlia Lithwick: Ken, this is Heather. I just wanted to commend you guys for that because as a senior, I know it was different that we graduated and sort of moved on. But one of my biggest struggles was not having that system of support or having those things going off to college. You know, I did try college. I dropped out, there was a fire alarm and I lost it. So it’s just it’s really nice to hear that, you know, your district was supportive.

Speaker 3: And we have a great staff there. And every every teacher and staff, they didn’t have a sick day the rest of the year, which to me just, you know, we were there for the kids because that’s as you know, that’s why we do what we do.

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Speaker 2: You know, 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. 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? It was like, I know, honey, that’s so hard, you know, because we had 11 children, six year olds who survived in the classrooms where the shooter in the two classrooms where the shooters were who ran by him when he was killing their classmates, you know, it it meant, again, putting aside our own grief and trauma every day, you could barely I mean, can you were probably exhausted the rest of the year, I’m guessing.

Speaker 3: Yes, it was an exhausting year. But, you know, as I said, we’re we’re there for the kids. And and sometimes before I went in that classroom, I would be in that staff just trying to trying to get myself together before I 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 both Marianne and Ken 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. And that must in some ways be something that you it must be something when you’re reliving this and thinking about it. This question of how did I hold it together for these kids must be such a huge part of something you probably didn’t think you had in you, right?

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Speaker 3: Oh, yeah. Just 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 it was 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. Maybe my other two colleagues might agree that there are different circumstances, but it is it was a form of therapy. I think also having kids that you can’t help but grow closer to after going through such an experience.

Speaker 2: 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. We really 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, Marianne, because as I was listening to Ken, I was thinking how easy it is to construct a story in which everybody’s a hero. We need 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?

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Speaker 2: 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 wasn’t Columbine. And there are these other situations that. You know, the first responders are getting awards and these people are getting awards. And these people. Well, those of us who are like 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 that? They were we were the 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 people we wanted people to understand that as a community, we needed their support.

Speaker 2: 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 our office that day thinking that was not helpful because people who are most traumatized are least equipped to help themselves.

Dahlia Lithwick: What? What do you think? I guess that leads to the post Parkland conversation which must break your hearts because you’ve had this conversation a thousand times before. But maybe we should arm teachers and maybe we should hire veterans. And maybe what? What? Is there anything of utility? Mary Ann. You just, I think, said we have to identify who these sick boys are and make sure they don’t have guns. But what do you what do you do when we have these conversations for the thousandth time?

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Speaker 2: I think regular people in general think arming teachers, that’s a ridiculous idea because on a practical basis, it’s it’s almost unmanageable. And it’s also the extreme. You know, most schools in this country have about 100 things they can do between nothing and arming teachers that are very effective for safety and security of their students. So there is 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 Can I want to give you an opportunity if you’re proponents of arming teachers to to rebut what Marianne just said or just to reflect on what you think would be measures that would make a difference in that state of this incredibly tedious. Thoughts and prayers, conversations a lot.

Speaker 3: There are a lot of things can be done. I agree. And unfortunately, a lot of it requires funding. And, you know, here in California, they’re trying to do some things to make schools safer. And one of them, a local Assemblyman Gallagher, he tried to get over every school, an armed security guard, which outrageous amount of money. No way it’s going to happen. I can. Speaking to the day of November 14. For me, I am I was a military policeman, so I carry sidearm for three and a half years. I’m not a big I’m not a guy goes out and shoots for fun. I never hunted. I’m not a member of the NRA. But in northern California rural area, they are a little more Second Amendment type of thinking.

Speaker 3: So because of where I live in Aurora, I do have a concealed weapon permit. And 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 or fly slid up against the door, I was thinking, gosh, if I had my side arm on this would be a good way to, you know, set up a defensive posture. And with the police so far away, I think at that exact moment, there was we have a rare exception where if you’re in a rural area and there’s no other protection already in place, please get those protections in place.

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Speaker 3: But in the meantime, I mean, I think it should be something at least considered. And I don’t think it’ll happen in California. 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 going to be an exception, I don’t think any teachers should be forced. To have to carry or volunteer. You know, in a strictly volunteering you you have to go through intense training. And as when I was going to get my permit, the instructor told me every board you potentially fire as a liability lawsuit attached to it anyhow. I don’t want to come across as a gun that I don’t think I am.

Dahlia Lithwick: You’re not.

Speaker 3: And and and I don’t think I heard about some knucklehead is supposed to be a police reserve or some firing off a gun in a classroom in the pasture. And I just. Should be no gun on holstered ever in a school unless. You’re trying to save someone’s life. It’s just. Anyways, that’s my thought on that.

Dahlia Lithwick: Um, well, I think as a teacher and when we’re talking about arming, 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 whatev 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. You know, I don’t I would not feel comfortable carrying a weapon.

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Dahlia Lithwick: And then, you know, I appreciate what what Ken said just about, you know, mandating it. If somebody mandated that I carry a gun, I want to be like I was at Columbine. Like, why would you want me to have a gun? Well, honestly, you know, there’s teachers out there that maybe shouldn’t have scissors. I don’t know. But I. I would be very careful with, you know, mandating that and making teachers carry guns because, again, I mean, you know, especially in the community that I work, you know, people in authority with weapons, that that’s not always a good thing.

Speaker 2: 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 out from school. And, you know, my family has always respected the Second Amendment and considers gun ownership a privilege that comes with great responsibility.

Speaker 2: 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 secured, a school it’s called an SS. Oh, and the 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 have 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. You know, that’s another example of a practical way. And in Ken’s community, it doesn’t sound super practical from a financial standpoint. So there may be something else that has to happen. But, you know, there’s 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.

Dahlia Lithwick: That was Marianne Jacob from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. We also heard from Heather Martin, who was a student at Columbine High School and Kenya, a teacher at Rancho Tajima in California. We’ve been talking about their experiences surviving school shootings and then going back into the classroom. For Slate. I’m Dahlia Lithwick. Thanks for listening.