Mary Shihe Mo: Not the same old drill | column book

A freshman, he has been preparing for active shooters since kindergarten. In elementary school he dreamed of being the hero, setting himself up to save his classmates. But now when his teacher “mocks” the door to start the simulation, he wonders what his last words are, which friends might ask for his help, whether to hide or play dead.

When the shooting began in Columbine, she was in the choir. All 60 children of the choir robbed themselves inside the teacher’s office and hid. for hours. When the police finally came, she was searched and escorted into a small group during the ensuing period. She remembers: “It was like the Titanic.” Overhead sprinklers turned the cafeteria and hallways into a shallow sea with notebooks, backpacks, and ball covers eerily floating on their surfaces. She also saw the bodies. It was not floating.

Heather went to college the following fall, but soon dropped out. Fire alarms… articles on gun control… lots of triggers. She later returned and is now a teacher, leading her students through active shooting exercises. Drill or no exercise, she’s super vigilant. “Plan B?” She scoffs. “I have plans from B to Z. I’m always thinking, what if….”

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Montana teachers know the exercises. They sat around the kitchen table, teaching me.

“The teacher training is the worst part,” says a high school teacher. “Once the police made us do this simulation, and you wouldn’t believe how excited you were! Our librarian—so shy, and so sweet—get so involved that when this big cop approached her as the fictitious shooter, she hit him on the head with a paper cutter!”

One of the first-grade teachers added, shaking her head, “I’m glad they no longer do this simulation with the kids.” ‘Close training is bad enough. The kids are so scared.’ I told them ‘It’s just practice.’ ‘It’s going to be fine.’ But they are looking at me for the truth with those big eyes, and I don’t know the truth.”

The day after Ovaldi, two balloons jumped in the high school lobby. This sound coincided with a parent reporting a student who had put a gun in his bag when entering school. Seconds later, the school was closed.

It was Ashley’s prep period. She went to close her door and saw a terrified student running into the hall. She pulled it into the classroom and hid it in the closet. After a while, I heard the girl crying. She kept saying, “I want my dad.” It was awful. Ashley remembered that after a while, they announced it was a false alarm, everything was fine, just back to teaching as usual. As usual? All is well? How do I get out of those panic-stricken hours, trying to comfort this poor girl huddled in my supply closet? How?

Kimberly knows the exercises.

“Somewhere out there, there is a mother listening to our testimony thinking, ‘I can’t even imagine their pain,’ without knowing that our reality will one day have her,” Ovaldi’s mother told a congressional committee.

And somewhere out there, bracing for disaster year after year, there’s an increasingly restless young soul feeling battered, vulnerable, and invisible. He knows the drill: With an offensive weapon, you can turn those tables, maybe even out in a blaze of vainglory.

More than 311,000 students have been shot at at the school since Columbine. Nobody bothered to count adults. The damage caused by school shootings goes far beyond direct experience. Like a boulder-lined pool some turbulent soul still tossed to the middle, that terrible first wave seeps all over the shore.

We can forever argue about whether to block the rocks or rid the shore of restless souls. It may be too late for the former and too impossible a dream for the latter. It took us a long time to get to this unfortunate state. It will take a long time to get out. The proposals for the Senate committee chaired by Chris Murphy are a start. Stop saying it’s not enough. At least not the same old drill bit.

Mary Shee-Moe retired as Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education in 2010. Since then she has served as School Board Secretary, Senator and City Commissioner in Great Falls. She writes from Missoula.

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