The year was 2018 and I was nine years old in the fourth grade at Smith Lane Elementary. It was a fun day at school because it was my classmate Donald’s birthday. Our teacher Mrs. Cash loved throwing surprise parties for her students with their help. Somehow she managed an authentic surprise for all of us, even though we knew it was going to happen and, looking back, they were simply done. Her plan for Donald was to wait until he went to the bathroom and set-up everything we had on standby. For homework she had us create foldable birthday card-like posters so we could have something to easily pull out and put on easels. Mrs. Cash also gave us noisemakers and lines of streamers to tie around our desks while she hung more on the different chalk and bulletin boards.
We transformed our classroom within a couple of minutes and had time leftover to settle in our surprise positions towards the back of the room. Mrs. Cash pulled a cake out of her desk and lit the candles as she raced to join us. A few more minutes passed and we were still waiting for Donald to arrive. I was amazed we were able to control our excitement for so long.
After a minute more, the silence was interrupted by the blitz siren. That was the first unscheduled time we heard it used. Our only experience with it was during several practice drills and probably the reason why we didn’t react right away.
To have a better idea of what’s to come, you have to understand the schools of that time, which were the first of their kind. School locations were top secret and only known by the state and every school’s security team. Parents, staff and students could never know where the schools were. We were brought to and from school in blacked out buses during one of two hours of the day no one was allowed to be on the road, including local police. School seemed to be in outer space. Our security team was armed and had eyes and ears everywhere, even the bathrooms. They weren’t watching kids on the toilet or anything but the cameras were on the floor and could only see feet and hear everything.
At the end of the day, finding and entering our school without the proper permissions and escort meant an investigation and scandal.
So, the first thing to do in a blitz level emergency was get to your desk and stand by it. My desk was closest to the door, something I didn’t worry about before that moment. I did have some wiggle room, if by chance, with whatever might come through the door. Every classroom in the school had an entrance hall. It kept us out of sight with a simple corner. On the wall in front of us, above the main chalkboard, were seven inset lights in a row, known as the lights of security. They were controlled by the school’s central security team and their use was a major deal. With no issues before that day, the lights of security went unnoticed.
That day, the green light turned on. The green light means someone of danger has breached the premises through a front door and are in the halls.
Mrs. Cash dropped the cake to pull out the handgun hidden in her cardigan, which every teacher had, and she ran to the door of our classroom. Adhering to the breach procedure, if we were all with Mrs. Cash, she would lock the three, what do you call them, those latches. I think they’re called dutch-bolts. Thick dutch-bolts. She then has to lock both handles of the door. One is a fingerprint biometric handle for a hefty slide lock. The other is a manual key lock about half the size.
If a student is out on their own and unattended, the teacher must retrieve them to the best of their abilities.
Before leaving, Mrs. Cash was stopped by the red security light flashing on from the row above. The red light means at least one person has been killed. If you catch it blink, someone else has perished. Mrs. Cash looked in on us and said “I’ll be right back, babies. Keep calm, be aware and use your training. Try not to be afraid, okay?” I remember only some of us answered her over the siren. The red light blinked again and I could tell she didn’t want to leave but she did and locked us in with the standard lock.
Those few minutes were tough to endure. We all stood by our desks and waited as the siren continued sounding off. I can’t explain what my classmates were doing because I couldn’t take my eyes off the corner protecting us, hoping Mrs. Cash would return shortly with Donald. The bathrooms were down two halls, which I imagine seemed further away then than it was.
Finally, the siren stopped and a man’s voice over the intercom announced: “The intruders have entered the south wing, hall three, west side.” My classroom was in the south wing, hall five, east side. I remember hearing someone whimper and others were breathing hard but I kept my focus on the corner. The red light blinked again, and then again, following a loud bang that echoed past our door. We got the faint end of it but it still earned screams and cries. There were lighter pops and suddenly there was someone at our door, messing with the key lock. One of my best friends Derrick, who sat to my left, we stepped forward to see who it was and we saw Mrs. Cash through the sliver of glass. She was looking down the hall and then back at us. She typed in a sequence on the keypad of the door’s device and all locks and bolts sealed on their own. Mrs. Cash yelled “Get your guns, babies! Someone is coming!”
Horrid last words from a great person and educator.
With her weapon up, she disappeared in the opposite direction and we heard more big bangs and pops, which ended with a hard slap on the hallway’s linoleum floor.
Another red light blinked and the man on the intercom announced the intruders were in our hall. Some of us, including me and my other best friends, did step two of a blitz emergency, which was tip your desk over and point the bulletproof top toward the danger. In those desks, there was a slide-out of metal that guarded us more. Strapped to the bottom of the desks were our Bersa Thunder .380s in a holster with two extra clips of bullets. We were expected to keep cover and defend ourselves and each other.
You know, honestly, the most difficult part of our training, which is the most unpredictable, was to help each other stay safe and alive. ‘There’s more power in numbers’ was a tough concept to realize when your nine years old, even if hearing it over and over since kindergarten and from every adult in our lives. I looked back and saw some of my classmates still standing, frightened, while others ran to the back of the room, trying to open the hatch to the escape route, which only security could release. The only way into the escape shaft was when the yellow light comes on. Security needs to be guaranteed the back door is safe and free of any danger.
Another bang, much closer, reigned in our attention and I snuck back to the safety corner. I peaked at the door and saw who Mrs. Cash was running from. He was a tall white man dressed in a black hat and t-shirt, shotgun in his hands with a harness I assumed had more weapons on it. He shot a few rounds at the door’s window and locks. The glass captured the rounds but did crack some, which amused him. He caught my stare and waved before showing me how to reload a shotgun and delivered more rounds into the door. Between rounds, the guy kicked the door and broke the biometric piece off.
The next second he looked down the hall and we heard more pops and he fell out of sight. He screamed and shot back, which was met with more pops. Then I heard a loud “Hey”. A new voice entered the shootout with a buzzing spray. I could hear the metal of our lockers shred and the red light blinked again. Then there was enough silence to hear how my classmates were holding up. Of the twenty, I was at the corner and six others were behind their desks with their three-eighties up. Everyone else was glued together in the back corner of the room.
That was the only positive thing. The seven of us willing to defend the class were and still are my best friends. Derrick, Cynthia, Nelson, Jimmy, Kelly and Lori are the greatest. Those were the guys I hung out with all the time and our bond really came through . . .
Um . . . I’m sorry . . . give me one second . . . I’m just proud of those fools . . .
I, uh, turned back to the glass and I saw both men recouping. Visually, they looked very much alike. The new guy yelled at the other “Suck it up, it’s not that bad. Get your ass up off the floor”. When he did, they both shot at the door, which got a scream out of everyone. Those guys must have cleaned out every ammo store in the county. They reloaded ten or fifteen times and it all went into the door.
After what seemed like hours, a bullet got through the door. The first white light turned on, which signaled the order to prepare for retaliation.
Interesting fact: at that time the security doors were made of an engineered material called Guarcon. It was supposed to be bulletproof. That day proved an assault rifle and shotgun could get through it with many rounds and persistence.
They kept shooting and kicking the door in and were able to create a big dent and get more bullets through. One of them stopped the other and I heard a chipping sound, like they were picking seeds out of the door. Then a carving and more chipping. Kicks and shots. They continued on for two or three minutes until they finally stabbed through their dent. I took another quick look and saw a knife through a small hole made into stretched metal with clusters of caught bullets. One of them yelled out a crazy suggestion of “What about a grenade? That might do the trick”.
Part of our training involved awareness and safety measures for explosives. First, get as far away from the explosive as possible, which the remaining seven of us did. If possible and depending on the type of explosive, we should try to create a shield. The seven of us pulled our toppled desks towards the group and pushed as many standing desks together and forward as we made sure everyone was down.
We all really did stick together throughout it all.
The grenade exploded and threw shards of Guarcon at the opposite wall. After, we heard “It’s working! Put two more on it” and “I brought a couple. Let’s put three”, the seven of us prepared to stand and shoot at whoever got through the door. The last thing I heard for a while was the slow fade of boots stomping away.
The blast was enough to push the room back a foot or two and cracked the security corner. It exchanged hearing for a medicated deafness with an inner quake. I felt disoriented and nauseous on shaky ground and panic set in. For a few seconds, I did not care that I couldn’t hear a thing. I needed my balance and focus back. Thankfully, the one thing that stuck out to me during our drills was a thought you had to say if you were able to: Breathe, breathe, breathe and look forward. Breathe, breathe, breathe and look forward. Breathe, breathe, breathe and look forward.
I tried my best to get an easy flow of air, even though I smelled something wrank, so I pulled my shirt up over my nose and mouth. My vision was like looking through kaleidoscope glasses. Extreme drunkness is a very similar feeling. My focus was going in and out, tremble-y and nauseating and the smoke in the room didn’t help. I did see the second white light and the yellow light on. The second white light signified explosives are being used, which wasn’t needed after the fact, and the yellow light indicated the escape hatches were open, which had a five-minute window of access.
The seven of us kept guard while our classmates crawled down the three-story pipe to the escape line. It was a direct and easy path to navigate and reached a covered post located down a slope around the premises. Our armored buses would be waiting to speed far away down a secret and secured path.
The metal of our classroom’s door blew past the security corner. I saw a foot kick pieces off of it before one of the men stepped into the room. The seven of us started shooting at him. Target practice was a crucial course we all had to take throughout our schooling years, which, to be completely honest, was our favorite class. We liked playing war together and practiced shooting at home with our toy guns.
One of us got his leg and he fell to the floor. We got him right when his partner handed him an assault rifle. It slid off his back and landed on the floor. He cursed us out and went for his weapon. We were on him. We kept shooting and landed a few torso shots but it wasn’t enough. The guy reached his gun and strained to get up on one knee. Part of our handgun training was to recognize greater weapons and flee if possible. Five of us got down low and crawled towards the hatch. There were three or four of my classmates left to get out of the room. Lori and Nelson were still standing and shooting at the struggling guy.
I allowed my friends to go down the pipe first and kept an eye on the remaining two shooters. They hit the guy more but he didn’t fall back but the hits kept him from grabbing a good hold of his rifle. I think he had a bulletproof vest on and couldn’t muscle through the stings. Everyone else got through the portal and I screamed at Lori and Nelson to come back.
That’s when I saw a bullet exit from the guy’s right temple and he finally collapsed onto his side.
My friends stopped shooting and they both lowered down behind our shield. A white light up bouncy ball was thrown into the room. The white ball lets us know to stand down and prepare for rescue. The security team caught up with the duo. We were saved. A security agent climbed into the room and directed the last three of us down the safety hatch to the security post. The buses were waiting for us and took off when the last of my class got on one.
It was over.
Later that day at home, I found out there were only the two shooters. They set out to find one of the new schools and did so by tapping into local street cameras; another hard thing to accomplish. They chose my school and entered over a wall, got through four guards and smashed through an entrance in the south wing. In total, there were eight fatalities and no one injured; something that, well, an outcome that particular political sides recognized and boasted as a good thing. You know, with more improvements and armed security, the numbers would go down, if not to zero.
After the breach, we were out of school for almost six months. It took a while for the state to find a new location for our school, along with the debate whether to relocate every school. There was talk about building schools underground or sending children to boarding schools with elevated security or military protection, which would create another category of armed forces because there were too many schools to guard. The progression to today’s online homeschooling is no surprise and probably the best way to go since school shootings never stopped until then, which finally took place years after I graduated from high school.
It’s sad because we shouldn’t be here. Going to school is a necessary experience growing up but the terror attacks of then and now, combined with the never-ending struggle for gun control, forced us out of schools. Nothing enforced was able to stop more attacks and attempts. Instead of worrying about providing proper and useful education, we worried about keeping our kids safe from maniacs. With budgets on the line, we couldn’t protect every school, which left them vulnerable.
And it didn’t end there.
As the call for gun limitations and a more serious purchase screening got louder, the opposition fought back and did everything they could to keep things the same. Public buildings and groups of all sorts were left to take the matter into their own hands to protect themselves because these attacks are still happening everywhere, which sparked more problems to diffuse like all the confused threats and accidental shootings. That’s the point of these shootings; they can happen anywhere at any time no matter who is around and cause us to be suspicious of each other.
With the Smith Lane breach, it really showed the scary and evil intent terrorists have. They will plot and figure a way to get the bloodshed and damage they’re after. Us hiding only gives them a greater challenge and reward. The terror they’ve given us is not enough for them.
What can be done? Hiding and shielding is the only way to avoid more loss.
Whether we get rid of the guns or stock up, whether we hide or set up some kind of security, nothing will stop the terrorists and they are what we need to focus on. That saying ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ is right on. What needs to be improved in the equation is people. Things need to change. Serious therapy is needed or there needs to be some standard for child rearing. I respect all religions and beliefs, but for the most part, they’ve always caused violence and tension and sometimes lead the terror. And the anger that has survived after all these years. People are so angry about nonsense and it gets passed along and preserved and it picks up a gun.
Where’s the peace and sanity? They are lost and it’s a shame because I feel they’re the obvious answers to the dilemma. There’s no peace and sanity in the overall approach and actual conversation of the interior terror attacks. So many people have been murdered and nothing implemented has worked except staying home. I worry that the terror will eventually drive up my street and knock on my door. Then what? How can I protect my family then? How can any of us protect our families and will we be there for our neighbor?
That’s the real question I fear the most if things get worse. Will we be there for our neighbors when we can’t even come together on these major issues? I mean, I know we’ve come together in times of chaos and tragedy, but, looking at the bigger picture, moments beyond horrible weather, the main disasters could have been avoided with genuine unification and common sense; with peace and sanity.
For now, I can just keep my hope alive and strong by doing my part and being the best example for our children because not only are they our future, they can also be our future terrorists.