Look in the dictionary as of October 25, 2014 under “courage,” and should find a photo of Megan Silberberger. I include no photo of Silberberger out of respect for her dedication to her students and her selflessness, and to spare her unnecessary harassment. Silberberger is a first-year social studies teacher at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Washington. When a freshman student–who would like his name to be mentioned here–shot and killed one student and badly wounded four others, on Friday, October 24, 2014, he stopped to reload. A student witness described her actions:
“Erick Cervantes, a student who called 911 during the attack, told KIRO-TV he thought Ms Silberberger was the ‘real hero.’
He said: ‘She’s the one that intercepted him with the gun. He tried either reloading or tried aiming at her. She tried moving his hand away and he tried shooting and shot himself in the neck.
‘It started off with an argument, but then I looked back and there was just gunshots and just people falling down. She heard the gunshots first and she came in running through the door, right next to it.’
‘It wasn’t [a] wrestle. She just grabbed his arm, and it lasted like two seconds, and I heard another shot,’ Cervantes said.”
Silberberger’s actions are as unusual in this case as the known details of this shooting are common:
The identity of the shooter–a freshman boy–was surprising to the community.
There were apparently no clear warning signs from the shooter.
If there was a school resource officer–an armed law enforcement officer assigned to the school–they played no role in ending the shooting.
The attack, and the end of the attack, were enacted on the shooter’s timetable.
The police had no role in ending the shooting.
The school was a victim disarmament zone: no staff members were armed.
The good news remains that as often as such things happen and as much publicity as they garner, school shootings remain very uncommon. For the overwhelming majority of American students, school is a safe place; the odds against any individual child being shot in a school attack remain very great.
The bad news is that there is nothing preventing an attack from taking place at virtually any American school. Most remain victim disarmament zones where the only protection given children are small “gun-free school zone” signs. Indeed, some schools have security features such as video cameras, remotely controlled locks and perhaps even hardened doors and windows. For the intelligent, determined attacker, though, those measures might buy his targets only a few seconds, not minutes. For attacks carried out by students who attend a given school–this was the case in Washington–most such measures are meaningless.
When I was recently summoned for jury duty, I discovered that our judges and the attorneys practicing in the criminal justice system are well-protected indeed. No one entered the courthouse without passing through a metal detector, and many were subjected to more thorough searches with hand-held detectors, and even pat downs. Even the tiniest and least dangerous pocketknife was seized. There were more than enough armed deputies at the entry security checkpoint, more who constantly roved the halls, and several banks of TV monitors receiving the feeds from a plethora of video cameras throughout the building. In addition, there was at least one deputy–armed of course–in every occupied courtroom.
If one judged the value society places on various classes of people by the resources devoted to protect them, the conclusion would be inescapable: American society places far more value on the lives of judges and lawyers than school children. Judges and lawyers do not rely for a second on signs and feel good measures. They live in the real world where bad things happen to good people, and they spare no expense to ensure they are protected by men and women with guns, people who will run to the sound of gunfire. No cowering behind flimsy locked doors for them. And don’t kid yourself — more than a few of those judges and lawyers are armed.
Megan Silberberger is an admirable woman. I don’t know if she had given serious thought to what she would do if confronted by a gunman in her school–most teachers haven’t. I have, and so has my principal, a former professional football player, with the size and strength that profession demands. Should, God forbid, an attack ever occur in our school, we will run to the sound of gunfire and do our best to stop the killer. Unfortunately, we, like most educators, are disarmed.
We understand that time and distance are the factors determining our potential success. If we can get close enough to a killer before he can bring his weapon to bear on us, we can incapacitate him. If we can’t surprise him, if we can’t get close enough, if there is more than one killer, we’re probably dead. We know that. But we’re going to try. We owe that to our kids, the kids we are sworn to nurture and protect. Most of all, we owe it to ourselves.
The danger, for Silberberger and every teacher, is not restricted to active shooters. Every day, across the nation, teachers–usually women–are brutally assaulted, even killed. A year ago, Coleen Ritzer, a 24-year old math teacher at Danvers, Massachusetts high school was, slashed, raped, mutilated and murdered in a school bathroom by a 14-year old student. She was–of course–unarmed. Also a year ago at Sparks Middle School in Sparks, Nevada, math teacher and former Marine Michael Landsberry was killed by a student shooter. For Landsberry, there was no choice. Unarmed, he approached the killer, but couldn’t get close enough before he was shot and killed. In that case, as in virtually every other, the police played no role in ultimately stopping the killer.
Because of my police background, because of my interest in the martial arts, I have actually studied and practiced methods of neutralizing armed attackers while disarmed. I am a large and strong man, but unfortunately, all of these methods require hand-to-hand engagement with the attacker. If I can’t do that, my size, strength and skill mean little. For female teachers and untrained male teachers, the odds are even worse.
A confrontation like that is nothing like what’s depicted on TV or in the movies. If I could get close enough, I wouldn’t send the killer flying with a beautifully choreographed, slow-motion kick that would separate him from his gun and knock him out. I would have to be close enough to actually put both hands on his gun, and once gaining some control of it, I’d have to strike him–as quickly and brutally as possible–in vital areas to incapacitate him. Probably in ways that would kill him. All of this would happen in mere seconds. In such close combat, I would expect to absorb at least one and probably more bullets, but once committed, I couldn’t stop until I succeeded or was killed. This isn’t an abstract hypothetical scenario, but cold, hard, bloody reality.
My school is built like virtually all of them: long, straight hallways with no cover (protection from bullets and explosives), not even any concealment (the ability to stay out of sight and out of mind of an attacker). No provision for instantaneous communication between staff members–no radios. Classroom doors are easily locked, but nearly as easily breached in seconds. We practice drills that consist mostly of locking kids in classrooms, making them easy and convenient targets.
If I were killed, perhaps I’d be fondly remembered. Perhaps a blogger somewhere would write kind words about my sacrifice. Perhaps they’d even remember John 10:11:
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
I’d prefer not to die, but to live by the words of George Patton, who said, and I paraphrase:
“No one won a war by dying for his country, but by making the other poor bastard die for his.”
When a school shooter is present, only one question matters: what are the adults in that school prepared to do, then and there, to protect their lives and the lives of the children entrusted to them?
Do we truly value our children and their teachers so little that our best efforts to protect their lives end with locks, small metal signs, run and hide drills, and as a last, desperate measure, sending children at armed madmen in a suicidal attack, throwing pencils, pens, rulers and staplers at them as they charge? This is the state of the art in expensive “training” taught by “school security experts.” Have we learned nothing from the experiences of armed teachers?
In Pearl, Mississippi on October 01, 1997, a child armed with a rifle shot nine students, killing two and wounding seven. Assistant Principal Joel Myrick ran a quarter of a mile to his car, which was parked off school property to comply with the federal law then in force (but since overturned) prohibiting firearms within 1000 feet of a school. Retrieving his handgun, he ran back to the school and confronted the shooter, disarming him and holding him for police. That shooter intended to go to another school and kill even more. Myrick unquestionably saved lives, but because he was initially disarmed, could not save them all.
A January 25, 2008 attack on an Israeli High School by two armed terrorists ended with several injured students and only slight wounds to the two school counselors who used their handguns to quickly kill the terrorists.
Let us honor teachers like Meagan Silberberger and Joel Myrick and remember Michael Landsberry and Coleen Ritzer. But for their sake, the sake of all teachers, and above all, the sake of our children, let’s give them protection analogous to what we give our judges, lawyers and politicians.
Allow every willing teacher in America to carry a concealed weapon. Just as the Supreme Court has ruled that students do not surrender their fundamental rights at the schoolhouse gate, let us not force teachers to surrender their right to protect their own lives and the lives of the children dear to them. Let us not force any teacher to approach an armed killer knowing their lives depend upon the whim and the marksmanship of a madman.
You’ll hear, “But no teacher has to approach a killer. They should hide and hope the killer doesn’t find them.” We should be disgusted that people that say such things have anything to do with children, and thankful for people like Meagan Silberberger and Michael Landsberry who have greater love and who act on it. But more, we must ensure they don’t have to give their lives to protect the lives of others.
What are the lives of children–and teachers–worth in 2014 America?