A Little Kindness Can Save Lives

It was my Junior year and basketball was on my brain. Regionals was in a couple weeks, so I decided to check in with my coach before the big tournament. I had my little scratch paper in hand as I walked out into the lobby to get ready for the start of school. I was feeling good about my meeting and eager to get working on my game. That’s when I heard it: an ear-ringing bang that stopped me in my tracks. I turned to see my classmate, Evan Ramsey, standing twenty feet away, haphazardly pointing a rifle at students and in the air as he screamed, “RUN! EVERYBODY RUN AWAY FROM ME! NOW YOU ARE SCARED OF ME!” Kids were dropping to the ground, running out the nearest exits, screaming. 

    I was all alone along the lockers, watching the beginning of the worst day in Bethel Regional High School’s history unfold. I held my breath, fearful that if I made any noise I would be shot. I was so close to him, so alone, such an easy target. My heart was beating in my ears. I walked as carefully as I could down the hallway. My classmates were standing in the hallway looking to see what was happening and all I could say was, “He has a gun. Evan has a gun.” It started as a whisper, then turned into a scream, “RUN!” I turned to see Evan right behind me, walking, holding the rifle in the air. He was yelling, telling us to run for our lives. He was telling us he was in charge. I ran out of the nearest exit with my friend. We ran as fast as we could with the chaos of students in fear. 

    My friend’s truck was parked at the end of the boardwalk, the fastest escape. I was just about to get into the truck when I remembered my dad. He worked in the office building next to the school. I knew he would be worried about me so I ran to his office. He was not there. I frantically ran back outside and saw him heading towards the school. I was so scared, yelling for him as loud as I could, fearful that he would not hear me and go into the school where the shooter was on the loose. He heard me just before he got to the doors. I ran to him and we hugged. 

My gym teacher ran to us and directed us to the cafeteria, which was next door to the school. There we waited, not knowing what the news would be. Who got hurt, who we would never see again, or what Evan’s fate would be. 

    The rest of the day was a blur. I spent the day huddled in that cafeteria talking with my friends. We couldn’t believe what had happened. We had never heard of schools experiencing an active shooter like this. Little did we know that this was the second in a horrific and continuing string of school shootings across our nation. We talked about the events over and over, like a broken record, someone adding a new thought or statement of disbelief. I would think about my fear of being shot. I would play that moment over and over in my head. How I felt my life was in his hands. He had the choice to let me live or die that day, when I was only 16 years old.

    I knew Evan since we were five years old in Kindergarten at Kilbuck Elementary. He was someone you could not forget. He often had tantrums that would disrupt class and scare classmates. In fact, the shooting, was not the only date Evan would bring fear into my life. In 3rd grade, he had thrown a tantrum while he was on the top deck of a reading “nest.” I was underneath. Once his tantrum started, I ran out and I saw him kick the window out of the school. The teacher escorted all the kids out of class. We had to go to another classroom for school until they could fix the window. As a 3rd grader, I was scared of Evan and would keep my distance from him. Funny how that event mirrored the shooting so closely. 

    Following the shooting, I found myself wondering why I did not get shot when he followed me down the hallway. I was such an easy target. Then, I remembered the day before the shooting, in Home Economics class. My best friend and I ended up sitting at a table with Evan. We were instructed to make biscuits. Evan had his head down and was not talking or looking at anyone. This was not unusual. I turned to him and told him he was part of the group so he had to help us measure. He looked up and, with a little prompting, joined my friend and I in making biscuits. It ended up being enjoyable. I left Home Economics class feeling like it was a good day. I never once thought, “this kid is going to bring a rifle to school tomorrow and open fire.” 

When I replayed this memory after the shooting I was certain that this was my saving grace. My kindness on February 18th might have saved me from being shot the next morning. I would often find myself thanking God for giving me the opportunity in Home Ec class to make things “good” between Evan and me – or I guess, good enough where he did not feel he needed to shoot me. It could have easily gone the other way. Evan had a hit list of people he wanted to kill. If I was rude to him, he might have included me on his hit list. My name could have stuck out to him as someone who needed to die. It seems so inconsequential that one event would have determined my fate, but I will never know. I can only be thankful my name was not on “the list.”

    The return back to school felt quick. I do not recall how many days we had off, but the first day back was uncomfortable. The school tried to welcome everyone back with love and positive energy, but the building felt cold and eerie. Knowing that two people died in our lobby, knowing that the last time we were there we were running for our lives, and knowing that there was now a possibility that we could be harmed at school. It was all overwhelming. I remember thinking how it was unfair for the teachers to force us to go through our daily schedule so soon. 

The first day back we were complaining to our art teacher about the unfairness and she responded, “we all don’t want to be here. It was hard for everyone. We need to move through this.” It was then I realized that there were some people whose experience was more extreme than what I had gone through. Our art teacher had stayed in the lobby and covered the body of the student who was shot. She tried her hardest to talk Evan down, to get him to drop his gun. She was in the most dangerous spot, willingly, bravely staring down Evan’s rage. She had to be at work with the rest of the teachers who went above and beyond in caring for all 500 kids in school that morning. I realized that we could get through this. If they could do it, we could do it, I could do it. 

    There were a lot of meetings and discussions about what the school needed to do to ensure the kids at BRHS were safe. People wanted to put in metal detectors and x-ray machines at the front door. They wanted to lock exits, limit students from leaving campus, and have security on the buses. It felt like they wanted to take our freedom away. Like we could not be trusted. It made me angry. I found myself angry at Evan for making the poor choice that he did.

    After the shooting, stories emerged about Evan’s upbringing. I am now aware of the trauma Evan had been through in his life. As a peer, I sensed Evan was struggling and I didn’t do anything to help him. As a peer, I had the ability to interact with Evan, to change something in his life. I had potential for being an advocate instead of a bystander. I do not recall being talked to at school about how to do this. 

    Currently I am a school social worker and before that I was a behavioral health clinician. My passion has been to work with youth who have experienced trauma and need to learn how to manage their feelings, understand their thoughts and find hope in their future. Although my career choice had nothing to do with the shooting or Evan, I believe the things I learned about myself through challenges, including the shooting, helped steer me towards the helping field. As I learned more about empathy and compassion, trauma and resilience, and self-determination and social influence, the more I felt social work was a perfect fit for me. 

My goal has always been to have kids feel more appreciated and important in this world than before they met me. I think the more self-worth you build in a person, the more they will trust you, and the more they feel safe disclosing details that make them feel most vulnerable. I wonder if Evan had anyone to help him build his self-worth. I don’t believe I am an amazing therapist, but I hope the kids that I have worked with believe that I think they are an amazing person.  

    Since 1997, there have been many school shootings. Each time, there is discussion about what needs to be done. Tougher gun laws, on-site security in schools, teachers carrying guns… these are all bandaids for a bigger problem. When a child is hurting from past, present and/or chronic traumatic stress, it affects their brain functioning. It affects how they view the world, how they problem solve, and how they interact with others. We are learning more and more about how much the brain is impacted by trauma. If this is the root cause of so many negative behaviors, doesn’t it make sense to address that instead of trying to fix aftereffects of the problem? Instead of giving teachers expensive guns to carry, shouldn’t we give them expensive tools from social emotional learning curriculum for working with traumatized youth? 

Over the years I have worked with children who struggled with self-regulation; throwing chairs, kicking tables, screaming, punching walls… a few of them stick out in my mind. All of them had experienced a trauma in one way or another. I recall one kid who had meltdowns for seemingly small reasons. Family and school staff were frustrated. My assessment was the child lost respect for himself, because he knew he was different and he did not understand why. I worked with the boy and his mom on understanding that his behavior was normal responses to unresolved trauma. Once mom and son were both able to understand and believe that, mom became more patient and the boy became more aware of his emotions and behaviors. Eventually the tantrums became less intense and less frequent. The boy’s self-esteem grew with each visit and by the end he had hope for his future. Imagine if all schools had thousands of dollars available for training on how to talk to children who have experienced a trauma. Imagine if all schools had social workers and counselors available to provide support and skills building for youth. It seems backwards to be putting thousands of dollars into corrective and security systems. I guess that's why I am a school social worker and not a correctional officer.  

Several times I have been asked, “You had this trauma happen to you. How did you heal?” I can only believe that every piece of my life had aligned perfectly for me to move through this experience as smoothly as I did. 

1) My parents were the number one supporters for me. They talked to me about my experience and what the community was discussing. They showed me love and made sure I was safe. My parents gave me the self-worth I needed to be resilient.

2) My friends were open and accepting, They were willing to talk about their feelings, fears and worries. It helped me feel connected and part of a whole. We shared healthy coping skills and made healthy choices in all our activities. I chose to be alcohol and drug free as a teenager so that I was sure to make good choices in my life. My friends were supportive of this, which helped when others gave me a hard time about being such a “Good Girl.”

3) I had a supportive community. I had some teachers who were strong and encouraging. Parents of my friends were safe and positive, always welcoming and caring when I would visit. I do not recall feeling unsafe in my surroundings after I had adjusted back into my daily routine.  

4) My goals remained in sight. My coach was kind and found a way to keep us focused on our goal. We took first at Regionals and made it to the State tournament. 

That terrible February morning did not stop me from reaching my goals. If anything, it is the fire that keeps reminding me that I am in the exact place I need to be. Showing kindness and acceptance can be a game changer for a child’s future.