A Tacoma middle school
by Rachel Smith-Mosel
May 4, 2013
On May 4, 2013, YMCA Youth and Government advisor, Rachel “Mo” Smith was driving her students back from a Governor’s Ball. As she pulled the district 12 passenger van into the parking lot, she noticed a car next to her. Inside the car, she saw a red bandanna tied around the steering column shaft. As she looked she also noticed some men wearing white t-shirts.
As Rachel parked her van, she heard a popping sound. She saw the man, his arm extended, shooting his gun down the street, firing off rounds. She dialed 911, screaming into the phone that there’s shots firing at her Tacoma middle school.
In her story, Rachel noted that after she “reported active shooting at a school, an indescribable sound followed.” She describes sirens blaring from every corner of the city, all converging on her and her students. “That noise came from everywhere. And while the shooting happened in a matter of minutes, time stood still,” she writes.
While the police were looking for the shooter, they come back and interviewed Rachel and her students. As her students were unloading their bags from the van, one of them said, “Another day in paradise! Just like Tacoma, here we go, right?”
Fortunately there were no casualties that day in that school parking lot.
In her narrative below, Rachel discusses not only her experience with a school shooting, but also an even more personal intersection with gun violence.
Rachel “Mo” Smith lives and works in Washington state, as a school administrator. Mo’s students called her Mama Mo (her married name was Mosel), which got shortened to “Mo”. She shares two intersections of gun violence: 1) her experience with students hunkering down in a school parking lot at a Tacoma middle school as bullets flew around them and 2) losing her son to suicide by gun.
Intersection 1: A Tacoma middle school
I began my teaching career in the Bay Area of California, and when I moved to Washington, I taught in Tacoma south of Seattle. The East Side and Hilltop are the two parts of Tacoma that are rough. Historically, it was Hilltop, that was most affected by violence, and today it’s affected by gentrification.
I taught near 72nd and Portland on the Eastside, a close second to Hilltop in the 80’s and near Salishan, which is a housing project. In the 70s and 80s it was known for gangs and violence. I taught one of the two middle schools on the Eastside. They were close in proximity. However, in terms of neighborhoods and gang allegiance, the two couldn’t be more different. But it wasn't only the kids who were gang affiliated, so were some of their parents.
The two schools were merged together into one large middle school, despite the neighborhood’s historic rivalry and became one large, 850-student school. We had over 100 percent mobility at times, which meant that if a student started in the six grade in a lot of apartment homes or low-income housing, they might leave the school and come back by eighth grade. That’s how the school got double-digit mobility. The area was high poverty, but rich in diversity and family support. It was a beautiful building. The school had a great athletic facility and a beautiful astro turf.
At the middle school, I was the leadership teacher, Instructional Coach, and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teacher. Part of my role included participating in and bringing Tacoma middle school students to the YMCA Youth and Government (YAG). YAG is when 800 students from around the state of Washington go to the capital, Olympia, to take over congress and run a mock legislature. The students invade the halls of the capital, take over the Governor’s office, and debate and propone pieces of legislation they wrote. YAG was where my students found their agency and voice. This meant they were no longer powerless to the system.
Upon our return from YAG, shots rang out. We were pulling into the parking lot. I was driving the district 12 passenger van, and my colleague is driving a district 12 passenger van. And we’re about to make a right onto our street. I look into a car next to me, and I noticed a red bandanna tied around the steering column shaft, where the steering wheel is. I looked at the bandanna and thought: How 80s. We knew there were colors and gangs in the neighborhood but hadn't seen a red bandanna in a long time. It was strange, so, I took note of it. I continued to look around and noticed some men wearing white t-shirts. Still thinking something was out of the ordinary.
Not thinking too much of it, I pull into the school parking lot, and look at our amazing field and our astro turf. There are a bunch of white kids playing lacrosse and I thought: You’re lost. Because we don't play lacrosse on the East side, right? And we didn’t have a lacrosse team. But we had this beautiful field. People used it.
I wanted to make a V across the parking spaces so we could at least put the students and their bags between the two lines of the parking spot protecting them from the soccer moms rushing to get their kids from lacrosse practice. I look over to my students as I begin offloading kids and I hear a popping sound. And here is a gentleman, arm extended, walking down the street near us and he is shooting his gun. If he turned 45 degrees towards us, he’d be shooting directly at us.
I yelled, “Get the fuck down!” And my students dove because they’re Tacoma kids, because they had never heard me cuss, and because they knew what those sounds were. I dialed 911 and screamed into the phone that there’s shots firing at our school. While I’m on the phone with the police, I look towards the turf, and the lacrosse kids are still playing--completely oblivious. I was scared, protective of my students, and angry because I thought: I’m gonna have to leave my cover and go get the lacrosse kids and they are clueless soccer moms off the field. But where was I going to take them? The school was locked and on the other side of the parking lot. There was nowhere to hide but behind cars. How was I going to keep everyone safe?
So, I run to these kids, and I’m screaming to 911. I yell out to the coach, “That's gunfire, get the fuck down, get those kids down!”
The moms didn’t seem to process what was happening. One casually told her son to go get his lacrosse bags. But I shout over here, “Leave your goddamn bag! Get down.”
The sirens blared from every corner of the city and converged on us. The sound is so loud and the siren keeps getting louder and louder until I couldn’t think. That noise came from everywhere. And while the shooting happened in a matter of minutes, time stood still.
The police were everywhere looking for the shooter, they come back and interviewed me and my students. The kids seemed less shaken than me. They had returned to unloading their belongings from the van. “Another day in paradise!” says one student. “Just like Tacoma,” responds another.
And I'm thinking about how horrible and beautiful on both sides. My kids on the Eastside are exposed to gun violence regularly and have survival skills. I wasn't worried about my kids, my kids are smart. They’re savvy, street smart, and they know what to do. They know to run and hide, fight. And then I’ve got these clueless kids and parents on the lacrosse field who are untouched, and have no idea what to do or how to survive. On one side, I’m angry at them for being so ignorant and endangering me, but at the same time, I’m jealous of how blissful they are.
That night, I wondered to myself: Who’s better off? The kids touched, regularly by the reality of gun violence, or the other kids, sheltered in their life? At some point that shelter is shattered by gun violence. It’s inevitable in this country. But my students are more resilient, reality-anchored kids. My kids have the unteachables, the skills and common sense that come from living in an urban area rich in diversity and experience. They understand cultural competency and respect for differences. They are living in a model UN, the real world.
My school district was very progressive in a lot of ways, and our head of security, brought in active shooter training for all of the administrators who worked at the district office. We watched actual footage of Panama City, Florida School, December 2010. It wasn’t lost on any of us sitting in our school board meeting room that we were practicing evasion tactics, takedowns, Run/Hide/Fight, how to evade an armed gunman.
I raised my hand, in a room of 150 administrators, and said to the individual leading the training, “I need to process this with someone. And I need to know what could I, should I, would I have done differently per your training? Per your expertise?”
That was the first time that we shifted in our talk from hunker down and hide to run, hide, fight. I had never heard that before. And, so, I gave the trainer our scenario. Thankfully, those exchanging gunfire were not looking at us as the target. However, if the shooter had one second and shifted his fire towards us, we would’ve been the target. And that was when the expert pointed out, “You did it wrong.”
He didn't mean it in a critical or mean way. He explained there’s a new way of thinking.“ You tell the children to run, and run, and run, and run, and run, and run, and run, and keep running as far away as they can run, until they can’t hear shots anymore, until they can't run anymore, because somebody else will find them alive. Someone will find a crying, very scared child, and will do the right thing by them. The expert explained how it’s better for us to have those 30 kids we were in charge of screaming and crying on somebody’s lawn until help arrives rather than being reunited with their parents with toe tags.
During that training, I thought to myself,” We have just entered a new era.”
Growing up, we’d been conditioned to line up for the fire drill against one wall, or duck and cover. Today we’re taught to Run, Hide, Fight. But how do you reteach and reprogram kids taught to be obedient? They are conditioned to follow the teacher, to raise their hand to speak, or go to the bathroom? How do you teach them to survive? To think like they’re being hunted? How do we teach educators tactical maneuvers?
Now we are to tell teachers to use their instincts. We are going to have to tell kids to leave their teachers behind or arm themselves and attack an intruder. It’s a new day.
I grew up in California with memories of school shootings: Columbine, Stockton, Thurston. But it didn’t feel as pervasive. To be a kid now means to know gun violence in schools. Looking back at the incident in the parking lot, it was the last time some students had the privilege of being out of touch. Their bubble popped. That’s where we are in the United States.
Did the bubble pop, and that’s why the soccer moms are pissed? Is that why Moms Demand Action, a group I’m part of, came from? They tired of their kids being shot at. But guess what? East side kids have been shot at for generations. Now the white soccer moms are joining the chorus of black and brown and urban families and communities shattered by gun violence.
Welcome to my world. Welcome to their world. Our world. The bubble popped.
Intersection 2: Brennen
The second part of my story is the most tragic. I am really effective as a school administrator at accessing resources and services for my students. I’ve been with suicidal, homicidal kids. I’ve taken my students by ambulances that are suicidal. I’ve supported kids who have reported rape to me from the night before. I’ve been with kids who are self-harming, cutting. The high school hired me because I’d been a foster parent for 10 years and had over fifty placements in my home. I knew how to work with trauma-impacted kids and families.
But the school had nowhere else to go. There was no one else who knew the system and how to network for kids at the school. Because the way the school was when it was founded at Todd Beamer, it was an innovative school model, which turned out not to be so innovative. So, I knew how to call and garner resources and get kids what they needed, so when my own child, Brennen called me, I sensed something was wrong. I don't know what it was in his voice that immediately made me think, “I need to go to him.”
Brennen was 20 when he died. Almost three years ago on September 11th. He was six foot seven, and all of his friends say that the third tower in their life fell on September 11, 2015. But I don't think there was a reason he choose that date, except that it was the day after suicide prevention day, maybe, I don’t know. I guess it was when his life bubbled up.
So, I am sitting in my office, and vomity-like, because when you are working with kids, you start to get a PhD in reading kids. Sometimes it’s the unsaid, the pregnant full pauses, the body language that says more than their words. Here I am with my own kid on the phone, and I hang up, queasily walk into my daughter's shop classroom, and I say to her, “We need to go to Portland.”
She asks, “For the weekend?” And I say, “No, we need to go.”
We’d lived in our house, at this point, for 14 years. My career was here, my community was here, but I felt we needed to go, to move, to be there with Brennen.
We packed the house, got renters in it and were in Portland in a month. I took Brennen to breakfast and asked, “So, what is it?”. Brennen was a good kid who had attended an arts school. He danced close to the edge but had never gotten into big trouble. Even so, I had prepared myself to hear him say, “I got a DUI” or “I dropped out of school and didn’t tell you” or “I got in a car accident.” Even “a girlfriend's pregnant.” I was prepared for some Jerry Springer-something that my kid had done because when you’re 20, that’s what you do. But it was something else. And I said, “You know, whatever it is. I’m here, we’re gonna handle it.”
“Mom, I tried coke and I think I have a problem,” he said. “I don't want to be a burden. Like, rehab's expensive, mom,” Brennen said.
“No, no, no, no, we’ve got this.” I assured him.
I pulled out my Kaiser Permanente packet. Across the top read “THE CARE YOU NEED WHEN YOU NEED IT”. My benefits package said, “100 percent coverage, zero dollar copay, inpatient, outpatient rehab.” One hundred percent covered, zero dollar copay, psych services for therapy, and for mental health, and it was 25 dollars for prescriptions and 15 dollars for generics. I had the Cadillacs of Kaiser policies. I had the best insurance for a school administrator. We're paying high premiums I told him. “All we have to do is call.”
We called his dad and did the family meeting. No shame. No blame. Only loving, Brennen. And he called Kaiser completing a 50-minute intake on the phone with Kaiser. I listen in, and I tell him, “Don't hide the ball, be completely honest.” I listened at the door for the first ten minutes to make sure that he said all the things that he needed to say. “Don't sugar coat it, don’t downplay it.”
He had told me, “I tried to beat it on my own, I’d never paid for it, it was given to me free at a concert.” He was a musician and was going to university full time. He was working too. Whoever offered him the coke said it would give him a bump to get him through the performance as his band was on last.
Brennen felt so bad, and expressed that he should’ve seen this coming. He said that he knew better. I assured my son that it was all going to be OK, because “I'm here, we've got this. We’ve got it. You told me and we're gonna figure it out.”
Kaiser told us to call every day. “There's going to be a bed, there’s going to be something available. Have someone with him and a go bag.” Their first available appointment was in 29 days. I told them that was too long. They assured us we’d get in sooner. Call in every morning they said. And we did.
But there was never going to be anything from Kaiser in the end.
Parents believe “If I just have insurance, if I just activate my insurance, if I just have them call the suicide helpline.” But those things are safety nets that have huge holes, and kids call through all the time. You think as a parent you’re preventing a school shooting? You think you’re preventing a suicide, but the systems are so broken and overwhelmed that they can’t meet the need. My dear friend’s son called the suicide helpline nine times only to be put on hold every time. He gave up and took his own life too.
After 24 days of waiting and calling every morning… only five days away from Brennen’s appointment, Brennen had relapsed. He relapsed and didn’t have the heart to tell me. I am thinking he’s doing okay- enrolling in classes, and going to work at a day school as a song leader. He wasn’t ok.
Brennen woke up on September 11th and he drove to a pawnshop. He bought a 12-gauge shotgun, legally, from a pawn shop in five minutes. I have the video tape of him buying the gun.
Brennen had never handled a gun, and the way he handled the gun in the pawn shop – it was clear he had no clue how to handle a firearm. I wish someone at the shop would’ve asked my son, “So, what’s your safe storage for this gun? Where are you going shooting? You going to get a hunting license? What classes are you going to take?” He wouldn’t have had an answer.
After he bought the gun, he walked out with it in his hand in plain sight- to his car. He crossed the street and he bought the ammunition for $4.99, which is the cost of a happy meal. My kid was armed and dangerous in under five minutes. Thankfully, he wasn’t homicidal. What if he had gone to school to visit his mom? He went to the Tillamook Forest and used the gun on himself.
The owner of the pawn shop was an assistant principal, I’m an assistant principal, and together, after Brennen’s death, I retraced his steps. She and I sat arm and arm, hugging each other, crying, watching her 20-year-old son, sell my 20-year-old son a gun in under five minutes legally, realizing that it could be a role reversal so easily. Understanding together how this could have been a headline had gun violence come to our schools.
My family and I were told by Kaiser that there would be help, but they had no intention of providing that help. So, I took Kaiser to task in a wrongful death action. And for a suicide, it’s very hard to prove wrongful death, but I did. Because of the multiple phone calls and the network adequacy that they operate under.
Today when you walk into Kaiser Permanente’s corporate office in Portland, there is a huge plaque, the size of a pizza box with my son’s name on it and it says: Timely access to mental healthcare and addiction medicine is just as important to timely access to quality physical healthcare. Kaiser Permanente must never forget this. We will never forget our son, Brennen Matthew, gone too soon at the tender age of 20. Beloved brother, friend, and son.
Brennen’s plaque at Kaiser Permanente. Photograph provided by the author.
The day my son died, I became a gun owner. I was given the gun that my son used to kill himself. The police officer handed it back to me with the unspent ammunition. He said, “Ma'am, this is your property now.”
And that’s when I became a gun owner of my son’s gun. A grief stricken mother with young children living in the home! No gun safe. No safe handling classes. No background check. I was now armed.
I have no idea what to do with the gun. It was the last thing my son touched. It was the last exertion of power when he was made to feel powerless.
I have had it rendered inoperable. As an added measure, it’s locked, and I have thrown away the keys.
Someday, something important will be done with his gun. Maybe someday, it will be in the Smithsonian with my kid’s name on it commemorating that his death caused a shift in access to mental healthcare and addiction medicine. May his death be as impactful as the Parkland kids in shifting the gun debate. I need my kid’s death to shift the access to mental health care debate because the next funeral those Parkland kids go to, is not going to be a mass shooting at a school. It’s going to be a suicide of one of their friends who can’t take it anymore and can’t get help.
I didn’t do a graveside service, but my kid’s tomb, my kid’s grave is that plaque at Kaiser. And we go there and we put rocks on the plaque in Jewish tradition on that plaque. And people who love us down there make sure Kaiser doesn’t take them down. I go down once a quarter and I wail, and cry, and scream. At the top of my lungs, I let it out. It’s a mother’s guttural cry… Kaiser execs have to listen to a grieving mother who trusted them visiting their son’s grave in their lobby.
It takes a bullet. It doesn’t matter what kind of gun it comes from. In terms of killing yourself or killing another person, it takes one bullet. In five minutes Brennen bought a gun. In five minutes he was armed and dangerous. Five minutes if he was homicidal, not suicidal. It can be your kid, any kid.
I took the evidence box that contained the 12-gauge shotgun, which is huge. I took modge podge to it, and decided I’m not going to make this box about his death, I’m gonna make it about his life, and what was taken from him by gun violence. I plastered Brennen’s pictures all over it. I take it with me to rallies, I carry it around. And I make legislators hold it. Gabby Gifford has held that box, Governor Inslee held that box, senators, house members, leaders in my community. They’ve all held that box. I take it to those places as my protest. To show how this is the cost of gun violence.
To try to keep all of our families safer, I worked to pass Brennen’s Law in Washington State. Governor Inslee explained, “Among several provisions Brennen’s Law requires a health carrier to post on its website the number of days within which an enrollee must have access to these covered services.” Brennen would still be here if he had access to the care I paid for when he needed it.
Brennen was 20 when he ended his own suffering after being denied and delayed care. He died on September 11, 2015. He was six foot seven.
His friends say that he is the third tower in their lives to have fallen on that day, 9/11.