41. Solstice

August 2006

Sandy Hook Elementary School

One morning that August, a contractor from Monroe made a service call out to Sandy Hook. He drove up past the firehouse, and around Dickenson Drive, to the old square-shaped elementary school, and got out his tools; Newtown Schools had just approved a budget expenditure to upgrade the security at each of their elementary schools, and today was Sandy Hook’s turn.

At the school’s entrance, the contractor installed a KC-DAR Direct Access Control System, manufactured by Aiphone. The “KC Video Entry system” consisted of a speaker and microphone mounted just outside of the front doors of the school, plus a camera sending a closed-circuit signal inside, where it could be viewed on any of three monitoring stations at the front desk. (It was just the live signal — nothing was recorded.)

After the outer set of doors, there was a short, transparent corridor, followed by another set of security doors — an airlock, with the inner doors wired to a button at the front desk, so that the staff could let a visitor inside to speak, and be seen, while not yet granting them access to the rest of the school.

The school’s principal, Dawn Hochsprung, sent a letter home to parents that fall:

Dear Members of our Sandy Hook Family,

Our district will be implementing a security system in all elementary schools as part of our ongoing efforts to ensure student safety. As usual, exterior doors will be locked during the day. Every visitor will be required to ring the doorbell at the front entrance and the office staff will use a visual monitoring system to allow entry. Visitors will still be required to report directly to the office and sign in. If our office staff does not recognize you, you will be required to show identification with a picture ID. Please understand that with nearly 700 students and over 1,000 parents representing 500 SHS families, most parents will be asked to show identification.

Finally, she added that the doors would lock at 9:30am every morning; anyone arriving after that would have to get buzzed in.

The installer from Alarms By Precision put his tools back in his truck, and billed Newtown for a total of $4,322.

No further upgrades were ever made to Sandy Hook Elementary’s security system.

Red Lake, Minnesota

Minnesota Public Radio had a guest in the studio for an interview: he was the father of Derek Brun, who gave his life at Red Lake High School, and he had filed a lawsuit against the school district — one that Red Lake had just agreed to settle. “My son should have never died,” Mr. Brun said. “There was many things that could have been done to prevent it, including the school taking the proper action to adequately arm security people, even though it would have been a little more costly for the insurance.” If Derek had a gun, his father believed, he might have stopped the tragedy entirely. He at least would have had a chance.

A few years later, the victims of Red Lake would win another settlement, against a company from Minneapolis that the school board had hired to come up with the school’s emergency response plans. The lawsuit had argued that Red Lake had failed to meet the requirements of a law in Minnesota that required every school to “provide a crisis management plan, train school officials, and evaluate the school’s security weaknesses.” The law was passed in 2001, in response to Columbine.

September 13, 2006

Dawson College — Montreal, Quebec, Canada

A black Pontiac came to a stop on the city street, just outside the east entrance to the college, where the smokers gathered along a set of double doors painted with the institution’s logo: “DAWSON.”

The driver got out. He was wearing black combat boots, a black trenchcoat, black sunglasses, and his black hair was cut into a mohawk; perhaps attention-grabbing, but not significantly so on the streets of downtown Montreal. Pedestrians continued to pass right by.

He opened the trunk, and took out a black duffel bag, and two guns: a Glock 9mm pistol, and a Beretta Cx4 Storm carbine — another 9mm, but in the profile of a long gun. It was the sort of semi-automatic rifle that the gunman could legally obtain in Canada, where the guns were more regulated (though not quite as regulated as the post-Dunblane UK).

What his arsenal lacked it firepower, it made up for in volume — there was also a pump shotgun made by Norinco in the duffel bag, nestled among hundreds and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, for all the guns. It was more than he could carry by himself, actually, so the first thing he did was grab a mule: he pointed the carbine at a random pedestrian, and motioned to the duffel bag. “Pick it up. Follow me.”

The mule followed, at first. But then the gunman leading the way raised his rifle, and opened fire on the students smoking their cigarettes by the entrance, “sweeping the weapon from side to-side Rambo-style,” as one witness told the Globe and Mail later that day.

Everyone ran. The shooter looked back over his shoulder, and saw the duffel bag sitting out on the sidewalk, his mule long-gone. Frustrated, he left the cache behind, he headed into the college. (He likely did not know that police were following almost right behind him, having responded to an unrelated call on campus just minutes before.)

Inside Dawson, the shooter was seen marching up a wide staircase to the second floor, past students who had no idea what had just occurred outside, amid all the bustle and echo in the halls. Upstairs was the atrium-style cafeteria, always crowded at this time in the afternoon. The young man in the trenchcoat reached the top of the steps, took out his guns again, and shot as many people as he could.

Again the students ran. Some took cover under their tables. One of them heard the shooter yell, “Everybody on the fucking floor!” And he kept shooting.

After a few moments, there was more gunfire, but from the stairwell behind him. The police had arrived, and were shooting back. The gunman quickly took cover in a small restaurant area that faced the cafeteria, and a standoff ensued.

From his position, the shooter could see a young male student, cradling an injured female classmate. “Get over here. Come to me.”

The student looked up. Yes, he was talking to him.

The student obeyed, and the shooter positioned him in front of himself, as a human shield in case the police came storming around the corner. From where they stood, his hostage could still see the injured friend he was trying to save, moments before, and he begged the shooter: “Please, can I just take her outside so she can get help?”

The gunman shrugged it off. “Is she alive?”

“I don’t know, but she’s not doing good. She’s hurt bad.”

The shooter stepped out from behind his quarry — closer to the injured girl, but still behind cover — and shot the girl seven times. Then he went back to his position behind her friend. “Now she’s dead.”

The police rushed his position after that, and managed to shoot the gunman in the elbow, as he was reaching to draw his hostage closer. The shooter went down; lying on his side, he drew his Glock pistol, put the barrel against his own head, and fired.

Pathetic.

The Dawson College shooting got a lot of press, certainly much more than the bungled attack on Orange High School in North Carolina had, a couple weeks before. That might have had as much to do with the difference in casualties as it did with the location where it happened: with Dawson, it was evident that the Columbine phenomenon had gone international.

September 27, 2006

Platte Canyon High School — Bailey, Colorado

The bomb squad in Jeffco got a call from a neighboring town. What the Bailey Police told them brought back dark memories of a day in 1999: there was a man with a gun in their high school, and he said he had a bomb.

As the armored truck sped toward Platte Canyon High School, more details were coming in: it wasn’t an active shooter this time. The guy had hostages. And it wasn’t a student; it was a “scruffy looking” middle-aged man, a stranger. He had a Glock pistol, and some kind of revolver, and he had gone straight to a classroom on the second floor, fired one shot into the ceiling, then told all of the male students, and the teacher, to leave. From the girls, he chose seven to stay behind, and he told them to face the blackboard.

The bomb squad pulled into the parking lot. They saw the Jeep the gunman had left there, with a bunch of camping gear piled in the back. It looked like he’d been sleeping in the woods for some time.

The SWAT team led the bomb squad into the school, up to the second floor, to just around the corner from the classroom (the other rooms had all been evacuated). There was a hostage negotiator there in the hall, doing her job. For the next three hours, they waited, as she talked to the gunman, and one by one, four of the traumatized girls were released from of the darkened classroom. When they got to safety, each of them confirmed to the officers their worst fears: that the gunman had been sexually assaulting them at gunpoint.

The cops asked about the bomb. The girls said the man had set a backpack on the floor, and had told them there was “three pounds of C-4” in it. Then, when the fifth hostage came out, a little after 3pm, she said the gunman had told her “at 4:00 it will all be over.” And he still had two hostages in there.

They tried to get a sniper to take him out, but it was too dark. They tried to get a tiny fiber optic camera through a hole in the wall, but the gunman saw it, and threatened to shoot the two remaining hostages if they didn’t take it back out.

Finally, as 4:00pm approached, the authorities decided it was too dangerous to wait any longer. They detonated a breaching charge on the door, and a column of officers came charging through the cloud of smoke, into the classroom. They found the gunman shielding himself with a hostage, his gun to her head. As one officer took the loose hostage away to safety, the SWAT team ordered the gunman to drop his weapon, but he would not. He pulled the trigger, and then, all of the officers did too.

As an EMT attended to the fallen hostage, the other officers rushed to pick up every backpack they could find, and sprinted out of the room with them, throwing all the bags down a grassy hill they had cordoned off, knowing they could never search them all in time.

The clocks ticked down to 4:00pm, but there was no explosion. The Jefferson County Bomb Squad searched through each backpack in the pile at the bottom of the hill, and eventually they found the shooter’s. Indeed, there were never any explosives; instead, as their evidence report lists, the bag contained “rolls of duct tape, handcuffs, knives, stun gun, rope, scissors, massage oil, a dildo, a vibrator and numerous rounds of ammunition.”

October 2, 2006

West Nickel Mines School — Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania

The schoolhouse was tiny, just a one-room speck in a sea of wheat fields. It looked much like the old schoolhouses that were built by the original white settlers, when they first came to this part of the country, three hundred years before. And it was built the same way: by devout Mennonites, with simple tools. In this older way of life, they had to depend on each other to survive. A saying on the schoolhouse wall spelled it out: “JOY — Jesus first, Others Second, Yourself Last.”

There were only small signs of modernity that crept in around them, bare hints that it was really 2006, and not some pre-Industrial era colony — things like the flashing red lights they slung on the back of their horse-drawn buggies, so they could still adhere to state law when they traveled on the paved roads. Some of the farmers had a telephone shack on their property, for business needs or in case of emergency. And they still milked all their cows by hand — but the milk all went into a large, stainless steel tank, and a man driving an 18-wheeler would come by every week or so to pump their stock into his truck’s huge milk compartment. (Sometimes, the truck driver — who was not Amish, being a truck driver — cursed as he fiddled with the equipment, bringing in more of the sinful outside world along with him. It was enough that one farmer would routinely take his children out of the milk house until the man was gone.)

* * *

It was a warm autumn in Nickel Mines, so the teacher left the schoolhouse door open. She was in the middle of teaching the class, when they all heard a pickup truck parking outside; she went out to see who the visitor was. It was the driver from the milk company — and he had a pistol pointed at her. He ordered the teacher back into the schoolhouse, and followed close behind, shutting the door behind him.

Motioning with the gun, he told the teacher, her two aides, and the students (boys and girls whose ages ranged from 6 to 13) to lie face-down at the front of the classroom, in front of the blackboard. But the two adult aides immediately disobeyed (in part because they did not understand English), running out the back door and sprinting across a long wheat field to a neighboring farm — and the closest telephone. At 10:35am, the 9-1-1 operator got a call from a flabbergasted farmer: “There’s a guy in the school with a gun.”

Back at the schoolhouse, the gunman had ordered all the male students to leave. He seemed agitated. He pulled down the window shades, and started binding several of the girls’ feet and hands with zip-ties, then tying them to each other — but before he could finish, suddenly, one of the window shades snapped back up, and then fell off the hanger onto the floor.

The truck driver picked it up, cursing, and then went to re-hang it over the window, climbing up on a desk to reach. Just then, one of the schoolgirls lying on the floor — with her hands bound, but her feet still free — swears she heard a female voice speak to her, one that no one else heard; later, she would believe it was an angel. The angel said: “RUN.” And she did, right out the back door, across the field, to the farm.

The gunman finished tying up the girls, and then hauled in the supplies from the back of his truck: duct tape, a hammer, nails, binoculars, ear plugs, a flashlight, a candle, numerous wood planks, plastic zip-ties, a tube of lubricating jelly, cans of black powder, and an extra set of clothes. Along with the 9mm, he also carried a 12-gauge shotgun, a .30-06 rifle, a taser, and six hundred rounds of ammunition.

He closed the doors, and used the wooden boards to nail them shut. The gunman told his captives he was sorry he had to “do this,” but, “I’m angry at God and I need to punish some Christian girls to get even with Him.”

Almost at the same moment — nine minutes after the Amish farmer had made the first call from his phone shack — the gunman heard two cars suddenly pull up outside the farmhouse. Then a voice, over a bullhorn: “This is the Pennsylvania State Patrol! Put the gun down!” The cops had the schoolhouse surrounded. The truck driver’s plan was foiled.

He took out his phone, and called his wife.

They talked. She had no idea what was going on, and he didn’t seem to be making sense in the brief call, but it was obvious that something was very, very wrong. And that he was saying “goodbye.” As soon as he hung up, she called 9-1-1 — but she didn’t know where her husband even was.

It was too late anyway. Back at the schoolhouse, the shooter told the police he had hostages, and “I want everybody off the property or else! Right now! Two seconds, that’s it!” Then he turned to the girls, and whispered, “I’m going to make you pay.”

The police, having backed away from the windows, were trying to re-establish communication with the gunman through the bullhorn, but he had stopped responding; suddenly, they heard a series of pistol shots. In an instant, the officers charged, breaking through the windows and boards with their batons, and as they frantically came crawling into the schoolhouse, drawing their guns, the shooter turned his pistol away from the students, to himself.

* * *

Later that night, the shooter’s wife told detectives that he had made a strange claim during their brief phone conversation: that he had sexually abused two of his relatives when they were children, and was thinking of doing it again. The thing was, she knew it wasn’t true: the supposed victims were not even in the same state at the time. The gunman was lying — meanwhile, the similarities between what happened at the schoolhouse and what happened at Platte Canyon High School, just the week before, were hard to ignore. It was as if the bond he had formed with someone else’s fantasy had somehow grown stronger than the one tying him to reality.

October 5, 2006

The Newtown Bee — Newtown, Connecticut

The season of the school shooter had returned, and the Bee’s reporters had been interviewing local officials all week for the story. “We are always concerned about security in our schools,” Superintendent Pitkoff told them. “When these terrible incidents occur, it gets our attention.”

The Bee had first called Newtown PD, to get the Chief of Police’s statement, but Michael Kehoe only confirmed that there were “security measures that police and school officials have planned in the event that there is a dire emergency in the schools, such as a person with a firearm threatening violence,” and he declined to go into further detail — part of having an effective security program was to avoid talking about it publicly, he explained.

Meanwhile, the superintendent reassured Newtown that security procedures were already in place at every school in the district; just to be sure, he sent a letter to all the principals, “reminding them to review protocol with their staffs.”

The Bee talked to several of them: Newtown High School’s principal said that any visitors to NHS were required to wear an ID badge, and that administrators and security personnel — Richard Novia’s team — were constantly on the lookout for any strangers on school grounds. Over at Newtown Middle School, Diane Sherlock said, “I think our security is pretty tight,” and explained how they had recently banned students from carrying backpacks. “We will practice increased vigilance.” And finally, Pitkoff added, “As of today, all of our elementary schools have a buzzer system to gain entry to the building.”

October 10, 2006

National 4-H Conference Center — Chevy Chase, Maryland

President Bush sat onstage next to his Secretary of Education, and a panel of experts; among them were the nation’s Attorney General, the Governor of Colorado, and the director of crisis counseling for Los Angeles County schools — all seated under a banner reading “CONFERENCE ON SCHOOL SAFETY.” Behind them, the stage was set up to look like a classroom, complete with a blackboard (on which “school safety” was written, over and over again, as if left over from a detention punishment.)

They were there to take questions from an audience of school representatives, and students from around the country — including survivors from Columbine — to try and ease their fears that another dark wave of school violence had arrived. “In many ways, I’m sorry we’re having this meeting,” Bush told the conference. “In other ways, I know how important it is that we’re having this meeting. The violence that has been occurring in our schools is incredibly sad, and it troubles a lot of folks… and it troubled me.”

The president shared with the conference his view that schools were about more than education; that, “All of us in this country want our classrooms to be gentle places of learning — places where people not only learn the basics — basic skills necessary to become productive citizens — but learn to relate to one another.”

Later in the session, the crisis counselor from Los Angeles emphasized that addressing school violence would have to begin with addressing mental health:

Dr. Wong: We found in the school shooters that often depression and homicide were two sides of the same coin. Each of [the shooters] expressed a wish to die, as well as the intent to hurt others.

Bush appeared stunned by the very idea of it: that a student could make such a statement, and not raise any red flags.

The President: Is it typical of a student that expresses a wish to die, makes that clear to his or her peers, to — if people are attuned to what that means, to pay attention to somebody who exhibits the behavior that says, “I am depressed, and I want to die?” I mean, is it… it’s a pretty strong statement.

Dr. Wong: It’s a wonderful question, because there are behaviors, and there are expressions of hopelessness that come before that. And so I think we have to do a lot of education with just folks who say, you know, “they’ve changed; they don’t have joy in life,” and that this is an early warning sign.

The safety summit closed with a brief Q&A session, during which an audience member asked about “character education” classes being taught in schools, as a possible means of preventing violence. President Bush confirmed that while there were federal grants in place for such curriculum, he considered it more appropriate for the states to implement them. “Secondly, it’s really important,” the president continued, “that people not think government is a loving entity. Government is law and justice. Love comes from the hearts of people that are able to impart love. […] I’m afraid [that] comes from a higher power than the Federal Government.”