'Fight Or Die': When Students And Educators Are On The Front Lines Of School Safety

Jun 4, 2019

Just like a fire drill, students and teachers routinely practice what to do if an armed intruder enters their school.

Some students and teachers across the country are being told to fight back. And that's happened in recent weeks, when two students — one in high school, and one in college — died lunging at gunmen.

The type of training students receive can vary from district to district, and by age group.

At the Farmington River Regional School — an elementary school in Otis, Massachusetts — principal and superintendent Thomas Nadolny recently got on the intercom.

“The school will now be conducting a lockdown drill,” he announced. “Please go into lockdown mode at this time. This is just a drill. Thank you.”

Inside a sixth-grade classroom, teacher Jamie Foster moved quickly, turning off lights and locking the door. He was all business as he directed students.

“Crouch in that corner, please,” he said.

Next, Foster pulled the shades. The idea was not to be seen — or heard.

“Hey, guys, guys — nice and quietly, right? Not a sound,” he said.

For a long two-and-a-half minutes, students clumped together on the floor in the pitch dark, mostly quiet. 

Then, all of a sudden, it was over, as a state police officer entered the classroom.  

“Hello, police department! Lockdown drill,” trooper Andrew Canata called out as he unlocked the classroom door. “Hello, my friends. Good job. It’s a drill. Thank you all for being so well-behaved and quiet, and for being such good listeners.”

Canata, who leads drills like this in Berkshire and Hampden counties, gave the kids some pointers.

“See how she is crouching, or he’s standing, one or the other? We want to be in a position so we can move. OK?” he said.

Move — so they can run, if necessary.

Massachusetts State Trooper Andrew Canata leads safety drills in schools in western Massachusetts to protect against an armed intruder.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR
State, local police and educators discuss a recent safety drill at Farmington River Regional School in Otis, Massachusetts.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR

Another safety measure: making it harder to get inside a school building.

Since last year, Mohawk Trail Regional School in Shelburne Falls has added another layer of locked doors.  That means more layers of protection according to superintendent Michael Buoniconti, who has 29 years of service in the military.

“The harder you make your target — and again, this is going back to military type of language,” Buoniconti said, “then the less likely an adversary is going to come after you.”

Buoniconti predicts that in time, school buildings will be as protected as airports. But he also wants students and staff to know how to protect themselves.

“We do not train our students to be sheep,” he said. “If a gunman comes into a classroom — unless you have an exterior exit that you can get out of — you’re cornered. So really, it’s fight or die. Preparing to respond that way is what we need to do with our people.”

That’s how two students in other states recently responded.

On the last day of classes at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, shots rang out. Emergency management tweeted: "Run, Hide, Fight." Riley Howell, 21, lunged at a gunman — and died.

About a week later, Kendrick Castillo, 18 — who was supposed to graduate high school in Colorado — also died running at a gunman. He wasn’t trained to fight back. He just did it.

Both have been hailed as heroes.

In most western Massachusetts schools, students, teachers and staff aren’t practicing fighting. But trainers suggest teachers get between the door and their students — and grab a heavy object.

Mohawk Trail Regional School in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR

Emily Willis is the librarian at Mohawk Trail Regional School in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR

“We're supposed to stand ready, preferably with something in our hands, so that if someone comes in, we can — go to battle, I guess — you know, protect ourselves and the kids,” said Mohawk Trail school librarian Emily Willis, who recalls being in a drill when she was eight months pregnant.

She said she feels responsible for students’ safety, and wants to do whatever she can to protect them — but fighting back, she said, seems unrealistic.

"It’s just not in my nature at all to fight back in general," Willis said. "With words, maybe? But not ever with something that I would use to hurt someone else. I can’t imagine myself doing that."

Mae Rice-Lesure, an 18-year-old senior at Mohawk Trail, has practiced safety drills for years. She knows to crouch, not sit, and stay out of sight of windows. She said sometimes teachers suggest other options.

“We haven’t actively done it, but teachers have said, ‘Well, if this was a real life situation, we’d want you to grab all these things, and try and barricade the door,’” she said. “Then teachers would grab objects, and say, ‘If this were real, you guys should be grabbing things, too.’”

Mae Rice-Lesure is a senior at Mohawk Trail Regional School in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR
CJ Keller is a fifth-grade teacher at Farmington River Regional School in Otis, Massachusetts.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR

Back in Otis, fifth-grade teacher CJ Keller grabs a Louisville slugger during drills. He said he wouldn’t hesitate to put himself between his kids and danger, but he doesn’t want his students thinking that way.

“It’s a dangerous precedent to set, to put that seed into a middle schooler’s or an elementary schooler’s mind,” he said. “That is a lot of pressure to have — to make a child choose — a scary thing for them to choose.”

All of the news about school shootings can stir things up for students.

Rice-Lesure has been keeping track of the number of shootings. She said after students and staff were killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida, last year, she felt scared.

“It was in the front of my mind,” she said. “Throughout the day, I’d find myself wondering and trying to keep track of, like, where my best friends were, what class my brother was in.”

Rice-Lesure has also been thinking about the two students in Colorado and North Carolina who died protecting others.

What they did was brave, she said, but she doesn’t want her peers or teachers to sacrifice themselves.