It’s Not If, It’s When

Back in the fall of 2011, not long after I had become a Building Emergency Leader (BEL) at Johnson County Community College, I attended an active shooter training led by a former FBI agent. He started by immediately killing any lightheartedness in the room by saying that campus shooting happening at JCCC would not be a case of if but of when. Trust me, I quickly began to wonder what I had gotten myself into when I agreed to become a BEL.

Ever since Columbine, school shootings had been a serious fear of mine, and I have had students who had left me wondering if they were capable of committing murder because of certain behaviors they had exhibited to their peers, faculty or staff. As a college employee, I work in the very setting where these incidents can and do occur. Every time I hear about a school shooting, regardless of whether it’s K-12 or college, it cuts me to the core. Even fictional stories about school shootings – Gus Van Sant’s Elephant or Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin for example – give me nightmares.

Today, those nightmares partially came true.

I had gone down to my boss’ office to catch her up on a meeting she had missed and something that had happened in our office earlier. On my way out of her office, I grabbed a large package that had come in and hopped in the elevator for the third floor. I’ll tell you now, nothing seemed out of the ordinary right away. I passed a girl in the quiet lounge who was buying something out of the vending machine. The hall was otherwise empty, but at 3 p.m. on a Thursday, which is pretty normal.

When I got to my office, the door was locked. Honestly, I thought we were once again having problems where the door was locking itself – it happened several times earlier this week – so I thumped on the window since I was carrying a giant box and couldn’t easily grab my keys. Aaron, my Student Involvement Ambassador, had been walking away from the door and turned back. I could tell that I surprised him, but I didn’t understand why. When he explained, well, that’s when panic mode set in.

Aaron stated that a police officer carrying a shotgun had just stopped in asking if they had seen a woman carrying a shotgun. When Aaron said no, the officer said that he was going to lock Aaron and the other staff members in the office.

I had just missed this happening, and when I knocked on the window, I scared the crap out of the people in the office. Of course, the manager in me kicked in. I told Aaron to call over and tell the staff to close the Lounge and Campus Center, which had already been done (my staff is awesome). I then grabbed my BEL radio and called my boss to see if she had heard anything.

Over the next few minutes, my boss and I were frantically trying to figure out whether the situation was a drill or legitimate lockdown situation. I am so thankful I’m a BEL because the notification that we were on lockdown came across the radio before the text and email notifications were sent out.

After that, it was a waiting game, and we wound up waiting for nearly four hours as the JCCC police, Overland Park Police and SWAT and the Johnson County Sheriff Department searched our campus for the woman with the gun. We got a few text notifications, but honestly, Twitter was our best source of information. I sat in my office, my heart in my throat, trying my best to put on a brave face for the five students who were hiding in my conference room watching the local news over the internet. We’d trade news back and forth, jumping at every single thump we heard.

I will say that I am so thankful that I had Aaron in the office. His experience as a former Marine was invaluable as he would reassure me after every thump and bump that it wasn’t a gunshot but a door shutting or the AC kicking on or whatever it was. He kept my sanity in check. I don’t know what I would have done without him.

Eventually, around 6:30 p.m., we heard the police evacuating the Student Lounge and Campus Center. That was the greatest sound ever, because we knew we were next. But the minutes between evacuating those rooms and ours stretched on for what seemed like an eternity. We knew that they had to sweep each room to ensure that no one remained and that the woman with the gun wasn’t hiding anywhere, but we just wanted to run for the safety of our cars so we could rush to the safety of our homes so bad. Not to mention every single one of us had to use the bathroom so badly. But the police soon came to our rescue.

But my job wasn’t done quite yet. The police had already cleared the first and second floors on the COM, but they had missed my boss’ office and the Campus Ledger staff, so I had to speak to the police to tell them where to go. I can now cross “Spoke to a man carrying an assault rifle” off my bucket list.” :-/

While I was out of the building, I still wasn’t quite done. As I went to leave campus, I had to stop and open my trunk to prove that I did not have a gun or a person in my trunk. While I was standing at the back of my car with a police officer, we hear a loud crash. Some gawker on the main road wound up rear-ending the car in front of him. At that point, the officer was definitely done with me. And I was glad to be done with work.

Today was a day that I hope to never repeat. I cannot say if it was a false report or what, but I am very thankful that we did not have an active-shooter situation. I don’t understand why anyone would ever choose to react in such a manner, hurting innocent people. I’m glad it did not happen today. I’m proud of my staff for how well they handled themselves, and I’m proud of the students who hung out with me in my office, all of whom maintained their composure so well in a very stressful and frightening time.

I’m just so glad to be at home where I got to hug Jeff really tight. I thank all of my friends and family for checking in on me throughout the afternoon and evening. I’m happy to report that I am safe and alive, and trust me, I will hug you all so much when I see you.