(Update: Adding complete text of student essay)
A student named Brett Stewart was in psychology class at Arapahoe High School in Colorado on Dec. 9 when an armed student entered the building and critically wounded a classmate before killing himself. In an essay he wrote about what happened, published in a student arts magazine, Stewart wrote about suddenly hearing the sounds — “like someone had dropped a heavy book” — and then watching the teacher lock the door, turn down the lights, grab some pepper spray and tell everybody to get on one wall. And, with classes still closed at Arapahoe and next opening again until 2014, he asked, “How does one go back to school now?
The essay, published on Strike Magazine’s Web site, poignantly asks what students must feel at any school that has been scarred by violence: How can we feel safe again?
With permission from Stewart, here is his entire piece from Strike:
Today, I was sitting in my fifth hour psychology class when it happened. At first, it sounded like someone had dropped a heavy book. Then the sound came again. It took my class a moment to realize that gunshots had been fired less than a hundred feet from where we were. Our teacher immediately locked the door, turned down the lights, and had everyone get on one wall. Pepper Spray in hand, she crouched at the door lying in wait for any possible threat. God bless her.
After the shots, you could hear screams down the hall. “He ran that way!” “He has a gun!” Sobbing students in my class began to face their own mortality, questioning who the shooter was, would he come for us, and if he did, would he shoot us? Over the course of thirty minutes, sirens, flashing lights, screaming and loud footsteps thundered throughout the campus. Entire SWAT teams rushed onto the scene within ten minutes and tactically pushed through the halls shouting “Blue!” or “Clear!” when a room was clear. In hindsight, we now know that the last shot heard must have been the self-inflicted death of the shooter, but at the time, it was absolutely terrifying, because all of the screaming made it sound as if the incident was prolonged much, much longer.
Eventually, men with guns slammed on our door and directed us out of the room. Leaving my phone, keys, and jacket, (which I would later regret in the cold Colorado weather) I was ushered out of the room by legions of police. They made us put our hands over our heads, and they frisked some students, which is understandable, considering at this point in time they weren’t aware of the extent of the threat.
You know that scene in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ on the beaches of Normandy where Tom Hanks is in a haze, watching all of the carnage and destruction in slow motion, without any audio? That’s what it felt like when we crossed the street to take refuge at a nearby church. Students screaming, crying, frantically looking for friends, calling parents and huddling together. When I walked across Dry Creek, it felt like I was walking into a war zone.
Immediately I was in a crazed mind set. I needed to find my best friend. I needed to find the people I cared about most. On the verge of tears, I painfully pushed my way through hundreds of students in an effort to find them. Later, I would find out they had been evacuated to a different area, but having no phone, I couldn’t confirm it. I eventually found the girl I was searching so desperately to find, and I don’t think I had ever been more relieved, or hugged anyone harder.
The church was a chaotic mess. We were in a large gymnasium when they started calling out names, trying to get kids to their parents. Teachers were running back and forth with makeshift sign-off sheets attempting to secure students a safe passage home. Hours in the gym went by, with rumors circulating at an ever increasing rate. Was there a bomb? Was anyone dead? Who was shot?
I know who did the shooting. And I have an idea of who was shot. But I don’t plan on writing about that here, because, one, I don’t want to cause any issues for law enforcement and their confidentiality, and two, that’s not why I’m writing this. All I have to say on the matter, is that I knew the shooter, which made the matter more painful. Was I friends with the shooter? No. But that doesn’t change the fact that I knew him. I had interacted with this student. I had been in classes with the student that would later alter all of our lives in a chaotic hell-storm. That’s a big realization.
Sitting in that gym, I found it somewhat interesting that a giant mural of Jesus was staring down at us, with an ever-so-reassuring Bible quote. I found myself frustrated at it. “Well, Jesus, where the hell are you now?” was my initial thought. But then I realized he, or whatever deity or mystical force of faith you believe in, was indeed there.
He was there in the form of our teachers. Of our students. Of the churches, businesses and parents who immediately came to our aid. I hold my teachers in higher regard than I ever have in my life, and will never forget my admiration and thankfulness for how well they handled the situation. The police arrived in a timely fashion, and despite the horrible news of the injuries, it could have been much worse. It could have been Columbine.
At the same time, though, how does one go back to school now? I felt safe before. How does Arapahoe reassure me I’m allowed to feel like that again? An administrator once told me that there were only a handful of blind spots our high-tech cameras couldn’t pick up on the campus. But that didn’t stop the shooter from walking in the same west entrance I walk into five days a week. Where do we go from here? Do you install metal detectors? Put another police officer on the campus at all times? I’m not blaming Arapahoe or saying they did anything wrong, in fact, Arapahoe did everything right. The question still remains, though, how do you prevent the same thing from happening again?
Hours later, my best friend arrived at the gym, and thankfulness and gratitude washed over me. I felt like I had finally found my brother in the panic of this terrible, terrible day. He’s not my real brother, of course, but he might as well be. His girlfriend also arrived, and broke into tears as they embraced. I’m not trying to sound cheesy here, but it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. These two students who loved each other very much, who had been together for so long and through so much, to finally be safe and together after all of it.
Arapahoe didn’t deserve this. The students who were hurt didn’t deserve this. But we were presented with a challenge today. We faced that challenge. I don’t have over-excessive school pride. As a matter of fact, I regularly feel outcasted from my school’s community and there’s only a select group of people I have really bonded with. Today, though, we were all together. No matter how much we may not like a person, or how often we’ve had bad thoughts about someone… we didn’t want to see any of those people hurt today. Today, I hugged people I never thought I’d hug. I felt thankful and relieved to see anyone safe, regardless of whether or not I’d even met them before.
Arapahoe will continue to stand, just as Columbine did, and it’s by the grace of our local law enforcement and teachers that we won’t have to suffer as severe of a blow. As a musician, I wrote a song called ‘Under Our Blood Red Skies’ reflecting on the tragedies of 9/11, Sandy Hook, Columbine, and countless other unspeakable acts. I wrote that song over a year ago, and I went back and listened to it again tonight. I never wanted that song to be as painstakingly relevant to me personally as it was today, because today, we were living under blood red skies. We changed those skies today, though. We changed them from blood red to gold and black. Not just black. And certainly not blue. Everything today was gold and black. Arapahoe Warriors, take care of one another.