This story has been updated.
Jena Legnon Meaux was sitting in Theater 16 watching “Trainwreck” when she heard the gunfire.
The high school librarian instinctively dropped to the floor with friend Ali Viator Martin, an English teacher. Meaux then scrambled between the seats and crawled towards the exit. Once outside the Lafayette, La. movie theater, she screamed that there was a shooter. A wounded Martin dragged herself to a fire alarm and pulled it before escaping.
In the wake of mass school shootings, more schools — including Jeanerette High, where the two teachers work — have trained teachers for active-shooter scenarios, instructing them to herd students away from doors and into closets, to cover windows and to crouch behind desks. The 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., highlighted the heroism of educators, one of whom died shielding her students from a hail of bullets, and increased the urgency for schools to train teachers in emergency measures.
Meaux said the training helped her in those brief chaotic moments in the theater, keeping her from yielding to panic.
“My first thought was to get low,” said Meaux, who has worked as a teacher for more than two decades. “I’m sure that had something to do with the training that we had, the lockdowns.”
Meaux said she believes she was in the theater for about 30 seconds after the gunfire began, but much of it is a blur.
In the wake of the shooting, which left two theater-goers and the gunman dead, La. Gov. Bobby Jindal and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised the two teachers, saying their swift thinking likely saved lives.
“A lot of folks in that situation would just be thinking about themselves,” Jindal said. “She had the presence of mind to think, all right, even though she was shot in the leg, she saved other people.”
Weingarten called Martin’s actions “nothing short of heroic.”
“Teachers naturally have the instinct deep down in their souls to help others. We saw that in the Newtown, Conn., massacre and again last night in Lafayette,” Weingarten said in a statement.
Meaux said it was in character for Martin to think of others, even in a moment of grave danger. She met Martin about eight years ago, when Martin started at the high school. Meaux, a former English teacher, said the two bonded because they have similar personalities: “Friendly. We both enjoy helping people.”
“She’s the person who will give anything that she has,” Meaux said. “She enjoys making others happy even if it’s something that takes away from herself.”
Both women are described passionate educators who work to help students in Jeanerette, a town that has struggled with poverty since the closure of the local textile mill and sugar mill. Meaux said Martin “creates experiences that the kids wouldn’t normally have.” During a unit on British literature, she held a high tea.
Kyrial Loston, who graduated in 2014 and was class president, said the women are upbeat and motivational. Martin ran the National Honors Society and a peer tutoring group.
“They would not let you give up,” said Loston, who will be a sophomore at Nicholls State in the fall. “They were constantly on you to push you to your full potential.”
Iberia Parish Superintendent Dale Henderson said parish schools get crisis training every year, preparing teachers for a range of things, from shooters to tornados.
Inette Malveaux, vice president of the local teacher’s union, said her middle school has done lockdown drills every year since she started. Reacting becomes like “muscle memory” for teachers, and she believes that’s what kicked in when the teachers in the theater acted. Malveaux said teachers train to remain calm even in chaotic situations.
“We have to remain calm,” Malveaux said. “The last thing I ever want to do is alarm my students.”
Meaux said she spent Friday limping around her house with a crutch; a bullet passed clean through her leg, a wound she described as “a little bit sore.”
School starts Aug. 7. Asked if she planned to return, she said: “Yeah, oh yeah.”