A history of violence

Recent surge of active shooters leads to lockdowns, conversations about gun control

Varsity baseball coach Donnie Watson stares at his monitor, holding his glasses in his left hand and nervously chewing on the temple tips as he watches his longtime friend and Texas Rep. Roger Williams speak at a press conference June 14. His right leg bounces. His eyes water.

“There could have easily been 25 deaths or more today,” Williams says in the YouTube video. “But Officers Griner and Bailey prevented that, and my family and I will be forever grateful.”

Watson turns away from the screen, shaking his head.

“This was right after it happened,” Watson said.

Watson was the coach for the Republican team as they prepared for their Congressional baseball game against Democrats in June. The day before the game, James Hodgkinson — a 66-year-old business owner from Belleville, Ill. — opened fire during practice, injuring five people, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.

Watson was watching the team throw ground balls when the sound of gunshots erupted. He said they all dove into the dugout for safety, helping the injured as best they could.

“All the Congressmen with military backgrounds and training kicked in and yelled, ‘On the ground, on the ground, nobody move!’” Watson said. “Could you imagine having 20-plus Congressmen and staff, probably about 40 guys out there on the field? We were all sitting ducks.”

For Watson, the shooting was an event he’ll never forget. For most of the country, though, it was just one in a long line of gun violence incidents that have occurred over the past couple of decades. With the steady rise in gun violence in America, mass shootings have become a cultural norm. On average, there is more than one mass shooting each day in the U.S.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Small Arms Survey, America has 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but almost half of the civilian-owned guns in the world.

The 1999 school shooting in Littleton, Colo., is often viewed as the divide: much of the gun violence plaguing the U.S. is seen in terms of pre- and post-Columbine, especially in schools.

On lockdown

In response to Columbine, many schools took the initiative to put lockdown drills in place.  ASL teacher Shannon Campbell said the drills are important so that people know what to do if an act of violence, like the one Watson endured, occurs at school.

“The bottom line is that in any emergency, students need to listen to the directions of adults,” Campbell said. “In my experience, when the emergency is real, students and teachers do the right thing.”

Campbell considers school to be one of the safest places for kids to be.

“I think we do a great job at Denton ISD with our check-in and check-out system,” Campbell said. “We have driver’s licenses scanned, you have to come in through the front office, we have doors that are locked, we have students that are safe. It’s our job as educators to help our students know that yes, the drills are drills, but we are training them on how to react when these horrible situations happen.”

According to House Bill 1279, schools are required to have at least one drill per month. During the 2017-18 school year, Braswell has conducted five fire drills, but as of Jan. 12, has not had a lockdown or shelter-in-place drill.

“We had a lockdown drill scheduled last semester but made the decision not to proceed because we were in the middle of non-credible threats,” Principal Lesli Guajardo said. “We did not want to cause unnecessary alarm. We have a drill scheduled for this month [January].”

One threat involved bathroom graffiti that indicated a student was planning an act of gun violence. In another incident, a student brought an unloaded gun to school.

A new awareness

Many staff members believe the drills are necessary, even if there is no way to guarantee they will be completely effective in the event of an actual emergency.

“I wish there was a foolproof way to stop the violence, but it has been going on for years and years and will continue to be a debate, and I hope we can continue to find better solutions,” Campbell said. “I hope the students know we are preparing them to be ready for those types of situations involving guns.”

Campbell has been a teacher in the district for 11 years and recalls the shooter threat at Ryan High School in 2016. On Feb. 4, officers arrived at the school after a 911 call was made stating a person with a gun had entered a classroom. Upon investigation, the threat was deemed a hoax.

“I was in my classroom with a bunch of students when it happened. I got an email from Mr. Reeves saying to go into lockdown and telling us about the incident. I sat in my room while the Denton Police Department went through all the classrooms,” Campbell said. “I heard a bang at the door as it opened and a police officer I’ve known for years turned to me with a gun, and my heart dropped.”

Many teachers remember a time before the drills and gun violence, particularly those who graduated prior to the Columbine incident.

“I cannot remember one time where I thought that someone would come into my school with a gun — that never, ever crossed my mind,” art teacher Krissi Oden said. “I think that it has become almost a norm in our world. I think that we’re getting numb and that’s the scariest place we can be. It’s almost daily that you can turn on some source and see some sort of gun violence, and I don’t think that we’re doing crap about it.”

For Oden, safety is a constant thought when sending her children to school. As a mom, she tries to keep her children safe at all costs.

“This is my little one,” Oden said, pointing to a picture of her 2-year-old daughter, Kat. “And I’m scared for her. I’m scared that I haven’t done everything that I can to make it safe for her. When I send my kids to school, I think of their safety first. I feel like a lot of people today, especially younger people, have lost the ability to empathize and to feel what it’s like to be another human. It’s something I try to teach my kids and my students.”

While most feel Braswell is a safe environment, many students are aware of gun violence in the news, and even incidents that hit closer to home. Last school year, a lock-in was ordered after police delivered a warrant to a nearby home, afraid that the recipient might resort to violence.

“It was really scary to think about something like that happening close to us and that people we may know in Little Elm could be hurt,” junior Macy Henry said. “However, I think Braswell handled it pretty well, we took the right steps. Because of all the shootings that have happened, it has, sadly, become sort of a regular, expected thing.”

Finding solutions

The morning of June 14, Watson sent his oldest daughter a picture of the moon in the sky as the sun rose that morning in Washington, D.C., to wish her a happy birthday.

“I’ll never forget June 14, 1980, when she was born. It was a day that changed my life forever,” Watson said. “And I’ll never forget June 14, 2017. It was a day that changed my life forever.”

At 6:30 a.m., when practice commenced, Watson said it was a great experience for a baseball coach in love with being part of an event that started in 1909 and has taken place every year since. By 7:20 a.m., he couldn’t have been more worried about the state of the country, the polarization of its people, and whether he would “survive the attack on our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“I saw Congressman Steve Scalise get shot at second base before I immediately hit the ground to avoid the onslaught of gunfire by an assassin hellbent on killing people he didn’t agree with politically,” Watson said. “I thought about my girls, my grandbabies and the kids at Braswell High School who would hear about the events of the day.”

Watson said while lockdown drills are important, even more so is building a values system that encourages excellence, respect and opportunities. In the end, he said, there’s no simple solution to the issue.

Safety is a funny word,” he said, “and so are the opposing opinions of people who talk about how and how not to impose a set of stringent and defined safety rules and regulations on a population made up of 300 million-plus people in a world of seven billion-plus more people.”