“During a crisis, you’re moving at hyperspeed,” said Rick Fitzpatrick, Superintendent of Corning Unified Elementary School District. “Every second matters when it comes to protecting innocent lives.”
Fitzpatrick is always present in the moment. He doesn’t check his email or text messages while in a meeting or talking face-to-face with someone. He concentrates and listens. But he stepped out of being present on November 15 and checked his email. “shots fired at school…need help niow [sic].” That was the subject line of an email from the secretary at Rancho Tehama Elementary School. She was hiding under her office desk.
Violence on campus
The student body of more than 100 students and their families were just starting their school day. What would have been any normal school day prior to Thanksgiving break was interrupted by gunshots, which the secretary heard from some distance away. Fitzpatrick says gunshots aren’t out of the ordinary in mountain communities. But these gunshot sounds were alarming and turned out to be much closer than expected.
“We’ve empowered any and all of our district employees…if they feel the need to lock down a school…they should do it,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’ve purposely taken away the bureaucracy to protect our schools.” The secretary called for the lockdown and students immediately went into classrooms. There was no chaos in the lockdown order. Teachers calmly got students into classrooms without screaming or yelling. Terror arrived 35 seconds later as the final few students took cover. The gunshots from a distance were now at the school in the form of a man with a gun.
The man rammed his truck through the school’s fence and got out of the vehicle. He cocked his gun and walked on campus firing shots. It took a total of 46 seconds to get every student, teacher, and staff member to safety. The man shot into walls, shot out windows, and fired into classrooms. A custodian purposely poking his head out to draw attention was the only pause in the shooter’s rampage.
Fitzpatrick says when the shooter realized he couldn’t get into a classroom, he fled from the campus. Hours later, authorities found the man dead. On campus, one student was injured by a bullet and a few others by flying glass. All students and staff were transported to an evacuation center outside of the crime scene. The student injured by the bullet returned to school after the holidays.
Practice must be real
When the lockdown ended and authorities went through the school, consistent communication was needed to calm the entire community. Phone calls, emails, and interviews needed consistent messaging. He relied on professional development courses and an outpouring of support from fellow school administrators. “I have five schools in my district and 2,100 students,” he said. “But the world shrinks when something like this happens.”
One thing Fitzpatrick could trust was his decision to make lockdown drills part of a district-wide routine. Fitzpatrick says the lockdown drills, which happen on a regular basis, are real and designed to mimic the exact situation that happened at Rancho Tehama that day.
“The campus lockdown went exactly as students and campus leaders had practiced,” he said. “The one piece of advice I’d give to educators about practicing crisis situations—you can’t just rely on a manual or book to save lives.”
Fitzpatrick says every move by the students and staff on this day was deliberate and responsive. The next morning, Fitzpatrick met face-to-face with staff. He wanted them to understand how much he valued them and was there for them.
“Selfless acts of staff saved lives that day,” Fitzpatrick said. “The entire staff stayed until the last student was picked up. We got everyone home that day and I feel pretty good about that.”