Run, Hide, Fight: How Threats of Mass Shootings Have Changed My Life

Hi Joel,

I’m writing this on a Friday to publish it on our blog on Sunday, which will be a week since the last major mass shooting (as opposed to the run-of-the-mill mass shooting) in America, unless of course there is one between now and Sunday, which is absolutely possible.

CNN commentator Mel Robbins argued persuasively this week that we don’t “give a damn” about mass shootings because, really, they don’t affect most of us. In fact, watching them from a distance can actually convince us that we, personally, will never face one. When one happens and we aren’t the person dead or the one holding the body of a loved one but only know of it, we experience a “near miss” that confirms that we are invincible. The issue is, she says, that eventually, we all will be affected. At the rate we’re going, eventually, all of us will know someone who has a first hand experience with a mass shooter. Then we’ll care–but why wait that long? Why allow that much suffering? Why permit that much violence and injury and death? Eventually, we’ll have to stop it–or we’ll all be dead or prisoners in our own homes.


It was not my first experience with a shooter that changed how I go about my daily life, and, in fact, it was not the worst experience, by far.

It was my third time of sheltering in place. It was the eighth such event that scared or hurt or killed people I love.

By February of 2015, I had taught students who had witnessed the Columbine shooting and worked with colleagues suffering from PTSD related to Virginia Tech. My friends include physicians who served in ERs when “Code Yellow”–a mass casualty–was announced and the bodies of schoolchildren started arriving by ambulance and helicopter. I love and support pastors, coroners, and funeral home directors who do the almost impossible work of preparing a community for a dozen funerals over a few days. I teach in a town where one of the earliest school shootings–and the one committed by the youngest assailant–happened, and so I have taught and taught alongside many survivors of that experience, including people who saw their friends and teacher killed. And the Nickel Mines Amish schoolhouse shooting, just a few minutes walk from my own childhood church, changed the course of my research and, in no small way, my orientation toward suffering.

We had lived through an on-campus gunman the December previous. A disgruntled former student–a white man, unsurprisingly, with anti-government views–drove his truck to the middle of the green, armed and, he said, ready to blow up the vehicle. Everyone sheltered in place, including my younger son, who was asleep in the campus childcare center at the time. For some of our students, this was a reminder of the 1998 Westside School shooting. Imagine that–getting to live through two incidents. “This is the price of freedom,” as Bill O’Reilly said after the Las Vegas massacre last month. Freedom is not free, and it looks like school children and college students will be the ones to pay for it.

Thankfully, the gunman was eventually persuaded to lay down his weapon. No one was hurt–I mean, except for the students locked in a supply closet for two hours, trying to figure out when, exactly they should run, when they should hide, and when they should fight (the three keys to escaping a mass shooter). And the people who had to relive the Westside shooting in that moment. And the many of us teachers who had to worry about restraining those students in our classrooms who we suspect are armed. Oh, and the campus police officers. And… well, so, really, lots of us were harmed.

But it wasn’t even that one, when I didn’t know where on campus the shooter was and the childcare center was a reasonable guess (because poor women with angry, violent ex-husbands work in the low-wage early childhood education field), that did me in.


That February morning, I had attended church services without my family. As I was turning onto the road to our cruddy little house on campus, police cars raced by me–not one or two, but lots of them. Ahead, police lights lit up the neighborhood. I should have kept driving–Run! is the first and most effective survival strategy–, but my husband and children were at home, the older two playing in the yard. I don’t want us to go down together, but I’d prefer it to them going down without me.

By the time I pulled into the drive, everyone was inside. My oldest was in the bathtub, the safest spot in the most interior room of the house. He’d lined it with a quilt and brought in several pillows and was reading a book from a pile he’d stacked up next to the tub, just in case the house-to-house sweep took a few hours. His sister set on the floor, crammed between the wall and the toilet, coloring. I wondered if kids in Mosul or Aleppo or Kashmir were so casual. Bombing, of course, is different from firearms. Our concerns were mostly about bullets or, in a worst-case scenario, a hostage situation, not drone warfare.

When I opened the door, our youngest was in his undies. (It was Sunday, so even the undies were not guaranteed for the three-year-old.) By the time we gathered in the bathroom, he was dressed.

Like this:Captain AmericaAbove, my littlest wears his Captain America costume, complete with fake muscles.

“It’s okay, Mommy,” he assured me. “I’m brave!” And that, for me, was it–watching my preschooler put on bravery in the form of a costume.


We moved off campus shortly after that. Sooner than later, everyone in higher education will know that they know someone affected by a campus shooting. (Very likely, most of us already know someone but may not realize it.) I didn’t need to increase our odds by living on campus.

And then came the other prices of freedom.

  • I requested that more of my work duties be placed online. When being in the office is necessary, I shift my hours to the early morning or evening, when fewer people are present.
  • I don’t teach in classrooms at the top of the stairs or the first floor of the building. None of those beautiful classrooms with lovely glass walls.
  • I lock the door of my classroom so that students are able to leave but no one is able to enter. I let students know that if they must leave, they should take all their items with them and not return. I let them know that if there is an alert of a gunman on campus and they are outside the door, I will not open it.
  • I have purchased a fire extinguisher for my classrooms and my office. If you have run and have hid but now need to fight, they are a useful resource. You don’t have to have good aim, but you may be able to distract a shooter from 8-10 feet away.
  • I avoid going to campus at the same time as my academic spouse. If we must go at the same time, I try to stay in separate buildings. Sometimes he wants to each lunch together on campus. I decline. We work together in his office sometimes, but I worry the whole time. I’m somewhat reassured by its location: the end of the hall, so we’ll hear any shots that start elsewhere in the building, but there is no exit. We don’t go to the same public events on campus. If my children are going to lose a parent, they don’t have to lose both.
  • In all my classes, we review the active shooter plan: where we run, where we hide, how we fight. We talk about who has a right to have a gun on campus and what they need to think about before they draw it.
  • I monitor my students carefully, and I intervene frequently. I’m probably not going to be killed by one of my students. It’s going to be the boyfriend who gave her that black eye.
  • We don’t go to the mall. Or to Wal-Mart. Or Chuck E. Cheese, which is stressful enough without angry co-parents fighting about how Dad doesn’t give Junior his ADHD medicine during the child’s stay because he doesn’t believe in it. Netflix and Amazon Prime are acts of of self-defense.
  • I don’t just know if my children’s friends’ parents own guns. I also know how long they’ve been married or divorced and if their ex-spouses are happily resettled. Kids with messy custody arrangements can play at our house, but we won’t meet them out in public.
  • I’m always on the lookout for who doesn’t belong. The adult sitting in the McDonald’s PlayLand. The guy with a coat on in summer. Anyone with a raised voice in public. Obviously, anyone we see open carrying and anyone we see concealed carrying. Leave the cart with the groceries in it, kids. We run.
  • This year, my youngest could have entered kindergarten at the same elementary school where my daughter attends. Instead, I chose for him to attend a private kindergarten–not because it’s safer but because it distributes my children over more space. It’s a hassle to get three kids to three different schools and to invest in each of those school communities, but I’m not going to lose two of my children in the same school shooting. Captain American will start the local elementary school when his big sister enters junior high and her brother is safely in high school.

And, in the end, none of these things will necessarily save our lives.


One comment

  1. Damn. This is horrible. I did a crisis intervention at a school two days after a lockdown for a gunman in the community. The kids had been kept in their classrooms in the dark for 4 hours. They had been told to be quiet or the bad man could get them. When I showed up in the first grade classroom to start my work, on of the kids screamed and threw all of his pencils at me. I was a stranger and he was doing the best he could to protect himself. I told him good job. At least he didn’t feel powerless. I write letters and advocate for research and really try to keep going even though I feel powerless. Every great fight in American history has been impossible until it was won. So I remember abolition and hope gun control doesn’t take a war. Here’s to you and your daily struggle.


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