Officials from the Chardon Local School District, where three high school students were killed in a shooting last February, shared Friday morning the lessons they learned from the tragedy with the teachers and administrators of the Plain Local School District.
It was shortly after 7:30 a.m. last Feb. 27, when Andrew Fetchik heard gunshots coming from the school cafeteria.
A girl screamed that someone was shooting. The Chardon High School principal ran down the hallway and into the main office. He announced on the PA system that the Geauga County school was on lockdown.
Three students shot in the cafeteria died. Three other teens also were shot, with at least one of them suffering critical injuries.
On Friday morning, Fetchik and Chardon Local Schools Superintendent Joseph Bergant II came to GlenOak High School in hopes that what they’ve learned will help protect the safety of children here.
The Plain Local School District’s business manager, Tom Brabson, heard the two address administrators at a roundtable in Columbus several months ago. He invited them to speak with Plain Local administrators. After the Newtown shooting, the district decided to invite all of its teachers to see their presentation.
Addressing a nearly packed auditorium, Fetchik and Bergant talked how they dealt with the shooting and its aftermath and gave them advice on how they could plan for such a traumatizing crisis.
Fetchik recounted that after he announced the lockdown, he immediately grabbed about a dozen kids in the area and a secretary, brought them into his office and locked the door. He texted his wife and then called Bergant, who was in a different building. The principal worried about whether any students were trapped out in the hallways.
Bergant calmly told him to “stay safe.”
“It probably set the tone for me the reminder of that day,” said Fetchik, “Just being calm. Because I certainly (felt) like I was going to panic.”
The shot children were being carried out on stretchers. Many of the district offices’ phones were ringing.
“I was like, ‘This can’t be happening,’” Bergant recalled. “I should have been in that high school this morning. ... there’s a sense of guilt.”
A student, T.J. Lane, 18, was arrested outside the school and accused of shooting the students. He is awaiting trial in Geauga County on aggravated murder and other charges. He has entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
To quickly restore a sense of normalcy, the district reopened the school within three days as the teachers and staff got counseling.
Bergant said he limited who could talk to the press because he wanted to avoid his school district forever being thought of as a site of a shooting.
“We wanted to set the tone that it was about healing ... not about the shooting,” he said. “Our schools are safe. And they’re still safe. It’s an unfortunate thing that happened, and we’re going to move on from there.”
Page 2 of 2 - Chardon officials shared this advice with Plain Local administrators and teachers:
• Determine how administrators will communicate with teachers in an emergency. Chardon High Principal Andrew Fetchik said he couldn’t use the PA system after announcing the lockdown because it was in an area outside his locked office. With so many people making cellphone calls, the cellphone tower also was tied up and he couldn’t call the teachers. He resorted to using emails and text messages.
• Project calm to prevent students from panicking. Come up with a plan on what to do in the classroom during the lockdown.
• Practice emergency drills during lunch, before school, after school and even during assemblies “just to get a feel for what would happen in a real life situation,” said Fetchik.
• Upgrade the locks. At Chardon High School, several teachers had to lock their classroom doors from the outside. The school had seven different keys for seven different locks.
• Allow students to bring smartphones into the school, so they can communicate with their parents in an emergency. Fetchik said this helped mitigate any panic among parents who waited patiently to pick them up.
• Build relationships and trust with law enforcement and the media before the emergency happens. Fetchik said students and teachers were comforted because they knew many of the police officers and deputies coming into the school.
• Communicate with the students’ parents. Superintendent Joseph Bergant said the district sent out two mass emails telling them what had happened within an hour after the shooting. However, he found out later that some of the parents’ phone numbers the school had didn’t work. Bergant said the families of the killed students also were furious with him that no one from the district told them their loved ones had been shot.