As Michelle Porter waited for help on the second floor of her high school almost 20 years ago, she tried to distract herself by playing hangman on a piece of paper and singing silly songs with a friend by her side.
Other students, three years younger, wrote what might have been their last words to loved ones. A TV in the classroom echoed gunfire they could hear coming from another part of the school.
“The day was emotional, but it was strange because you don’t really know how you’re going to react in a situation like that,” Porter said. “I ended up sitting in a classroom playing a game because I couldn’t really wrap my head around writing a letter to my parents, which some of the kids were doing.”
On April 20, 19 years ago, Porter was a senior at Columbine High School in Colorado. She managed to escape injury as two teenage boys used guns and bombs to kill 13 people and injure more than 20 others before turning their weapons on themselves.
Now into her second year as a kindergarten teacher at McGregor Primary School, when Porter sees headlines about school shootings, she tries not to think about the possibility of facing a similar situation again, she said.
In the wake of the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead, Porter and other teachers are opening up about their thoughts on a push to arm teachers, and students are continuing to host school walkouts nationwide to demand more gun control.
“The same discussion happened right after the shooting at our school,” Porter said. “The discussion has never gone anywhere, and that’s why it’s continuing and maybe has ramped up, but we laughed about it. I remember naming teachers, ‘Can you imagine that teacher with a weapon? One, they wouldn’t want to do it and two, what?’ It still sounds ridiculous to me and I know people feel safe if they have a weapon, whereas I feel like militarizing another aspect of our lives just creates more fear in people’s minds and adds to the possibility of something else occurring as an accident.”
Since the shooting by a former student in Parkland, President Donald Trump has pushed the idea of arming more educators, and Congress may consider a school safety bill next week.
Texas already allows school districts to designate trained educators as armed school marshals. The state law allowing the designation passed in 2013, after a 20-year-old man killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Since the Parkland shooting, some local educators have joined the social media movement #ArmMeWith to share what teachers need in classrooms instead of firearms, and residents have riddled the Tribune-Herald opinion section with letters to the editor on the topic.
“#ArmMeWith less time spent on standardized testing and more time spent teaching holistically, meeting the individual needs of my students,” Rapoport Academy eighth-grade teacher Noel Carlson wrote in an Instagram post Feb. 22.
Others are planning a March for Our Lives protest at 3 p.m. March 24 at Heritage Square to demand more be done to prevent school shootings. There are 540 events planned as part of March for Our Lives, a student-led movement sparked by Parkland survivors and supported by several organizations.
Porter, whose name was Michelle Markert when she was at the Columbine shooting, was one of many students who hid under tables in her school cafeteria, the first area the two shooters went before opening fire.
She and several other students took a chance and bolted upstairs. They ended up in a classroom where other students and a science teacher were hiding, she said.
“The teacher didn’t know what she was doing. She was asking us things. ‘What do you think we should do?’ We were like, ‘We don’t know.’ We went under the desks. We watched the news a little bit,” Porter said. “Our room was relatively calm, and we didn’t have anyone injured or anything, but we could hear things still — gun shots and some type of explosives for a while.
“Then the fire alarms went off, and the other half of the building had left because the alarm went off, and the principal made an announcement and just said to stay in your rooms until we knew it was safe.”
The group remained there for another three hours until a SWAT team escorted the students and teacher out with their hands above their heads, Porter said.
Officers took them to a bus nearby on a route where they would not see their dead or injured peers. The bus took them to an elementary school, and waves of emotions gushed over her as she greeted friends who hours earlier she did not know were alive, she said.
“I remember being really worried to find my sister and my best friend, and we had an exchange student from Spain at the time,” Porter said. “If you saw someone you were close to, pretty much everyone was just crying, and I remember wanting to go use the bathroom, because even though it’s a crisis, it had been three or four hours.”
At 18, Porter spent the rest of the school year and that summer sleeping in her parents’ room with her sister until she left for college, she said.
“The first day back was stressful. I remember we were all kind of scared because there were rumors of more threats, and what if something happened at the school now?” Porter said. “And some of our friends who were injured had come back, and we were all there together. It was really emotional to be in class with someone who had been killed. Some of my AP English classmates didn’t survive, so we all shared where we had been and we really didn’t get a lot of work done.”
She grew up in a time before the iPhone and before active-shooter or lockdown drills were commonplace in schools. When faced with questions from students about shootings in the news, Porter said she sometimes struggles. She still occasionally has flashbacks, she said.
“Even when we do drills in my classroom now, I tell them this is a practice in case anything dangerous does happen,” she said. “I don’t go into great detail.”
Porter is not the only educator fraught with thoughts of how to handle discussions about mass shootings with students.
Waco Independent School District schools do regular lockdown drills on a rotating basis and have several other security measures, including its own police department. But since the Parkland shooting and Trump’s proposal to arm teachers, the atmosphere in Jo Spark’s fifth-grade classroom at Alta Vista Elementary has shifted, Spark said.
“I’ve never felt unsafe, and I think our school district’s highest priority is the safety of its students and staff,” Spark said. “We all know that, but it does give you pause to think when something like this happens, what would I do? I have very mixed feelings about it. I really don’t think guns have a place on an elementary school campus. If a policeman is here or a guard is here, that’s fine.”
Spark, who has been with the district since 2012 and grew up with classroom bomb drills during the Cold War, has started clearing out a closet now full of curriculum materials and supplies in her classroom just in case, she said.
And during a recent essay assignment, her students asked to write about gun control. Ultimately, students were not allowed to because the topic did not fit the assigned prompt, but students want talk about the issue and are vocal about not arming the person they spend eight hours a day with, she said.
“There are things we don’t talk about, but when they come in and they’ve seen the news, they start talking about it among themselves. And when I hear things that are blown out of proportion or not quite true, then we read the news,” Spark said. “But we did not do that this time, and we have not done that this time. It was a little overwhelming for me, and I felt it would be overwhelming for them.”
Spark said a conversation with her granddaughter drove the situation home for her.
“I don’t even know if I can talk about it, but my 5-year-old granddaughter was explaining to me at dinner the other night about how they prepare for Mr. Lock It,” Spark said. “Mr. Lock It is a lock down drill, and I was glad the teachers were preparing them for that. But the very thought of my 5-year-old granddaughter having to even think about that and react to it, and that it could be a possibility in the life of a 5-year-old child, I broke down.
“I thought, ‘This has actually happened in Newtown,’ and now I’m listening to my granddaughter tell me about what she does during a lockdown drill. I was heartbroken.”
She said if there is something more educators should be armed with, they should be armed with the ability to teach students empathy and with access to mental health training to better embrace students who feel disenfranchised.
Back in McGregor, as Porter thinks about the teacher who kept her safe and takes stock of the chance at life she escaped with 19 years ago, she just wants parents to know she is helping children how she can, she said.
“I grow tired of hearing of more (shootings), because I don’t really see the end of it happening and I think that part is disheartening for me,” Porter said. “But I try not to think about it too often in running hypotheticals because you never can predict a terrible outcome. What I try to focus on is the mental health side. My kids are so little, but if I see a kid who is sad or going through something at home that’s hard, that’s the aspect I feel I can do something about.”