PLAIN TWP.: Late February will mark the one-year anniversary of the Chardon High School shooting.
“There’s not a night that I go to bed and wake up and don’t think about it,” Joseph Bergant II, Chardon’s superintendent, said Friday.
After 33 years, Bergant plans to retire at the end of his longest year.
On Friday morning, he publicly recounted for the ninth time the high school shooting that wounded two and killed three students. Plain Local Superintendant Brent May reached out to Bergant and Chardon High Principal Andrew Fetchik to talk during the district’s in-service day.
With student safety recently underpinned by the massacre of 20 elementary students at Sandy Hook elementary in Connecticut, there couldn’t be a more poignant time to talk about school safety and crisis preparation, May said.
Teachers and staff packed the auditorium at GlenOak High School, quietly and attentively listening to the two administrators’ tragic story, which always starts out as “a typical morning.”
About a dozen tardy students and office aides milled around Chardon’s high school office at 7:37 a.m. Feb. 27. Fetchik was speaking with Athletic Director Doug Snyder when a metallic sound echoed from outside the room.
“It doesn’t sound anything like it does in the movies,” the principal said. “We knew right then, those were gunshots.”
Fetchik instinctively entered the hallway. He still can’t remember her name, but the first student he came to “screamed, ‘Someone’s shooting!’ ”
After texting his wife, Fetchik phoned Bergant, who also contacted his family after notifying police and the district’s board president.
“I’m fine; don’t come to the office,” Bergant told his wife and mother, whom he knew would worry once news hit television screens.
The district, like many today, had undergone active-shooter training three years prior. But after shepherding as many students as he could into his office, Fetchik said nothing could have prepared him for the emotions.
“I don’t ever remember feeling the guilt that I felt that day ... [or] if help was on the way.”
Students and staff made 911 calls from land lines that funneled into the local police station. County sheriffs answered cellular calls.
To this day, Bergant and Fetchik allow students to carry cellphones in class. It was that line of communication with family and police that eased the panic enough to maintain a semblance of order.
The barrage of phone calls flooded the cellular lines and quickly stymied communication. Texting and email were more effective.
Fetchik said his teachers were “savvy” enough to check their emails. The network of online messages tracked students and updated police, the media and teachers on unfolding events.
After the shooting, the district re-keyed all its doors. Police told the district one master key for every door is better than seven masters.
Also, some doors only locked from the outside. Some teachers, that day, were forced to walk into the hallway, engage the lock, re-enter the classroom and close the door behind them.
After Bergant arrived on the scene about 15 minutes later, a state trooper’s helicopter eventually plopped down behind a line of news vans and law enforcement officers, which flooded the property with local police, county sheriffs, FBI agents, SWAT teams and Bureau of Criminal Investigation officials.
Knowing the faces of local police officers helped, Fetchik said. Throughout the presentation, he and Bergant emphasized fostering strong bonds with local law enforcement.
Still, it was at that time Bergant knew Chardon High was no longer under his control. For Fetchik, the moment came when responders carried students out on stretchers and law enforcement ushered him and the student body into a neighboring elementary building.
“It was quite unnerving ... It dawned on me at that moment that it was no longer my school,” Fetchik said. “That’s a powerful feeling.”
The original crisis plan called for secretaries, teachers and other personnel to count students and walk them one by one from a parking lot to their parents.
“That didn’t happen,” Fetchik said. Officials on the scene found that the elementary, vacant until 9 a.m., was better suited to house the students.
The lesson, Fetchik said, is to practice active shooter or crisis training at odd times, like immediately after school begins. And practice often.
They offered sage advice from a year’s worth of hindsight.
• Check your liability insurance.
• Determine a hierarchy in the chain of command.
• Provide therapy and make psychologists available.
• Be ready for the spotlight.
Throughout the shooting and in the immediate aftermath, rumors of valiant efforts and tragedy flooded social network sites like Facebook and Twitter. The district brought in a media specialist to deal with the media frenzy.
It was important to be aware of those rumors and to address them accordingly, Bergant said. It was also important “to control the media.”
“We set the agenda for [the media] knowing that this was going to be pure hell,” Bergant said. “It helped them back off and show some respect.”
Bergant told his teachers and staff to not talk about the event in public places, fearing that journalists would overhear the conversations. He didn’t want to lose the school’s “brand” as a safe place with academic accolades.
But the media onslaught would prove to be easier to forget than some things.
“You didn’t know our children were dead,” Bergant recalled one of the three families saying.
The parent had missed a phone call from a paramedic traveling to the hospital with a victim, Bergant recounted. The message asked the parent if her child, who later died, had allergies.
That’s how the parent found out.
“For the rest of my life, I’ll have to live with the memories of those three families,” Bergant said, pausing for a moment.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.