A Deafening Silence
School Incident Involving a Student's Suicide Attempt "Never Happened"
A custodian I know was going about his daily routine one day when he entered the boy's restroom and heard a loud "click, click, snap." The custodian was ex-military. He knew the sound of a revolver when he heard it. Fortunately, this one had been cocked and fired on an empty chamber.
He later told me, "When you have become familiar with firearms, you will never mistake that sound for another."
Revolvers hold six rounds. He was immediately concerned that the next "snap" might shut down on a bullet. He quickly started kicking stall doors open. Again, he heard "click, click, snap."
Gun at School
He finally kicked in a door to find a frightened teenage boy standing with a revolver to his head. Without a word, the custodian bulldogged the boy and a struggle ensued. The custodian is big and muscular, but the boy was quick and determined. He put up a good fight.
To the custodian's horror, the trigger snapped again during the struggle. Again, the chamber was empty. The custodian finally managed to subdue the boy and get hold of the pistol. He then delivered the boy and firearm to the principal.
The custodian expected to see a police car arrive on campus with lights flashing and sirens blaring. Instead, he was told that school officials would handle the situation in their own way. The custodian was ordered back to work without being questioned about the incident, or the severe cuts and bruises he sustained during the struggle.
The next day, the principal, superintendent, and a military officer from a nearby base called the custodian to the front office. They told him to forget about the boy, the gun and the struggle. "The incident never happened," they said. The custodian might have been shot by a student and "it never happened?" He was ordered to not say anything to anybody.
Later that day, the custodian noticed the boy in school, as if, well, the incident had never happened. Was the boy counseled for the event that "never happened" in which two lives might have been lost? Could the boy attempt another suicide? Could he shoot others? Why was he allowed back in school so soon? Was the gun loaded?
These nagging questions still cause an emotional response from the custodian, though he is retired now.
Some of the individuals involved were high-ranking military officers. Before I could report this story, I agreed with all involved not to reveal names and places, other than to say it occurred at a large, wealthy school district that encompassed a military base.
Many of the students at this school were military dependents who had traveled with their families from country to country, base to base, school to school. There is no place that many of them can call home. Lasting friendships are hard to maintain, I was told. Add that to normal teenage angst, and it can mean deep emotional trouble. The custodian was aware of these characteristics, he said, but never realized they could lead to the cover-up of an attempted suicide on campus involving a gun.
Nowhere to Turn
At the time of the incident, the custodian was in a wall-to-wall Association of teachers and ESPs, though the ESPs had just been privatized. The custodian had been forced to work for a contractor at about half what he had earned previously. Even worse, the teachers didn't want ESPs in their Association since they were actually employed by a contractor.
Teachers were trying to divorce themselves from ESPs. So, in one hand, the custodian is facing a school cover-up. In the other, he is apprehensive about the Association's support.
After two weeks of reflection on the incident, he realized how close the student had come to killing the two of them. He never learned if the gun was loaded, but the emotional experience of the incident became more than he could bear.
He would often go to work and find himself emotionally overwhelmed. He needed professional counseling, he said.
Fortunately, his wife and pastor knew the story and supported him. Thanks to them, he said, he survived this confusing episode in his life. I call him a hero because of his courage, inner-strength and determination to survive the opposing powers that often exist in a school setting.
Many ESPs I know are often overwhelmed by well-connected, strong-minded and powerful authority figures. Fortunately, most of us have our local Associations to watch our backs. The custodian was somewhat alone, yet he didn't quit.
He worked a few more years after the incident before taking an early retirement. I could see that reliving those memories bothered him. Two lives might have been lost if that day. We'll never know, since it never happened.
(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.
Dave Arnold: This school custodian and former Illinois Education Association ESP of the Year is a published poet. But most Association members know him best from the editorials -- Dave's View --