In Ohio Town, A School Tragedy Averted
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And Im Michele Norris.
It was a sadly familiar scene yesterday at Willoughby South High School in Willoughby, Ohio. A young man walks down the hallway with a handgun, shots are fired. Students and teachers hunker down in their classrooms and pray the door locks hold. But instead of running away from the student with the gun, two men - principal Paul Lombardo and assistant principal Jeff Lyons - confront him - not physically; they confront him with words.
Earlier, I spoke with assistant principal Lyons. He told me that when it all began, he and Lombardo were in the office taking care of some routine business.
Mr. JEFF LYONS (Assistant Principal, Willoughby South High School): The first thought that I had was I heard this pop and then a window break, and I thought somebody'd thrown something through the window or what have you. To be very honest, I did not recognize it as a gunshot right away. When I saw people scrambling a little bit, you know, I used the analogy, you know, you look at firemen, for example, when everybody else is running out of the building, theyre running in.
Well, when we hear a noise like that, as administrators, you know, whether it be training or something that just comes a little natural, we run toward the noise and say, hey, what can we do to help? And we did find that there was a young man that had, moments ago, fired a shot through the ceiling of another part of the school, made his way down the hall, and then did, in fact, fire a shot through one of our trophy cases that is in our main lobby.
NORRIS: And that was the glass that you heard breaking?
Mr. LYONS: That is correct.
NORRIS: When you first spotted the student, what was he doing?
Mr. LYONS: Well, we came to understand that this is, you know, obviously a young man that was pretty troubled. And at the point that he shot through the trophy case, he started to make his way down, you know, one of our hallways to an open area, which is basically our school commons near our cafeteria area. And Mr. Lombardo and I followed the individual down the hallway and, you know, just hoped and prayed for the best possible situation.
NORRIS: You say you followed him down the hallway. He was walking, and you were just walking a few feet behind him?
Mr. LYONS: He was walking down the hallway, and he did have the gun. In the young mans defense, he did not point the gun at anybody else, but he did in fact point it at himself. And our gut told us that the young man did not want to hurt us, but he may in fact be, you know, ready to hurt himself very soon. And that kind of enabled us to make the right choice to follow him down and see if we can make the best of a poor situation.
NORRIS: And you try to engage him in a conversation. You talked to him, what
Mr. LYONS: We did, as a matter of fact.
NORRIS: What did you say to him?
Mr. LYONS: The young man said some things that talked about, you know, my life is going to be terrible from here on, my parents arent going to talk to me, you know? Things where hes just alluded to what a rough time things were going to be from there on out. So our thought process, as administrators, was we need to first let this young man know that we care about him, that were there for him, you know? The panic mode did set in a bit, but we then said to ourselves, you know, what are we going to do to keep this young man safe?
The line of questioning then turned into, you know, how old are you? Once I heard that he was not 18, he was - hes in fact a 15-year-old, I went, okay. Now, were looking at what were going to tell him with regard to how theyre going to handle him as a juvenile with respect to legal ramifications. And we were able to, you know, tell him that hes got a lot of life ahead of him, and he can work his way back from this.
NORRIS: Did you get a sense that you were getting through to him?
Mr. LYONS: We did. And again, so much of that is just a gut feeling. Ive spent 15 years in the classroom, and Mr. Lombardo has that considerable time in the classroom, as well. We get to know kids pretty darn well. My gut told me again that he didnt want to hurt me, so what can we do to help him?
And I asked him, I said that the kids around here trust me. Do you think you can take me for my word? And the kid was pretty good. He stepped up and he said, yes, I do trust you. I said, well, if youre going to trust me, youre going to need to trust us to be able to help you, tell you whats going to happen. If you go ahead and put the gun down, well tell you exactly how the police are going to react. Well get you out of here safely. Please, dont leave the decision in their hands.
NORRIS: The boy, and we should say that were not using his name because he is a juvenile.
Mr. LYONS: That is correct.
NORRIS: He, as you said, at one point, pointed the gun to his head, and he said he wanted to kill himself. And you shared with him a very personal story about suicide.
Mr. LYONS: Yeah. There was a story that shortly after high school, I had a friend that committed suicide. And I will never forget the day of the young mans funeral. The mother looked at me and she said, Jeff, it is the most selfish thing anybody ever could have done. And Ill remember those words, you know, til the day I die. And it was just a situation where I thought, for me to share that to the kid would be pretty effective. And apparently, the things that Mr. Lombardo and I said to the young man worked out because, you know, we got out of there without anybody getting hurt.
NORRIS: He eventually dropped the gun and, as I understand, kicked it away toward you.
Mr. LYONS: He did. As a matter of fact, the fashion in which he had done it was very slow and methodical. It was one of those where you could see that the young man felt a great deal of remorse. He was apologizing. Please tell my classmates that, you know, I didnt want to hurt anybody. I wasnt going to hurt them. And, you know, at that point, hes taken the magazine from the gun. Hes emptying the bullets from it. He cleared the chamber. Placed the gun on the ground, and then kicked or slid it with his foot away from me. And at that point, I, you know, asked him if I could approach him and, you know, I asked him if I could walk him out and let him know what the police were going to do and to fully cooperate with them. And I gave my word that I would help in any way that I could.
NORRIS: Was it difficult for you to turn him over to the police?
Mr. LYONS: Absolutely. I will say this: When the SWAT team came in and the local police, it is quite fortunate that living in the community, I probably knew half of the police officers out there. And these are guys that if I had kids, I would trust with my own kids.
NORRIS: Now, in this case, you ran toward the gunshot. School shootings have become common enough that most schools have some sort of training for how to handle them. In this case, did your training kick in? Did you actually do what you were told to do in a situation like this? Were you told to run toward the sound of the bullet to try to confront someone?
Mr. LYONS: You know, I cant say that anybody has ever trained us to run toward a gunshot. There was a great deal of strength in the idea that Mr. Lombardo and I were doing this together, kind of like one of those, you know, you got my back kind of things. To say were trained to do that, no, and regardless of whether it was the most sensible thing in the world to do, to err on the side of, you know, I care about our kids and want to make sure theyre all right, thats something I can sleep with.
NORRIS: Mr. Lyons, thank you very much for speaking to us. All the best to you.
Mr. LYONS: I appreciate your time. Thanks very much.
NORRIS: Jeff Lyons is the assistant principal at Willoughby South High School in Willoughby, Ohio.
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