School Safety: Students, Teachers & Administrators Reflect On Safety In An Era Of Mass Shootings

May 22, 2019

John Zesiger, superintendent at the Moshannon Vally School District, says he makes drills more realistic by getting rid of the orderly lines and having some students not where they're supposed to be.
Credit Emily Reddy / WPSU

This story originally aired on March 18, 2019.  

Moshannon Vally School District Superintendent John Zesiger said to make intruder drills more realistic they’ve added some complications. 

“We block exits,” Zesiger said. “We have some students who are not where they're supposed to be. So that the staff and the students have to kind of think on their feet and say, ‘Geez, here’s where I'm supposed to go out, but I can't get out that way.’ And they look for the next best option.”

The district has other tactics to head off school violence too. They have guidance counselors, armed security guards and cameras. They recently fenced the elementary school playground. And they’re replacing the last of the original doors from 1964. 

But Zesiger said they don’t want to make it feel like the local prison.

“We certainly walk a fine line. We don't want to be SCI Houtzdale,” Zesiger said. 

For many schools, shootings like the ones in Parkland and Newtown have led to a new reality of locked doors, armed guards and intruder drills. School districts across the country are searching for a balance between preparing students and schools for tragedy, and maintaining a positive climate for learning. 

WPSU brought together some of the people featured in our school safety stories for a deliberation about the issue. They included three of those interviewed for this story: Superintendent John Zesiger (second from left), State High student Kyra Gines (third from left), and Moshannon Valley student Jake Matchock (third from left). They were joined by Martha Sherman (left), who was featured in another story, and moderator Lori Bedell.
Credit Min Xian / WPSU

Teachers are on the front lines of that struggle. Last year, The Delta Program Middle School had Centre County’s first ever “Run, Hide, Fight” drill. Teacher Virginia Squier said they weren’t told in advance what the scenarios would be. First was the “Hide” part.

“When the first drill started a high school teacher came into my room,” Squier said, “and she looked nervous and she said, ‘There's a man in the cafeteria with a knife.’”

Squier’s students hid in a closet while she waited in the room outside.

“It was unsettling even though you knew it was a drill,” Squier said. “I remember standing in the dark and sort of looking at a fan and thinking, ‘Could I hit somebody over the head with this floor fan?’”

Squier heard footsteps and someone jiggled the locked doorknob before moving on.

“And that made my mouth go dry,” Squier said. “I mean it was it was scary.”

Next in the “Run, Hide, Fight” drill they did the “Run” scenario – a man outside with a gun. They didn’t practice the “Fight” part. 

Afterward, students and teachers talked over the drills together in the auditorium. 

Squier worries about the stress children feel living in a society where shootings happen.

“Two girls in my class before the drill started were sitting together in a chair for one, and they were holding hands and their eyes were as big as saucers,” Squier said. “We had talked before about why we were having the drill. And we had talked about how we didn't like the need for having the drill. They were very quiet; they were very serious.”

Kyra Gines spoke to the crowd at the March for Our Lives rally after the shootings at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
Credit Min Xian / WPSU

In March 2018, after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, State College Area High School student Kyra Gines spoke during the local March for Our Lives Rally. 

She said the intruder drills make her feel safer. What makes her feel unsafe is guns. 

“We need to look at the whole problem. It’s not just schools. It’s not just safe areas. It’s everywhere,” Gines told the crowd at the rally through a bullhorn. “America is addicted to gun violence and we’re ready to stop that.”

Gines said she’d been concerned about gun violence before, but this was the first time she’d seen her community protest about it. 

Being a person of color, I had definitely been super vigilant about gun violence,” Gines said. “State High has a lot of police officers in the school now so seeing those I see the guns and I'm like ‘Oh, my goodness, this is scary to me,’ because I know these to be weapons of destruction, and I know these to bring violence into my communities.”

Gines said she’s not advocating for getting rid of all guns. She thinks her generation might be the one to achieve common sense gun laws.

“If there's anything I've learned from growing up learning like civil rights and things like that is that it's slow,” Gines said, “but it happens but you gotta be persistent.”

Moshannon Valley senior Jake Matchock shows off one of his family's guns. The walls in the room where they keep them are covered with photos from family hunting trips.
Credit Emily Reddy / WPSU

At his house in the woods outside of Houtzdale, Moshannon Valley senior Jake Matchock has a basement full of guns. They’re on a bed, propped against the wall and on the floor amid camo clothing.

“We have just about every gun you can think of,” Matchock said. “I mean we hunt for almost every game we hunt squirrels up to bear.”

The walls of the basement are covered with deer heads and antlers and pictures of Matchock and other family members on hunting trips. 

“I was born into it,” Matchock said. “My pap taught my dad how to hunt and that was just like our family tradition.”

His family also owns a semi-automatic rifle, an AR 15, which he knows is controversial. 

“We use it for hunting more,” Matchock said. “We can use it for coyotes and stuff, but it's also a great protection.”

Matchock said if guns were banned, only the criminals would have them.

After he graduates, Matchock is going to Juniata College to play football and major in education. Then he plans to join the state police. 

“I want to make the community better and keep people safe and protect everyone,” Matchock said.

Matchock thinks his classmates are divided on whether there should be guns in schools. He said he understands the point of view of people who didn’t grow up with guns.

“And I do think there is bad parts of guns. I mean obviously these shootings that are happening that's not good,” Matchock said. “It's so terrible it has to happen, but things have to be done to prevent that: mental health, security, adding teachers with weapons, locks, metal detectors, more cameras, even more security guards. There’s a lot of things that can be done to prevent the problems that are happening today, so I think taking guns totally away would just cause more problems.”

Jake Matchock (right) with his parents Ron and Nancy at their house in Ramey, in the woods outside of Houtzdale.
Credit Emily Reddy / WPSU

Matchock’s dad, Ron Matchock, is the superintendent at nearby Curwensville Area School District. They hired a School Resource Officer in August, when concerned parents made it clear they wanted someone with a gun protecting their children at school. 

“The idea of the School Resource Officer came from a parent safety meeting,” Ron Matchock said. “We had a really strong turnout. And that was the number one thing that they brought to the meeting. They would like to see a legally armed person in the school to protect their children.”

This position doubles the size of the local police force from one to two. 

The grant that pays for the officer is only for a year, but superintendent Matchock thinks there’s support to continue funding the position. If not, he would consider arming a rigorously trained teacher or administrator, possibly even carrying a gun himself. 

In this day and age, he thinks someone in his school needs to be armed to keep students safe.