Surviving A School Shooting

When I was just 10 years old, I attended a special private school for children who had been abused. There were many students with similar backgrounds that were placed in specialized classes that helped focus our talents and areas of learning we could excel successfully, and other classes where we needed intense one on one tutoring to help conquer learning deficiencies.

Because our needs were diverse, yet similar in many ways, our backgrounds overlapping from abuse, to learning difficulties, to disruptive behaviors among mainstream learning students, our classrooms and school were relatively small, 20 students in each of the 4 different classrooms, across 4 different grades. Our school was an elementary school located on the same campus as August Boeger Middle School, which itself was located just across the street from Mt Pleasant High School in San Jose California. If you lived in this area, you may have gone to the same location for school every day for years and known the same classmates from age 5 up to age 18. You would go to the same campus for life. Weird to think about, but this particular area, that’s just how things went. It was not uncommon to see high school students on our campus, as a large park separated our classrooms from the suburban community behind where many of us lived. It was not uncommon to see elementary students walking on the middle school campus, pushing a cart from the lunch kitchen to our school. We took freedom of movement between schools for granted. Classroom doors were opened in the day, to get fresh air in from outside, and this was before the time of fences around schools, and checking in at the front office before visiting a classroom. Anyone could walk on campus and enter a class and see their friend, a parent visit their child, or any of the students simply step outside for a moment to clear our heads in the fresh air and sunshine. There was nothing abnormal about this.

On the day of Friday, May 4, 1990 — Everything changed for us. Nothing would be the same at this or any other school in my city. It was the day that I, together with my classmates survived a school shooting.

At the time, we had no idea what happened. We didn’t hear the gunshots. We only heard sirens going off at the school. This was like a fire drill or earthquake drill warning siren. When it blared, you paid attention. Telephones in the classroom rang, over the loudspeakers came a voice for all faculty to close, lock, and secure all doors and entries into the buildings. Due to the shooting across the street, and the suspect(s) still at large, all three schools immediately went on lockdown. We heard police and fire sirens wailing in the distance, teachers yelling at students to get under desks, doors were being pulled shut and locked left and right, lights were turned off, and we were told to be quiet as possible until we heard the all-clear from the main campus. While the situation was abrupt, assertive, and terrifying, at the same time it strangely remained organized and calm. None of us were told immediately what happened other than there has been an accident at the high school, and we all were to stay away from the doors and outside walls and windows. We were told to remain calm.

As the minutes passed, the all-clear alarms failing to signal, we finally started to talk louder than a whisper, and the teachers told us that someone at the school had been shot, and that the suspects were seen running toward the middle school and our campus. Some students became uncomfortable with the notion a shooter would be outside our door. Others, myself included, remained calm. Having grown up with, and owning (even at a young age), and trained on how to use firearms (used when camping), and knowing how to open the gun safe, and protect myself in my own home I felt okay with the notion that someone else had a weapon as well. Though what terrified me more was not that it was a gun used on the campus, but that someone wanted to hurt others, regardless the weapons used. Was this isolated, were we targets, would our parents find us in the blood bath of a classroom? All things went through my mind. It was about to get worse…

It happened so long ago, and I have tried very hard to block things out. Not because of the shooting and trauma associated with it, but because as a child I was abused, often daily, beaten, neglected, sent to bed without dinner, forced to run in place, or do jumping jacks for 3 or 4 hours, as a punishment for being a kid. So remembering every detail is hard. What I do remember the most was hearing a lot of sirens and running. I remember hearing people yelling outside our classrooms and the doors that lead to the backside of the campus, near the park. I remember what sounded like 2 or 3 people pounding on the doors trying to get into our classes. These were not students, police, or faculty, these were the people who were involved. They had tried every single door to every class. We didn’t have windows that looked out to this side of the building, but we did in the inward side that faced a courtyard. We all started to huddle closer together, quietly, some of us crying, some of us praying, some of us with our eyes closed, others hugged under the desks and tables. Teachers where they could, became human walls separating us under the shelters, from anything that may come through the classroom, may it be a person or a bullet. We knew if these suspects entered the corridor into the courtyard, they could look into our windows and see classrooms, and while they may not see the students under the desks as the lights were out, they may try to break the glass, gain entry and hide themselves from the police — which meant, we all were in danger.

Fortunately, they did not enter the courtyard, and they started screaming and running away, what sounded like through the park. Sirens blared by this point. Police cars were now driving through the park, our campus and blacktop area just behind the doors of our classrooms. The only thing protecting us from a gun battle. Luckily, that did not happen. We stayed hunkered down for what seemed over an hour, it likely was. By the time we got an all clear, all of our parents were informed, came to the school, and were individually shown one at a time toward our classes to pick us up and take us home.

I didn’t know the severity of what happened. I didn’t know that someone was shot and killed. I didn’t know someone else was shot and lived. I didn’t know this happened because of racial tensions. I didn’t know for a fact that the suspects were the ones at our door trying to get in. I didn’t know that I and my friends, were just feet away from people who could kill us all. I knew none of this till I got home and my mother sat me down and explained it all. It was on the news. It was in the paper. We had the whole weekend to think and talk and express feelings about what happened. For myself, the thought of losing my best classmate Kevin really stung. We were together through it all, held each other during the whole ordeal. It remained unspoken that either of us would have taken a bullet for the other. We were that close, even at age 10. The thought that I could have also died, made me uneasy. The worst thing to come from this, it scared me growing up and going to high school. Something I never told anyone until now — the reason I was scared of school, was because I feared being a person misidentified and killed at a place I should feel safe. Rightfully so, as I grew up, and finally entered my high school years, in a sick and sadistic twist of fate, I ended up going to the high school the shooter and his friends attended. It was hushed during my tenure however some teachers spoke, but ever so briefly about the student who did this heinous act. It was almost as if it was swepped under the rug and hushed. When I mention the racial tensions earlier — my high school was tense for sure. I was but one of about thirty White students on campus, where a majority were Latino and Vietnamese. While I never really felt tensions and hate toward me for my ethnic background, being a minority in a school where someone of the majority felt so wronged by a student (the wrong student I may add) of minority status berating him that I opened my eyes that no matter if you are the majority or minority, something could happen to any of us, it made me uneasy, it made me fail a lot of classes, and it made me try to make a spectacle of myself in any way possible be it from drama, to helping others in class, anything to be looked at as safe and non-hostile to anyone else. I managed to move on from that school, and go on with life. Yet every time a shooting takes place on a school campus, I can’t help but think of how a student was badgered and no one stopped it, causing he or she to take matters into their own hands with a weapon. How vulnerable we are in places we feel safe. How close to death we can become at the hands of another.

I survived a school shooting — like many involved in educational shootings worldwide, I may not have been physically injured or shot and killed, but the pain, the emotional toll, the injuries I feel inside, the ones I deal with because of this event are wounds that are real, they don’t heal quickly if at all. Most of all, knowing it happened just feet from where I spent my life still terrifies me to the core. It could have been any of us. It could have been me.

Below is a short article pulled from a website on school violence between August 1 1989 and July 31 1990, in that short time 14 school shootings or other violent events took place. That is roughly one each month, including the time schools are closed for summer break. This is equal to nearly 1.25 shooting events per month taking place on a campus of a school. This is unacceptable for the late 80s and early 90s, and this number is only higher today. How do we stop this? Is there a way? We don’t need more survivors — we need less educational violence in all forms.

Mount Pleasant High School, East San Jose, California

Friday, May 4, 1990

Cang Binh Troung, 17, attends Yerba Buena High School and is of Vietnamese heritage. Yesterday, some of his Vietnamese friends who attended Mount Pleasant were taunted by white students from the school who made anti-Vietnamese slurs against them. Today, Cang went to Mount Pleasant to help them out. A group of Vietnamese students, led by Cang, approached a group of Mount Pleasant students. The Mount Pleasant students overheard them saying, “Is that him?” “Yeah, he’s the one.” Cang then pulled out a gun and fired four shots at the white students. Unfortunately, Cang’s friends misidentified the student and his friends in question, so Cang was actually shooting a students who had no idea what had happened the previous day. One of the bullets slammed into 15-year-old Larry Brown’s head and killed him. Another one ricocheted and grazed Treva Scott in the head. Larry is white, and Treva is black. Cang was arrested by the police. He pleaded guilty to assault with a firearm and first-degree murder. Because he is a minor, he was put in the California Youth Authority until he turns 25.

Source: San Jose Mercury News — Group Wants Hate-Crime Charge Against Teen (published June 16, 1992); Survivor of this school attack