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After Florida school shooting, Philly-area students and teachers mobilize

"I'm saying to this girl, 'I would always help you be safe no matter what,' but what I'm really thinking is, 'If someone came in with an automatic weapon and started shooting, what could I do for her?" one Philadelphia teacher said.

Mt. Ephraim Superintendent Leslie Koller-Walker, shown here on the playground of Mary Bray Elementary School, held an impromptu teacher-training on what to do in active shooter situations after the Parkland, Fla., school killings.
Mt. Ephraim Superintendent Leslie Koller-Walker, shown here on the playground of Mary Bray Elementary School, held an impromptu teacher-training on what to do in active shooter situations after the Parkland, Fla., school killings.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Two days after 17 students and teachers were gunned down at a Florida high school last week, a lockdown was called at the elementary school where Kristin Luebbert teaches in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia.

Luebbert and her eighth-grade students at Bache-Martin were in the hallway at the time. In a flash, she shepherded them into her classroom, locked the door, found paper to cover the windows, and directed the students to the back corner.

Luebbert turned to comfort an anxious young woman, and when she looked back, she saw the other children had armed themselves with items they found in an open closet: scissors, box cutters, a heavy-duty stapler, a bottle of Windex.

"We're ready," the 13- and 14-year-old students told Luebbert. "We can fight."

As it has around the country, the shooting in Parkland, Fla., has rippled in schools around the region. Students and educators are planning walkouts; reviewing school-shooting protocol training, and, in the case of the Bache-Martin students, thinking in new ways about what they would do if a gunman stormed their building.

The Bache-Martin lockdown turned out to be a timely drill, coming just two days after Nikolas Cruz took an assault weapon into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and opened fire. Luebbert, a veteran English teacher, said her students were scared and wanted to talk about the shooting. And they wanted to know: Would she protect them?

"I'm saying to this girl, 'I would always help you be safe no matter what,' but what I'm really thinking is, 'If someone came in with an automatic weapon and started shooting, what could I do for her?' " said Luebbert.

Across the river at Mount Ephraim Public Schools, teachers were grappling with the same questions — and getting answers from an unexpected expert.

Leslie Koller-Walker, superintendent of the Camden County district, had a personal connection to the Parkland tragedy: Her childhood friend Jim Gard is a math teacher at Stoneman Douglas. As Cruz roamed the halls with a semiautomatic weapon, Gard had barricaded himself and his students inside his classroom.

Immediately after the shooting, Koller-Walker checked on her friend; Gard told her how grateful he was that three weeks before the incident, he had sat through a training session on such situations. That inspired Koller-Walker.

On Friday, she arranged for Gard to speak by video to Mount Ephraim teachers and paraprofessionals for an hour, emphasizing how his training possibly saved his students' lives: When someone knocked on his locked door during those terrifying few minutes last week, Gard did not answer it. It could have been a student stuck in a hallway banging on that door — but it also could have been Cruz.

"We're caretakers by nature; our hearts and souls are in this," said Koller-Walker. "I know when I used to run these drills with my teachers, I could tell that they would open the door, because a kid might be outside. But after Jim talked about his experiences, I would bet my house that my teachers won't open the door. It's a terrible reality, but you have to protect the kids you know you can protect."

The shooting also prompted a flood of messages and letters to anxious parents from dozens of area principals and superintendents. Many sent letters explaining school protocol for such an attack.

James Crisfield, superintendent of the Wissahickon School District in Montgomery County, went one step further.

"I believe it is time for all of us, public school leaders included, to have the courage to call for a ban on rapid-fire assault weapons," Crisfield wrote in a note posted on the school district website. "Enough is enough. We need to stop framing this as a rollback of constitutional rights, and we need to stop framing it as some sort of partisan political issue. Instead, we need to start framing this as protecting kids."

Upper Darby Police Superintendent Mike Chitwood took another tack. He said he has supported gun control for years, but with no end to school shootings it's time "to think outside the box" and train and arm teachers and other school personnel.

"I'm not a gun enthusiast. I'm for banning guns, banning assault weapons, doing background checks," Chitwood said in an interview. "I've been fighting this battle for 30 years. … But all that is not going to prevent these horrible tragedies that are happening in our country these days."

Chitwood said he would like to see a voluntary program in which certain school staff members are tapped to carry guns — after enduring a psychological background check, "rigorous training," and obtaining concealed carry permits.

"There's not enough police, not enough security to protect our children," he said.

In the majority of school shootings, he noted, the carnage takes place in under three minutes. If police respond in even five to 10 minutes, it's too late. He said that one of the teachers killed in the Parkland attack had a concealed-weapons permit but was not allowed to carry a gun on school property. If he had a gun, "would he have died? Would the kids have died?" Chitwood asked. "It's an unknown."

Asked about the chief's proposal, Upper Darby School District Superintendent Dan Nerelli said he didn't "want to dismiss any police officers' idea." But, he said, "I think teachers are hired to teach. Security is there to protect our students."

Upper Darby's security staff is unarmed, unlike other districts with armed resource officers. Nerelli said a committee was meeting next week to discuss whether to beef up security in his schools with things such as armed guards and metal detectors.

Meanwhile, students leaders there, as in other districts, are mobilizing.

Some have organized a 17-minute school walkout on March 14 to protest Congress' inaction on gun violence. As of Wednesday, more than 15 area high schools had signed on to participate, including Upper Darby, Lower Merion, Abington, Phoenixville, Haddon Township, Downingtown East, North Penn, Spring-Ford, Lower Moreland, New Hope-Solebury, Oxford Area, Central Bucks South, Bensalem, Kennett, Pennsbury, Haddonfield Memorial High School, and Shawnee as well as the Middle Bucks Institute of Technology.

No Philadelphia schools have registered, but Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said students who participated would not be penalized. "I'll probably participate," Hite said Wednesday.

Alexa King, a Haddonfield Memorial High School student, began organizing the event at her Camden County school over the weekend and is using social media to spread word of it. About 20 students have already agreed to participate, she said.

"There have been far too many instances of school shootings in the past few years," King said in an email. "Whether or not the school backs the movement, I still plan to follow through."

Students at Owen J. Roberts School District in Chester County said that they planned to participate in the walkout and that some of their teachers planned to join them.

"Even though so many shootings have happened, we really haven't done anything to stop it," said junior Isa Sykes, 17. "As students we are literally the ones that have our lives on the line. If we protest I feel it might connect more with people who can change things."

Shakoia Hunsberger, 15, an Owen J. Roberts freshman, said she talked to her parents about the protest, and they agree it's an important step.

"I feel like families should have assurance," she said, "that when their kids are going to school they are going to be able to make it out alive."

Staff writer Avalon R. Zoppo contributed to this article.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the anniversary of the Columbine shootings.