CRAWFORD COMMENTARY | Fern Creek shooting raises questions, shou - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD COMMENTARY | Fern Creek shooting raises questions, should spark wider discussion

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- They walked out of Fern Creek Traditional High School, one after another, hands clasped, behind their heads, out of the building, onto the baseball field. And these were the bystanders. These were the innocent.

This is but one problem with shootings like the one at Fern Creek Tuesday, which left one student in the hospital, one in custody and the rest of the school on lockdown -- its third lockdown in six years.

You don't have to encounter a bullet to be a victim.

The kids crouched in corners of classrooms, lights out, waiting for armed SWAT team members to enter, frisk them one by one, then move on to the next room.

"I was walking with my girlfriend to her classroom, and as I walked back down the hallway there was a group of kids, I thought it was just normal, and then as I was walking by, bam! a gunshot went off," said Fern Creek junior Nicholas Peake, who said he could hear the gunshot from one floor below, and that he didn't mistake it for anything else. "I was pretty scared at first. I got in the classroom and the teacher said, 'Everybody get in the corner, get in the corner. We're going on lockdown.' We do drills every month. We didn't move until the SWAT team came in with M4s and flashlights."

For what he estimates was an hour, Peake said students crouched in the dark, in silence, wondering what was out in the hallways, but remembering shootings at other schools in other places.

For parents and grandparents, at work or home, in their cars, some downtown, some on the other end of town, in that moment upon hearing that there was a shooter and he had not been apprehended, and that the school was locked down, a thousand scenarios played out in a thousand minds. And they all were bad.

"When I heard 'shooting,' I'm thinking about Columbine, you just don't know," said Cleola Jenkins, who has two grandchildren at the school.

After a chaotic, sad and troublesome day in the city of Louisville -- and not just at Fern Creek High School -- I'm impressed with the work of school officials, first responders, and the Louisville Metro Police Department to respond to a shooting in one of the city's high schools. The hours after such an event are always a scramble. I know there were angry parents on the scene, because I saw them. Emotions run high. But think about this: The entire scene was clear by 5 p.m. And there had been a shooter in the building. Despite the unavoidable snags and confusion, I came away feeling confident that we have a school system and police department that can capably and professionally handle the aftermath of a school shooting.

Unfortunately, I have far less confidence that we have a school system that can prevent the unrest that could lead to another one.

Fern Creek High School went on lockdown in November of 2011 after a report of a student with a gun was brought to school officials and police, but no gun was found.

In 2008, the school was locked down for four hours when a teenager who was not a student there entered the school with a gun.

Just two years ago, LMPD did a random search on May 9 and arrested three students, confiscating a loaded 9 mm pistol out of a student's backpack, a shotgun with shells and a large switchblade. The school was not locked down, but a letter was sent home to parents.

If anything, then, this is a school that should always be on high alert.

Over the past year, word out of JCPS has been that there have been great strides made at Fern Creek. It has been touted as a "national model for a turnaround high school." Parents I talked to on Tuesday weren't as sure. Fern Creek lost its principal in mid-stream last December. Houston Barber, who had presided over what had been hailed as significant gains, went to the Academy at Shawnee.

As she waited for her freshman daughter to be released, Shannon Bingham wondered about her Fern Creek experience. She remembered the 2011 lockdown well, because it directly involved her son.

"My son went here a few years ago and when he was here there was an incident where they said it was on lockdown because there was a rumor of a gun being brought to school because of a fight with another kid -- well that other kid was my son," said Bingham, who was in contact with her daughter by cell phone throughout the day. "So I really hesitated, but I heard things had been improving. My husband went to school here, you know, family tradition. So, we're just going to see how things go now. My daughter wants to stay. She told me, wherever she started high school, she wanted to stay. So now we'll see. Most of the day when I was talking to her she seemed really calm about everything, until right at the end of the school day, she told me, 'Mom, I'm scared.'"

Generally, after these events, everyone says the right things. JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens got it right when she said, "Every member of that school family is affected, and the community is affected."

But this is where I have to break off. The fact of the matter is that there are some good things happening in our schools, but those shouldn't cover over the messes. And it seems we're preoccupied as a community with a lot of other things that don't matter as much.

Frankly, I don't care how high the city ranks on some new magazine's list for "food choices" or how many bike lanes we have or any of the many gains that are touted here and there. We're not going to stop caring about sports. It's my job. But when a tennis court at a park is being used as a holding area for students after a school shooting and a baseball field to hold them after they're cleared to leave the school building, perspective rushes in pretty quickly.

This single issue, education, is the most important one this community faces not only for its present, but its future. As I am writing this, the news is featuring a 12-year-old found dead in Cherokee Park and a person shot in Louisville's West End. And while today is a bad day, to miss the link between the quality of education we are providing and the desperation that cries from certain areas of this city is to miss an important element of life here.

I'm tired of hearing about Common Core. I'd like to hear about common sense. When there's a $1.3 billion school budget and they're asking for school supplies and there aren't enough textbooks and kids are sitting on the floors of school buses because of crowding on some routes then we have some problems, and they go beyond just money.

I have trouble keeping up with all of the magnets and names and "schools of innovation." The question of busing hangs over this district, contorts children (and money) around the county, and creates an expensive transportation network to support it. Nationally, we were among the first to embrace the Common Core standards, and now tout them even as a growing number of states has begun to roll them back.

There needs to be a conversation about education issues in this city. Maybe an incident as awful as this will wake some of us up to it.

A shooting doesn't make a school, or a district, bad. But it's time for a larger segment of this city to get engaged with what's happening in education, or risk reaping the whirlwind if we don't.

Jou Jou Papallier is the kind of teacher JCPS needs to try to move heaven and earth to hang onto. He's a professional actor who worked on Sesame Street for a time, and he brought creativity and connections to his job as director of the film department at Fern Creek. Students got involved in making videos that were used and acclaimed around the city and region. He left his job at Fern Creek after the last school year, in part to pursue a film project, but also in part because of some disillusionment.

"A lot of these kids at Fern Creek have grown up in a subculture which values strength, toughness, machismo. For some, it's kill or be killed," he said. "Most of them can be reached by a teacher they trust. If their culture is understood and respected, there will be improvements at Fern Creek. If not, I fear things will get worse. Teachers can defuse tension between students, but students will not talk to teachers about their issues if they feel their culture is not respected. I believe there's some work to be done at Fern Creek in this area from my experiences and comments made by some of the teachers at Fern Creek."

"I'm in no way 'blaming' the teachers," he went on, noting that he was just stating what he'd observed. "It's sad and heinous that a student would use a gun on another person, student or otherwise. But I love my culture. I hurt for the 'lost sheep.' I truly feel that all teachers should 'love the cultures' of the students they teach. If not, they may create more harm than good."

I know there will be people who scoff at that, who just want to see punishment handed out -- and that's part of improving the situation in some schools. But you can't punish  your way to education. There are other important things that have to happen.

Papallier wasn't the only one I heard voice those sentiments on Tuesday. Jenkins said, "This stuff shouldn't happen. They have 20 security guards. . . . I have heard so many things. I won't disclose them. I'm just glad my kids are safe and unharmed."

Relief but worry. That's what I heard on Tuesday.

"There's no reason for us to believe that Fern Creek wouldn't be safe tomorrow," Hargens said.

There was no reason for us to believe that it wouldn't be safe on Tuesday, either. Or maybe there was, but we all wanted to believe everything was better than it really was.

"I don't know how a child can get a gun into a school," Fern Creek parent Terry Williams said as he waited with other parents. "I don't know how an event like this can happen, especially after all the events of the past."

On Tuesday we were lucky this wasn't worse. But it's time to wake up.

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