On Monday afternoon, hundreds of people north of Boston were confronted with their worst nightmare.
Some students and educators cowered in classrooms, terrified and silent. Others ran for their lives, fleeing into nearby woods, or neighbors’ yards – or they piled into cars and sped away. Hundreds of heavily armed police officers raced in the opposite direction, bracing for a scene no one should ever see. Parents panicked, not knowing if their children were dead or alive.
It turned out to be a “swatting” call: But the accidental discharge of a responding police officer’s gun in a bathroom made the false report of an active shooter at St. John’s Prep in Danvers seem horrifically real, prompting a second, massive police mobilization.
The whole thing was revealed as a hoax in under an hour. But knowing it was a hoax doesn’t erase the terror of that moment, or the trauma that will linger.
“This wasn’t just a hoax swatting call,” said Ed Hardiman, the head of the school. “Thank God everyone’s still here, but the trauma of hearing a gunshot in a school building, and the size and scale of the response … is very jarring.”
That trauma is magnified by the relentless succession of school shootings we now endure in this broken country. Because those with the power to do so refuse to protect our kids, we’ve been conditioned to understand these catastrophes can happen anywhere, even in states like ours, with sane gun safety laws. And because there have been so many shootings, all recounted in excruciating detail, we don’t have to imagine the worst that can happen.
On Monday afternoon, the St. John’s community was sure their turn had come. That feeling doesn’t just go away when police announce an all-clear. Whoever made that call on Monday took years off people’s lives.
The school closed on Tuesday to give everybody time to rebalance. But some students and faculty stayed away on Wednesday, too, Hardiman said, unable to face the place yet.
The Prep, a Catholic, all-boys school, had had its share of pain before Monday. In February, the school reeled after sweet sixth-grader Sebastian Robinson, along with his mother, was shot to death by his father in their Andover home. It was in Robinson’s middle school building that the Danvers police officer accidentally fired the shot on Monday.
The counselors who nurtured St John’s after the boy’s murder were back at it on Wednesday, trying to help students and faculty process the consequences of somebody’s profoundly cruel — and dangerous — joke. Police assured faculty members who had been second-guessing their decisions to hide or flee on Monday that they had done the right thing. Therapy dogs wandered the school. And Hardiman summoned a slushy truck as a way to get the kids together outside.
“The way to a boy’s heart is food, and free food is even better,” he joked, speaking by phone as he watched his charges enjoy themselves.
As he has shepherded St. John’s through Monday’s aftermath, Hardiman has been contending with his own emotions: He is also the parent of a St. John’s student, and in the chaos on Monday he didn’t know whether his son was safe. He is revisiting the school’s prohibition on cellphone use (which made it harder for students to contact their families), and its evacuation procedures, to make sure that if this happens again, it will be less excruciating for everybody. But he is also doing what he has urged his students and their families to do: taking comfort in the community the school spends every day nurturing.
As they fled on Monday, the students looked after one another. Those with cars packed in as many kids as they could. Those who had phones lent them to others so they could tell their parents they were safe. As a group of students raced into a field, an eighth-grader with a broken leg had trouble keeping up, and friends who refused to leave him swept him up and carried him into the woods, Hardiman said, his voice catching.
When kids showed up in their yards and stores, neighbors offered them comfort and water and ways to call their desperate families. Wherever they ran, the boys found kindness.
That’s beautiful. But it should never have come to this.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.