On September 20, 2017, Nicole Ward, a 22-year-old admissions counselor in USI’s Undergraduate Admissions, was visiting Mattoon High School in Mattoon, Illinois, to recruit students for the University of Southern Indiana. What happened next was the unthinkable—the, “that will never happen to me.” Nicole suddenly found herself in the middle of an active shooter situation, with a room full of students in her charge. Following is an account of that day, in her own words.
I was scheduled to talk with a group of students at 11 in the morning, but I arrived slightly late because I was stuck behind a train. I entered the school at 11:10 and was introduced to Dr. Aaron Hale (the Mattoon guidance counselor), who escorted me to a classroom down the hall and around the corner from the cafeteria.
Several high school seniors entered the room shortly after. Before he left me to speak with the students, Dr. Hale offhandedly asked me to close the classroom door behind him. The door locked automatically from the inside and he wanted me to close it so other students wouldn’t be able to enter the classroom unattended. He had no idea how much that seemingly irrelevant comment would mean to me in the upcoming moment of crisis.
As Dr. Hale walked out of the classroom, I immediately began speaking with the 21 students about the advantages of attending USI. I remember being on a roll that day—I was funny, I was energetic and I was really connecting with the students. Midway through my presentation, I began hearing loud popping sounds echoing outside the classroom, followed by piercing screams. My heart fell into my stomach and my immediate thought was to panic, because I knew what those pops were. Even though I had not grown up around guns, I instantly recognized the sound. I stopped mid-sentence as soon as I heard the shots, and I saw a look of terror fall on the faces of the students in the room as they quickly came to the same conclusion I did—there was a shooter in the school!
Without thinking, I turned and bolted for the door. I turned off the lights, closed the door, then placed a chair against the door for the limited amount of protection it might provide. A couple of the other students and myself quickly, but quietly, guided the other students either into the corner of the room away from the door or under the conference table in the middle of the room.
While the students were trying to be as quiet as possible as they moved to safety, my immediate fear was that the gunman would hear us moving inside the classroom and open fire on us from the hallway. Even though I had locked us inside the room, my primary concern was the actual classroom door itself. The door was almost a solid sheet of glass. The bottom half of the glass was translucent and it would let light in, but seeing shapes on the other side was difficult. Obviously, this provided little protection from a person with a gun.
An alarm sounded over the intercom and a panicked female voice declared that the school was on lockdown. The majority of students in the room began either calling their parents or emergency personnel, but I quietly, yet firmly, asked them all to stop talking on their phones. I was petrified the gunman would hear us and come after us. With all of the students trying to make phone calls, the room was becoming louder and louder as they all tried to whisper over one another. I told them they could text, but not to make any more phone calls. I tried to call emergency personnel myself, but I assume they were receiving too many calls related to the shooting at once because no one would answer. I was becoming desperate, so I called my fiancé in Evansville and asked him to call emergency personnel in Mattoon as many times as necessary until someone would answer his phone call.
The next 40 minutes were agonizing as we waited in silence to hear what we were supposed to do next. I stood next to the door because my thought process was, if the gunman was somehow able to break down the door and enter the classroom, I was going to tackle him in an attempt to save the students. While standing there, I began to fear that I was not doing everything in my power to protect the students. I texted Rashad Smith, director of Undergraduate Admissions at USI, to let him know of the situation and ask for any advice he could give me. He told me I was doing everything right and I just needed to remain calm.
Eventually, a figure walked up to the classroom door and tried to enter the room. Seeing the shadow moving outside the room struck terror into me once again. When I heard the doorknob jiggling, I just knew this was the end—this was how the students and I were going to die. My body was fully tensed and I was literally ready to fight for our lives.
To my relief, the door swung open and in walked a police officer. I just stared at him for a moment in total shock and then burst into tears. All the emotion I had been bottling up for the last 45 minutes came rushing out. The officer quickly scanned the room and asked if everyone was all right. He told us to leave immediately and follow the line of students exiting the building. He told us not to run, for safety reasons, but we didn’t listen. I grabbed my suitcase full of recruiting materials and ran for the door. I turned around to make sure all of the students in the room were following me, and then we ran down the hallway.
Once outside, we were directed to the tennis courts. We were the second-to-last classroom to exit the building, so the courts were already packed with students. One of the worst feelings of the whole ordeal was seeing the line of terrified parents across the street, screaming for their children as a line of cops and cop cars separated them from the school’s property. The students were quickly loaded onto buses and taken to another school across town, where they were to be picked up by their parents. Two policemen went through all of my belongings and checked my ID before letting me leave the premises. When I arrived at my car, I called my fiancé, mother, father and Rashad to let them know I was safe and unharmed.
Knowing What to Do
I don’t think anyone can ever be prepared for the feeling of pure terror experienced in an active shooter situation. My actions that day, whether right or wrong, were a combination of instinct and basic training I had learned in high school. I knew most importantly that we were supposed to move away from any glass windows and doors into the corner so the shooter would not be able to see that there was anyone in the room. I am eternally grateful to Dr. Hale for mentioning the door locked automatically from the inside.
There was an information sheet in the Mattoon High School classroom I was in that explained what to do in the face of a shooting, but the sign was small, and I would not have been able to read it unless I had walked in front of the door and risked being seen by the gunman in the hallway.
The initial emotion I felt was fear, but it was immediately followed by a sense of protection. My worst nightmare was not losing my own life, but knowing there was absolutely nothing I could do to ensure the safety of the students in the classroom. I’m very young—I was only 22 at the time, and I was not ready to die. And, I certainly was not ready for the high school students in that classroom to die without me doing everything in my power to save their lives. I was prepared to do whatever it took to save them. I’m not looking for a pat on the back. I think anyone in that situation would have been focused on saving the students.
All of the students in the classroom that day were more than willing to cooperate and encouraged one another in the worst moment of their lives. I witnessed students holding one another’s hands and patting each other on the back, even in that terrible moment, and their kind actions gave me a spark of hope.
The Difference Between Knowing and Doing
The main difference between knowing what to do and acting accordingly is the environment of the situation. Extensive training and the knowledge of how to act in dangerous situations are both essential, but it’s also important to understand that training is based in an environment where you have a coherent, rational thought process. It’s easy to go through active shooter training in a relaxed atmosphere and believe you have the knowledge necessary to act appropriately. However, expecting a person to react in that same, completely rational manner when they are under extreme duress is unrealistic. Training can only prepare an individual so much for a real tragedy.
One thing for people to know about me, is that I’m a rule-follower at heart. I like structure and I believe that following a set course of actions leads to the best outcomes possible, for the most part anyway. In this instance though, even taking the most appropriate actions could still have ended with a horrendous outcome that I had no control over. I could have done everything right to help save the lives of those students that day, but that would not have meant we all magically survived, simply by following protocol. There is a fine balance between knowing what to do and managing the overwhelming panic you feel in such a dire situation.
I wish I would have known the layout of the school and the possible escape routes for situations like the one we were in. I had never been in this particular high school before and did not know how close we were to an exit. Looking back, I do not know if I acted accordingly or not. Did I act appropriately by closing the door and locking us in the classroom? Or, would it have been wiser for me to have had the students run to the closest exit, if one was near to us?
I also wish I would have known more clearly my basic responsibilities when it came to caring for the welfare of the students in the room with me. Teachers receive training on what their responsibilities are during an active shooter situation, but I had never been trained to be in charge of a group of students in a crisis like this. The training I received was as a minor, and in the care of an adult, when I was in high school. In the situation at Mattoon, I was the adult, and the responsibility for the safety of all of the students was mine.
Advice for Others
At the end of the day, I would stay trusting your instincts is cliché, but the most crucial piece of advice I would give. The human body is designed to survive, and the purpose of an instinct is to help your body do just that—survive. But, at the same time, in a moment of crisis, your adrenaline is flowing, and all you are going to want to do is panic, because it feels like such a hopeless situation. You are at the mercy of an individual with a firearm, and you are outmatched.
Don’t listen to critics who may fault you once the disaster has concluded, because you maybe did not act exactly according to protocol. Their opinions are irrelevant. They were not the ones there on that fateful day and, hopefully, will never have to experience a similar situation themselves. All you can do is act in the best way possible, with the knowledge you have at the time. You do the best you can.
I would also say, when an event has concluded, that symptoms related to the event are very much normal. I like to think of myself as tough, and I’m able to handle anything thrown my way. But, an event like an active shooter forces you to realize your vulnerability, and the lack of control you have in a situation. Even two months later, it’s very difficult for me to put into words the complete terror I felt that day. I haven’t visited a therapist, and I’m obviously not qualified to diagnose myself with PTSD, but I would say I have PTSD-related symptoms. The sudden ring of an alarm, loud bangs, and other unexpected noises trigger a quickened heart rate and visible shaking of my body. These are not symptoms I have been able to control. Though it’s part of my job, I become nervous before I walk into a high school to recruit students, because I know the tragedy that can occur. I find myself thinking about escape routes when I’m in a public place—whether it be at a grocery store or on the USI campus.
A few years ago, a younger me would have been embarrassed by these symptoms, and would have tried to cover them up. However, I received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from USI in the spring of 2016, and I understand how bottling up that emotion can be detrimental to one’s mental and physical health.
So, my advice is to seek help. If you need a therapist, or a mental health professional, to guide you through processing the trauma, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. A shooting is not something you just forget about the next day, the next week, the next month, or even the next year. But, time does heal wounds. I still think about the shooting often, but I will not let this one terrible experience define me for the rest of my life. I am too strong for that.
I would like to express my great appreciation to Angela McQueen, the brave Mattoon teacher who selflessly acted to subdue the shooter in the cafeteria that day. To this day, I am unsure of the intentions of the shooter, whether he was targeting a specific individual, or just aiming to hurt as many people as possible. What I do know, is that there were no deaths that day, and I have no doubt that was prevented because of the actions of Mrs. McQueen.
I also want to thank the law enforcement team that responded. They knew little about the situation at hand, but were willing to risk their lives to save others. Those individuals are incredibly noble, and deserve the highest praise.
Lastly, I want to thank my family, friends and the USI community for the overflow of love and support I received in the days following the event. The numerous phone calls, texts messages and emails from loved ones and coworkers rallying around me are sincerely appreciated. The last thing I want is to be thought of as a heroine. I want my experience to spark conversations surrounding school shootings, because I don’t want any student, or faculty member, to fear dying on a school campus. I want this to open the door to better procedures and education for students on our campus, and what we as employees can do to best protect them, and ourselves, from harm.
Active Shooter Training
One of the best ways to be prepared for an active shooter situation is to go through active shooter training. USI Public Safety offers training for departments and units around the USI campus. Training takes around 45 minutes to an hour and can be scheduled at a time that works best for the unit or department scheduling. More information, videos, response guidelines and information about active shooter training can be found the Public Safety website.
Call 812-464-1845 to schedule.
Photo Credit: USI Photography and Multimedia