From tragedy to teacher

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BRIAN WALKER/Press Kristina Anderson, left, who was injured during the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that killed 32, was the keynote speaker during the “School Safety: Shared Responsibility for a Safer Future” forum on Monday night at Gonzaga University in Spokane. Here she listens to panelists, including Debra Clemens, center, superintendent for North Thurston Public Schools in Washington.


Staff Writer

SPOKANE — Kristina Anderson said the sound was like an ax slicing into wood.

"A quick chop, chop, chop," she said.

Instead, what the former Virginia Tech student heard on April 16, 2007, was what turned into the deadliest mass shooting on a college campus in U.S. history with 32 fatalities.

"For a few seconds, I thought it was a prank and someone would jump up," said Anderson, keynote speaker during the "School Safety: Shared Responsibility for a Safer Future" forum on Monday night at Gonzaga University's John J. Hemmingson Center Ballroom.

Anderson was shot three times herself — in her back, buttocks and a toe — as she tried to stay low.

"(Shooter Seung-Hui Cho) didn't say anything," Anderson told about 300 attendees about the student at the university. "He was very quick, very intentional, very methodical. He didn't know us and was purely going after numbers. He knew he was going to die on this day."

As police stormed Norris Hall — where Anderson was — to arrest Cho, he shot himself and died instantly.

The 11-minute ordeal led Anderson to dedicating her life to become an international advocate of bystander intervention, active shooter response and violence protection.

"We all continue to learn from this event," Anderson said. "This one event did not define us; it taught us something."

Interior door locks, mass emergency notifications, threat assessment teams and safety culture were among a myriad of changes that resulted from the tragedy, she said.

Anderson said recovery has been a process.

"It took me years to even tell my parents what happened," she said, adding that counseling has helped her cope with the nightmare. "Anniversaries are hard and many of you remember where you were last year (during the Freeman High shooting). Plan for the anniversary in advance and remember it. You have a right to."

Anderson travels across North America to discuss the importance of preparedness and joint training between citizens, educators, law enforcement, emergency managers and first responders such as Monday's forum.

A common theme was taking the time to listen to children.

"One of the most important aspects about school safety isn't visible," said panelist Debra Clemens, superintendent at North Thurston Public Schools in Washington, where there was a school shooting in 2015 that didn't injure anyone.

"It's listening to children and establishing relationships. It is so important in our classrooms (and at home) that children have the opportunity to share and be listened to."

Panelist Ed Richardson, a Spokane school-resource officer, said kids call him "Big Ed," not Officer Ed, because the environment needs to be relaxed.

"I tell kids and parents that this is just a uniform, but underneath I have feelings," he said. "Trust is big. They have to trust me to tell me information."

Scott Maben, public information officer; Seth Deniston, technology director; and Dean Keck, safety coordinator, from the Coeur d'Alene School District attended the forum.

Maben said both reassurances and ideas for improvement were gained from the speakers.

"The anti-bullying efforts, social-emotional learning and threat assessments are all concepts we're familiar with," he said. "We also have eight SROs for our 17 schools, so we feel fortunate to have that kind of coverage, although everyone always would like to have more."

Maben said he liked an idea shared by panelist Luke Thomas, a Mount Spokane High teacher — placing help numbers on the back of student identification cards.

He said Coeur d'Alene is trying to make strides with communicating safety with families, which was discussed at the forum. The district has started a safety and health newsletter that contains information such as monitoring kids' online behavior.

"Technology is rapidly changing and the older generation is not as intuitive to the new ways of communicating," Maben said. "We can help educate our parents to give them resources on how it works."

Vincent C. Alfonso, dean of Gonzaga's School of Education and Jacob H. Rooksby, dean of the School of Law, were co-hosts of the forum. Alfonso said preparedness is key to keeping education at a high level.

"Whether it’s open acts of violence or increasing rates of suicide or bullying … violence in all educational settings impacts everyone," he said. "The quality of instruction educators can provide is diminished when they and their students experience significant fear and anxiety in the classroom."

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