In whispered 911 call, teacher fears gunshots fired in school


KENT COUNTY, MI – After hearing what she thought was gunfire, a teacher – alone in her room – whispered to a 911 dispatcher.

“I heard gunshots go off,” she said on Oct. 31.

Breathing heavily, she told the dispatcher she didn’t know if there was an active shooter or someone had pulled a prank.

She heard the sound from a nearby bathroom and saw students run. She sounded terrified.

Before the six-minute call ended, a school-resource officer and others found evidence that fireworks had been set off in a boys’ bathroom at East Kentwood Freshman Campus.

Kent County sheriff’s Sgt. Eric Brunner said police raced to the scene believing shots had been fired inside the school.

Such reports bring a rush of adrenaline, a cumulative stress that “takes a toll on officers,” Brunner said. He worries about students and teachers, too.

“Everybody isn’t privy to the information if schools go into lockdown,” Brunner said. “I can’t speak to what kids today go through… . I can’t imagine how traumatic that is.”

Related: School shooting feared after student lights fireworks

Kevin Polston, the Kentwood Public Schools superintendent, said everyone in the school community has a “heightened concern for safety” given violent incidents that have played out across the country.

The prank involving firecrackers triggered concern for many, he said.

“We are thankful, however, that students and staff members acted swiftly and responsibly to report the incident and take precautionary measures,” Polston said in a statement to MLive/The Grand Rapids Press.

“Our school safety staff in partnership with the Kent County Sheriff’s Office were quickly able to identify what was actually happening in the building, and the district was able to communicate this information to students, staff, and families in a matter of minutes.

“This immediate action by our students and staff allowed us to move quickly to communicate to staff and family members what was actually taking place in the school. We knew, given the climate of the world we live in, how alarming the sound of firecrackers was and wanted to make sure communication was sent as soon as possible the morning of the incident.”

He said that the school district emphasizes that everyone plays an important role in keeping students and staff safe.

He sent a letter to parents after the incident occurred.

“This was done as a prank, but it goes without saying that, for those who were unaware of what was happening, the unexpected noise of the firecrackers was alarming.”

He suggested parents remind children that some pranks or behaviors can become serious and be considered threats.

R. Scott Stehouwer, who recently retired as chairman of Calvin University’s psychology department, said that just the steps – necessary steps, he said – to prevent school shootings can put people on edge and add stress.

“The reaction itself is sort of traumatizing,” he said.

“They happen everywhere, way too often. It should be zero. It happens far too many times but we ready for it in a sense. Unfortunately, we’re ready for it. … Frankly, I don’t know how kids handle this.”

He said that some become hardened to it, or stop thinking about, as a way to cope. Or, they’ll downplay it. For others, the thought can create a “tremendous amount of stress and anxiety.”

Considering the U.S. Census Bureau estimated 73 million students attended a school in 2020, the odds of a shooting at a particular school are long. School shootings are a relatively new phenomenon, with the April 20, 1999, killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, the worst at the time in the U.S.

Stehouwer said most students are resilient. He recalled growing up fearing the former Soviet Union would “blow us up” with an atomic bomb. Kids knew that if the bomb hit Detroit, they could walk home but if it hit Chicago, they had to stay in school to avoid radioactive material blowing toward West Michigan.

He said the longer we live, the more positive our memories become.

“When I actually think about it, I don’t think about what it was like being scared to death,” he said. “I remember (President) John Kennedy on TV during the Cuban Missile Crisis, my brother and dad building a bomb shelter.”

He said that children can be alert and on edge, but “to cope with life, you kind of put it on a shelf. Every time something happens, it comes down from the shelf….



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