In a scenario that is becoming increasingly familiar, a teacher in New Mexico is being praised this week for putting his life on the line to protect students from an armed assailant.
On Tuesday, Jan. 14, a 12-year-old boy with a sawed-off shotgun opened fire in the crowded gymnasium of Berrendo Middle School in Roswell, N.M., seriously injuring two fellow students. The casualties might have been much worse, officials say, had not social studies teacher John Masterson stepped in and somehow talked the boy into dropping his gun.
“He stood there and allowed the gun to be pointed at him so there would be no more young kids hurt,” New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said that night at a prayer vigil.
“It was a very brave thing the teacher did ...,” said Rob Coon, sheriff of the Chaves County, N.M, policy department (via USA Today). “He talked that kid into putting the gun down where that kid could have very easily put a shotgun blast in his chest. There’s always heroes come out in something like that, and that guy was.”
Masterson’s act of heroism is the latests in a string of recent incidents in which teachers and other school employees have put themselves directly in harm’s way to defend others against violence. In October, Michael Landsberry, an 8th grade math teacher in Sparks, Nev., was killed when he confronted a shooter in his school. Last summer, Antoinette Tuff, a bookkeeper at an elementary school near Atlanta, prevented a potential mass shooting by talking down a deranged gunman.
Educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., famously attempted to shield their students from the spray of bullets during the horrific shootings at the school in December 2012.
The succession of such events has prompted concerns about whether teachers receive adequate training in handling crisis situations like school shootings. An NBC News article on the Roswell shootings says that a growing number of schools now practice lockdown or active-shooter drills but that the consistency and quality of such training varies widely.
An Education Week analysis shows that, since the Newtown shootings, states have enacted some 43 laws requiring schools or districts to conduct school-emergency drills or upgrade emergency plans. Questions persist, however, about the whether schools have the resources or expertise needed to follow through on safety upgrades—or whether they can trully be prepared for events that are highly unpredictable in nature.
As it happens, the Roswell school district had conducted active-shooter drills with teachers and students, but it is unclear from reports whether Masterson participated in such drills or had any specialized training. He has been unavailable for comment, pending the investigation into the shootings.
On the potential value of crisis training for teachers, the NBC article quotes Ryan Heber, a high school science teacher in Woodland hills, Calif., who managed to disarm a student gunman in his classroom last year:
You could go to a million different trainings and I don't think it would ever prepare you for the experience you're going to have and the intensity of the experience ... That being said, I always think it's good to have training because in those moments of chaos, maybe you can find some clarity in some things you learned and maybe along the way some of that would help save somebody.
Safety experts cited in the NBC article characterized actions like those of Heber and Masterson as both incredibly brave and incredibly risky.
Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Centers, said that school faculty who’ve been successful in talking down gunmen tend to be “very careful” and take a non-confrontational approach.
Another expert, Joel Dvoskin of the Threat Assessment Group, noted that the student’s prior relationship with a teacher could play a significant (though highly unpredictable) role in the outcome of such confrontations.
Photo: Teacher John Masterson and his wife Lea talk to the media outside their door on the night of the shooting at Berrendo Middle School in Roswell, N.M.. Masterson reportedly confronted the shooter and got him to drop his gun. He has been ordered by state police to keep quiet about the incident until he is advised.--Roberto Rosales/ The Albuquerque Journal/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.