First-grader Brooklyn Gooden asked her question again and again, trying to be heard over the loud hum of the heater in Randolph Park Elementary’s gym. Librarian Shamika Wright leaned in to listen.
“That’s a good question,” Wright said. “What do you do if you hear gunshots and your teacher has stepped away from the classroom?”
Wright put the question to the 300-plus students sitting cross-legged on the floor of the gym. Dozens of hands shot up. Don’t leave the classroom, one student said. Hide behind your desk, said another.
“Make sure you’re out of sight and you’re quiet,” Wright said. She asked if students should turn out the lights. “YES!” the kids shouted, with the certainty of someone who’s had this class before.
It was a school assembly, 21st century-style. Students at Randolph Park, led by teachers and the school’s resource officer, walked out of class Wednesday morning to honor the 17 people killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School exactly one month earlier. Across the country, thousands of kids – most of them likely older than the K-through-5 crowd on the Randolph gym floor – walked out of class at the same time, in what has generally been seen as a student protest over state and federal officials’ lack of action on gun safety laws.
At Randolph Park, teachers used the occasion to teach what, in 2018, may be core academic skills for any student: How to report bullying. What to do if a friend has a gun. How to avoid getting arrested for a social media post.
“Anyone who makes a terrorist threat will be immediately locked up,” juvenile probation officer Rodney Fomby told the crowd. He urged teachers to report any threats that come to their attention “even if you don’t know if it’s for real” because local law enforcement agencies aren’t taking any chances with student safety.
“It might be an A student who was never a problem before. We want to know,” Fomby said. “It might be a student you think would have a bright future – two parents, their life is good. We want to know.”
Fomby also had advice for students.
“I want you to understand how serious this is,” he said. “Once we lock you up, your mother, your father, your cousin, none of them are going to be able to get you out.”
Coosa Valley Youth Services, the juvenile detention center in Anniston, was filled to capacity last week, in part because of a spate of reported threats, post-Parkland, that sent seven kids into police custody. It’s unclear whether the uptick in arrests is the result of a post-attack increase in copycats – something police have said is typical – or was caused by an increase in vigilance by schools and parents worried about missing a potential shooter. In Parkland,according to reports in USA Today and other outlets, police paid several visits to the home of the shooter before he opened fire at the high school, prompting widespread accusations that the authorities had missed obvious red flags.
Before the assembly began, Officer Donald McGraw, the police officer assigned to Anniston schools, said he was unaware of any threats in city schools since the Parkland shooting. Students had expressed concern, he said, because of rumors and social media posts about threats at other schools.
McGraw, 27, can barely remember a time when officers didn’t walk the halls of school.
“When Columbine happened, I was in school myself,” he noted.
Anniston saw 14 homicides within city limits last year, a higher-than-average number for a city of about 22,000. Per capita rates of violent crime in the city are typically among the state’s highest. Yet McGraw said that in four years of patrolling Anniston High School, typically the core of his beat, he can recall only one firearm incident at the school, involving a BB gun.
At the assembly, McGraw warned students to report guns if they find them at home or outdoors, or they spot a young friend carrying one.
“You could help save someone’s life,” he said. “We don’t want to see any lives wasted.”
Fifth-grader Bre’Ella Busby addressed the crowd shortly after McGraw, warning her fellow students to resist the urge to touch guns if they find them, or to show them off to friends. In remarks to The Star before the speech, she said she wanted students to know their lives are important.
“Kids just need somebody to look out for them,” she said.
Asked what’s more of a threat to local kids — spree shooters, accidental shootings or jail time for threatening social media posts — Fomby, the juvenile detention officer, said he wasn’t sure. Asked about the fates of past children taken into custody for school threats, Fomby said he couldn’t discuss those cases. Juvenile court records are typically confidential.
School officials said they held the assembly because schools received word from the state Department of Education that assemblies to mark the day and memorialize the Parkland students were acceptable. That message appeared to be a response to inquiries from other school systems, where students intended to walk out of school at 9 a.m. in protest.
Anniston High School students held a student-led, 18-minute protest Wednesday morning, and school officials say no one was punished for the walkout.
“We just all came out for the 17 students,” junior Y'Mari Sturkie said later in the day.
Myiesha Jenkins, a senior and Anniston High’s homecoming queen, said that at the demonstration, students prayed, sang the school's alma mater and signed the Parkland victims' names on a poster board.
“I like how we stood as a class together, and we actually did this as a school,” she said.
Jenkins said she would like to see metal detectors at Anniston High and all schools, as well as background checks for all gun purchases.
Assistant Principal Phillip Posey said the high school faculty used it as a teachable moment to educate the students about their First Amendment rights.
"What better learning tool to use than real life," Posey said.
Daniel Gaddy contributed reporting from Anniston High School.