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When school shootings were unthinkable

Teacher at Sturgeon Creek school remembers day in 1978 that shattered his world

Posted: 01/19/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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Teacher Bill Jurens had no idea that a student in his classroom had just been shot to death.

The possibility was just unthinkable.

At least, it was unthinkable on Oct. 19, 1978, a day that began as ordinary as any other in the vocational shops at Sturgeon Creek Regional Secondary School.

There was a bang.

When a teacher in the art section at the back of the large, shared vocational classroom began ushering students toward the door, drafting teacher Jurens thought there'd been an industrial accident, that some piece of equipment had blown or failed or fallen with a bang.

And so, after putting a bright student named Tracy in charge of getting her drafting classmates out of the room, Jurens began walking against the tide to the site of the noise.

"Poor Ken Maitland was lying there, and he was obviously seriously injured," Jurens recalled.

But he still couldn't even conceive of the idea that the student had been shot.

"The first thought that went through my mind was, 'oh boy, someone is going to get suspended over this.'"

A shooting, in Canada, in Winnipeg, in a high school classroom? Until Jurens was kneeling over the 16-year-old boy, that never crossed his mind.

There had been a classroom killing in Ottawa three years before, and there are online references to a killing in a Kingston school in 1902. But classroom shootings were not the horrendously well-known events they've since become.

Maitland died.

Vaughan Pollen, the classmate who killed him with one blast from a shotgun, was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Jurens retired last June after 37 years as a vocational teacher. He'd started teaching at Sturgeon Creek on Ness Avenue just three years before, having been hired on the basis of his experience in industry.

Though he gives occasional in-services to teachers in which he talks about that morning, Jurens hasn't spoken about the killing for publication since he testified in court.

He does this thing at in-services: He starts his talk, and he's got a friend sitting in the room who surreptitiously lights a firecracker and tosses it on the floor.

Bang!

Everyone's startled, everyone's looking around, no one knows what's going down.

Jurens tells the teachers someone has just put a bullet through the back of the head of the person sitting behind them. The shooter's still in the room, seconds are going by, everyone is in a situation light years removed from anything he or she has ever experienced, everyone's stunned and bewildered.

"That's how it happens. It's all over now. What do you do right now?" Jurens challenges the teachers. "The situation will be flexible. It's going to be totally unpredictable. You're operating on one-tenth of one per cent of the information you need.

"As a teacher, your first responsibility is to the students under your care," Jurens tells the teachers. "When the shooting starts, how are people going to behave? Total crapshoot."

Back to that awful morning in October 1978...

"It was a big open-classroom area," said Jurens. "It was mixed with drafting and art and photography. They (each subject) took a little bit of those areas," with about 45 to 50 students in the room each period.

Jurens knew Pollen and Maitland, but not very well.

"It was a normal day, 9:30 in the morning. Ken Maitland, the kid who was shot, came in normally.

"Vaughan Pollen came in a little late, which wasn't unusual. I may have (seen him enter), but it didn't register on me," Jurens said.

Then there was the enormous bang. Maybe an air tank had exploded, Jurens thought. Maybe a two-by-six piece of wood had fallen on the floor. The art teacher was ushering his students away from the scene, and some were obviously disturbed.

But Jurens instead walked toward the source of the sound.

"There was this body," he said, still not quite able to believe, all these years later, that what he had seen was real.

"(The art teacher) said to me, 'He shot him.' It didn't even register -- I thought I'd misheard," Jurens said.

He stayed with Maitland until the police and paramedics came. He didn't leave the room for three or four hours. Of the shooter, he saw nothing. Police arrested him near the school.

"My impression after the trial is he must have walked out past me," Jurens said.

It was at the trial that Jurens learned the shooter had sawed off part of the barrel of a shotgun at home and carried the weapon into class in the same gym bag he carried every day. It jammed after that first shot.

To this day, Jurens wonders what might have happened to him that day had there been more shots.

The rest of that day? Some of it is a blur, some of it Jurens remembers minute by minute, some of it he still finds hard to believe.

The experience was so unprecedented, so beyond anyone's comprehension, that there was no policy manual to consult.

With no cellphones, and the police commandeering the handful of phone lines in the school, Jurens had no opportunity for hours to call his wife, who knew from radio reports it was his classroom and feared he might be dead.

"At that time, it was an unheard-of thing. There was some discussion whether we should continue to hold classes that afternoon," he said. "They didn't officially clean out the whole school.

"The principal went on the PA system" to tell students to go home to let their parents know they were all right. "He didn't actually force them to go home. He didn't make it clear whether they were supposed to come back."

Jurens said the superintendent asked him if he was going to teach the afternoon classes. Jurens said he didn't think it was a good idea -- half the students were gone, and there still was a crime scene.

The superintendent then told Jurens: "Go see the principal and he'll assign you something."

The principal told Jurens to go straight home.

Both the chief superintendent and the principal have died, St. James-Assiniboia School Division advised this week. Another superintendent Jurens remembers being involved that day could not be reached. Jurens lost touch with the art teacher, who he said never wanted to talk about that day.

The fatal day was a Thursday, followed by the annual province-wide teachers' in-service on the Friday.

Students and teachers returned to school on Monday as though everything was normal. The teachers had rearranged the desks and work spaces in the classroom before students arrived so the scene of the boy's death would not be obvious.

"We never got any counselling. You just got on with your life," Jurens said. "We just came back to school. I had a brief discussion with my students, I would say it was 20 minutes. Then we just went back to work."

The evening of the shooting, Jurens went to class at the University of Manitoba, where he was pursuing his education degree. He still had blood all over the rims of his shoes, which he only noticed as he was sitting in class.

The professor addressed the incident, pontificating on education theory and how a teacher, by understanding course work about student behaviour, would be in a position to anticipate it, a still-disgruntled Jurens said.

They argued. Finally, Jurens identified himself as one of the classroom teachers at the shooting earlier that day.

"He didn't want to listen to me. He wanted to talk about education theory," Jurens said, shaking his head. The professor told Jurens he should have recognized signs of the student's behaviour. When Jurens walked out of class that night, he never returned.

He had only superficial awareness of both the shooter and the victim among his many students. Pollen was quiet and never caused any trouble, he said. Testimony at the trial suggested verbal bullying or a recent argument set him off.

"It's not the kid who acts out you have to worry about -- he's venting," Jurens said, drawing on 37 years of teaching.

He's concerned that privacy laws prevent teachers from knowing as much about their students' mental health as he thinks they should.

Nothing short of metal detectors and full body searches would have stopped the tragedy in Sturgeon Creek Regional Secondary School that day, Jurens said, commenting on the reaction in the United States and Canada to the murders of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., and the calls for armed guards and locked doors and even armed principals and teachers.

The shooter put a gun into the gym bag he ordinarily carried every day, walked into the school the same way he and 1,000 other students walked into that school every day, walked into the classroom the same quiet way he'd walked into classrooms his entire life.

"The problem is access to weapons. This student had access to a shotgun," Jurens said.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca


School held classes hours after shooting

St. James-Assiniboia School Division held afternoon classes at Sturgeon Creek Regional Secondary School on Oct. 19, 1978 -- where 16-year-old Ken Maitland had been shot to death in his shops class that morning barely four hours before.

It was to get things back to normal as quickly as possible, the late Ron MacIntosh, then the division's superintendent, was quoted in the Oct. 20, 1978 edition of The Winnipeg Free Press.

The afternoon paper on Oct. 19, the day of the shooting, and the Oct. 20 morning paper, show stunning details of the way the tragedy was handled that would boggle minds today.

Students stood around the school lawn or sat on the school's outside steps watching as paramedics wheeled out the victim's blanket-covered body on a stretcher right past them.

Free Press photographer Wayne Glowacki was able to take pictures through the school's glass doors and to follow the boy's shrouded body all the way to the ambulance.

Free Press reporters Steve Pona and Debbie Lyons freely interviewed students who'd just been witnesses to the shooting and who were milling around on the school grounds. No one was counselling or comforting those students. Police had not sequestered them as witnesses.

Today, any school would instantly become a locked-down fortress, and children would be sent home or picked up by frantic parents. The crisis-response team would be at the school for days, students and staff would be offered sessions with grief counsellors.

"We realized it wasn't the best of atmospheres," MacIntosh told Pona in the Oct. 20, 1978 edition, explaining holding classes within hours of the boy's death. "I wouldn't question that the students' ability to concentrate was affected, but we felt it was important to keep the school open."

The late Dennis Stefanson, then the principal at Sturgeon, told Pona he feared the shooting would unfairly tarnish the school's reputation, and some people who worked and attended the school in later years say that happened.

After being merged with the nearby Silver Heights Collegiate, the school is now College Sturgeon Heights Collegiate, last year Manitoba's fourth-largest school, with 1,372 students.

Even the Free Press coverage in 1978 was far different than it would be today.

The afternoon edition of Oct. 19 gave the shooting the main headline on the front page, with a large photo of a student being interviewed outside the school, but continued some of the story on page 4.

The next morning, the shooting was just one of six stories on a front page dominated by Ottawa legislating striking postal workers back to work. There were just four paragraphs on the shooting and a small head-and-shoulders photo of the victim on the front page, with almost the entire story on page 4. And there was just that one story, not page upon page upon page of coverage.

It would be incomprehensible to handle a crisis that way now, said Manitoba Teachers' Society president Paul Olson, but "we're not somehow better human beings as teachers than we were 30 years ago. I don't think teachers loved their students less than they do now.

"Not to sound exculpatory, then as now, people did the best they could with what they had," said Olson. "Stiff upper lip would have been part of it."

Teachers have far more training now, Olson said. "There's deeper understanding of psychological distress," he said.

"Everybody was quite shocked. We didn't have any history of this kind of thing happening," Keith Thomas, risk manager for the Manitoba School Boards Association and the province's leading expert on school safety, said this week.

The Sturgeon Creek shooting was treated as an anomaly, he said. There was no policy manual to follow, and officials wanted to restore normalcy as fast as they could.

"Columbine changed everything."

The 1999 massacre at that Colorado high school led to sweeping changes in school safety and in handling crises, Thomas said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 A6

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