Wilton church member recalls living through school shooting

The gun legislation passed last week by Connecticut’s General Assembly has one supporter here who has personal experience with school shootings.

“I think it’s a good start and I’m glad there was strong bipartisan support for it,” said Amy Shinohara. “I wish they had listened more to the Newtown families, though, and made the magazine limits retroactive. We need that in order for this legislation to be effective.”

While Newtown’s horror brought back to many other darkened place names — Columbine, Virginia Tech — for Ms. Shinohara, a member of  Wilton Presbyterian Church, the Sandy Hook shooting revived chilling memories of Manchester, Miss., and Parkway South Junior High School on Jan. 20, 1983.

“Newtown happened just 20 miles from here. And I know through six degrees of separation we were all enormously impacted by that event,” Ms. Shinohara, who sits on the Ridgefield Board of Education, said at a recent Ridgefield Board of Finance budget hearing. “But I need to tell you about another event that happened 30 years ago. When I was in middle school — seventh grade, in fact — there was a shooting at my school.

“I was sitting in Latin class, next to my best friend, and an announcement came over the PA: ‘Boys and girls, there’s been a shooting in the school, and we need to evacuate the building.’ So I grabbed my best friend’s hand, and started running down the hall. We thought there was a madman loose in the building.

“It turned out to be a student, who had brought a gun to school and shot three people, including himself. Two of them died,” Ms, Shinohara said. “This happened in an affluent suburb of St. Louis, not much different than Ridgefield or Newtown.”

Ms. Shinohara shared her story — which was not widely known — to lend some personal immediacy to arguments in support of the school board’s request for $515,000 in added “security staffing” in the $83.5-million school budget.

In a recent interview, Ms. Shinohara spoke more of her experience as a middle schooler in 1983.

The principal’s announcement that she recalled — telling students to evacuate the building — shows how unprepared schools were in 1983.

“That would never be done this way, but there were no protocols in place back then,” she said. “Basically the principal came on the PA system and what I remember him saying is: ‘There’s been a shooting in the school. We need to evacuate the building.’ At that point the shooter had shot himself. The shooting had stopped. But we didn’t know that.

“So I truly thought there was madman in the building, and thought, ‘We have to get out of here, we have to get out of here, we don’t know where he is.’ That kind of thing.”

Also, as she remembers it, students returned to the building and finished the day’s classes.

“The day went on like a normal day. We went back in the building,” she said.

She says there must have been an announcement saying the incident was over and the building was safe, but she doesn’t remember it.

A mother with sons in middle and elementary school today, Ms. Shinohara says she must have discussed the events with her parents, back then, but she doesn’t recall it.

“I’m sure we did at the time. It’s not like I got counseling for it. We dealt with it. We moved on,” she said.

The phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder,” or PTSD, wasn’t in use, but people knew the kids had been through a lot.

“Looking back I can say I probably had some of what today we’d call PTSD,” she said. “I did a lot of babysitting, and a month later, my parents were not home that night, and I got spooked by something and I called a neighbor and said, ‘I just heard a noise.’ Everyone in the neighborhood got it, and he just came over and walked all through the house and all around the house and said, ‘You’re fine. You’re good.’”

Two years later as freshmen at high school with a mix of students from different middle schools, Ms. Shinohara and another student who’d been at Parkway South bolted from biology class after a loud noise — a car backfiring, perhaps.

“I ran from the room. It was just a reaction,” she said. “I did and one of my friends did. I think everybody else just realized before we did that it was nothing. But we just reacted.”

Reports in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time suggested the shooter was reacting to talk about his brother.

“Supposedly he said something to the effect, before he started shooting: ‘I’m going to take care of some bad people,’” Ms. Shinohara said.

“There must have been mental health issues, and I think he must have been a victim of bullying.”

She heard forensic psychologist Dr. David Bernstein tell a March 14 League of Women Voters forum that research by the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime found three recurring causative factors in school violence: 75% of perpetrators of school violence had felt bullied, persecuted or threatened. Revenge was cited in 61% of incidents. A desire for attention was considered a motive in 24% of cases.

Whatever the motive, Ms. Shinohara said, school officials must be committed to protecting students.

“As a board member, the words ‘It would never happen here’ would never cross my lips. Pre-Newtown, that could be very frustrating, because most people did have the attitude of, ‘Oh, it would never happen here,’” she said.

“All of that has gone away now. Everyone is in lock-step with where I am on security issues now.”