The following is based on true events that occurred in 1983 at East Junior High School in Brentwood, NY. Descriptions are based on my personal experiences and memories as well as second-hand accounts. Some creative license has been taken and some names have been changed.
Warning: This post is longer than usual.
The Day My School Was Held Hostage, 1983
I weave my way through the crowded cafeteria, with my lunch tray in hand. I follow Maria to our table near the wall of windows facing out onto our school’s front entrance and the parking lot. I take my seat across from her and, as she gazes out the windows, I look for our friends Lory and Natalie. The cafeteria is filled with rowdy 7th graders releasing their pent-up energy. Some eat, others talk, someone shouts about something I can’t understand and behind us over at Kendall and Rudy’s table they free-style rap while the other guys drum on the table or make beatbox sounds with their mouths. Kendall gives me a chin nod, his typical way of saying hello. I give an awkward smile back.
“Did you see that?” Maria says as Lory and Natalie sit down next to us.
I turn back and glance outside. It’s a blue-sky, sunny Spring day. The parking lot is full of cars and a few pigeons fly off in a group but otherwise, it’s quiet. “See what?”
“That looked like Mr. Wickes.”
“I don’t see anything.”
Natalie takes a bite of her grilled cheese sandwich and with her mouth full she mumbles, “I thought he got fired. Didn’t you hear?” She pauses to swallow that bite. “He got into a fist fight with Luis – the tall cutie in 9th grade? Luis got suspended and Wickes got fired.”
“I’m pretty sure that was him, he was dressed like he’s in the army and it looked like he was holding something.” She brings her two hands up as if holding a shotgun.
“No! You probably didn’t see right.” Natalie dismisses her and starts counting on her fingers. “I think today is Luis’ first day back.”
“Yeah, I saw him earlier.” Lory adds as she adjusts the brown and white feathers clipped to her Farrah Fawcett styled hair.
Maria drops her voice to a whisper, “I’m telling you. It looked like a gun.”
She can’t be right, can she? I look to the closed metal cafeteria doors just as they slam open and bang against the walls. Maria and I both jump. I let out a nervous laugh but Maria doesn’t think it’s funny.
One of our classmates, Nick, runs through the doors to Mrs. Smith whose standing at the front of the cafeteria. Something’s wrong. He moves his hands through the air as he talks. Mrs. Smith rushes to the red telephone on the wall and Nick walks over to his table. He starts talking to his friends in the same exaggerated way.
The typical sounds of the cafeteria seem to change. I watch as if Nick’s message is carried on the edge of a wave. It passes from table to table and moves through the cafeteria until it crashes at our feet — Nick passed Mr. Wickes on the stairwell and Mr. Wickes had a rifle!
Mrs. Smith talks to a few other teachers and then tries to get our attention. She shouts, “Listen up everyone!”
I hear bits and pieces of conversations around me:
‘What’s going on?’
‘Mr. Wickes …’
‘… he’s here …’
‘… has a gun …’
‘Are there others?’
‘Are we under attack?’
Questions travel through the crowd as nervous energy builds. Mrs. Smith waves her hands to settle everyone down and get our attention, “Quiet down, listen up! We’re not sure what’s going on but there may be an emergency in the school. We need everyone to stay calm. As soon as we hear more, we’ll let you know, but I don’t want anyone going out into the hallway.”
The chatter picks up again as Maria and I make eye contact. Her eyes fill with fear. She was right, she did see him.
Natalie grabs Maria’s wrist, “Tell us again, what did you see?”
We hear the sirens before we see seven or eight cop cars screech to a stop in front of the school. Two ambulances pull up behind them. The cafeteria could have tipped over from the weight of all the students rushing towards the windows.
“Back away!” Mrs. Smith and the other teachers call out but no one listens.
Some cops run to the front entrance of the building, others stand behind their cars facing the school, guns drawn. That makes some students scamper back.
Two stretchers are rolled in through the front doors. There is confusion and panic in the cafeteria and the teachers try to calm everyone down with little success.
Maria’s eyes dart from me to Natalie to Lory. Her voice cracks, “Why do you think he’s here? What does he want with us?”
“Let’s hope he doesn’t wants us, he’s got to be here for Luis. Why else would he show up today?” Natalie says as if she knows what’s going on.
“You don’t think he would shoot anyone, do you?” Lory asks.
Natalie shrugs, she seems unfazed by the whole situation. She separates the black rubber bracelets on her wrist from the neon pink ones. “I hope not, but why the hell would he bring a gun to school if he wasn’t going to use it? You know, Luis probably started that fight on purpose, to get him fired. He’s such a troublemaker. ”
My heart speeds up and my palms start to sweat. I clench my fingers into a fist to keep them from shaking. Looking at the cops outside makes me feel like we’re in a movie. “This can’t be happening!”
The whispering and confusion continue. Everyone wants to hear Nicks story again and each time he seems to remember more details. Mr. Wickes was wearing a black beret on his head and he was dressed like GI Joe. Nick thought it was a joke at first until Mr. Wickes pointed the rifle at his chest. Nick put his hands in the air but Mr. Wickes didn’t say anything, he didn’t even seem to recognize him. He just turned and went up the stairs and Nick ran into the cafeteria.
After some time, there is movement in the parking lot. The drivers open the back doors of their ambulances and the two stretchers are rolled back out with a person on each. There are gasps and sobs from the crowd. We can’t tell who’s on them but the stretchers are pushed into the backs of the ambulances and they speed off.
Some students burst into tears. I hear Rudy say he’s going to make a run for it and a few of the guys agree but the overhead speaker crackles to life and everyone quiets down.
“Attention, attention all students and faculty,” It’s our Assistant Principal Mrs. Cook’s voice and she sounds nervous, “We have an emergency in the building. Please remain calm and stay in your rooms. Ignore the bell, do not go to your next class. No one is to go out into the hallways and no one is to leave the building. Please stay where you are until you receive further instructions.”
The speaker crackles again before it goes silent and the cafeteria is eerily quiet. Within a minute the class bell rings and Mrs. Smith and the other teachers stand by the doors making sure no one tries to leave. When the bell stops they wave everyone away from the windows and make us sit towards the center of the room.
We started lunch at 12:45 pm. It feels like forever but about an hour later the red phone on the wall rings. It’s a direct line to the main office. Mrs. Smith answers it. After a brief conversation she walks over to the other teachers and talks to them. Everyone’s eyes are on her as we wait for an announcement. Is it over?
“Okay, here’s what’s happening. There’s a classroom on the 2nd floor that’s being held at gunpoint.”
More gasps and cries from the students. Mrs. Smith waits for everyone to calm down again before she continues, “The police are negotiating with the gunman —”
“Is it Mr. Wickes?” Rudy shouts.
She nods, “Yes it is. He doesn’t want anyone to leave the building but he has agreed to let some of the classes from the 2nd floor and that side of the building come in here or go to the gym. We’re going to get crowded, but we’ll make room. Again, please, no one try to leave. We don’t want to upset him. Just stay calm and stay in your seats.”
“Oh no, my brother has art class on the second floor.” I can’t hide the fear in my voice. Maria and Lory look down and only Natalie makes eye contact with me, but she doesn’t say anything. Please don’t let Mr. Wickes be in his room!
The cafeteria doors open and several 8th and 9th grade classes parade in. Most of them look scared, though a few look like they are ready for a fight. I watch and hope until I see the Art teacher, Mr. Fulton, leading his class. I stand up and see my brother, “Pat!” I call him over.
A rush of relief floods over me. Pat and his friend, Carlos, come sit at my table. We fill him in on what Maria and Nick saw.
“Yeah we saw him too. He shot the principal.” Pat announces.
“What?” A few students from a nearby table crowd in to hear what happened.
“We were in art class and we heard what sounded like a gun shot. We all went to the door and peeked around the edge. We saw Mr. H. and Mrs. Cook and some of the other office staff running down the hall towards us. They stopped in front of one of the classrooms and Mr. H looked through the glass window in the door. There was another shot and at the same time the window shattered. Mr. H’s feet totally stayed planted to the ground but his face and his shoulders spun around — he looked like a top and then he fell.”
“Yeah, I think Howland got shot in the face.” Carlos adds.
“We all ran back into the class so fast!”
“We were going to try to climb out the windows.” Carlos says.
“Yeah,” Pat nods and continues, “but Mr. Fulton wouldn’t let us. He kept looking into the hallway. When it was clear, he told us to stay quiet and go down the back stairs so we ran into shop class. I grabbed a hammer and everyone took whatever tools we could find, just in case we had to protect ourselves.”
“They took two people out on stretchers. Mr. Howland must have been one of them, but who was the other one?” Maria asks.
“It had to be Luis, who else would Wickes be after?” Natalie answers. She keeps playing with her bracelets but doesn’t look so calm any more.
Time ticks by slowly. I keep looking at the red phone hoping it will ring and Mrs. Smith will tell us we can go home. But she doesn’t. There’s nothing to do but wait.
I adjust my thick pink shoe laces on my Adidas sneakers while Pat draws in his sketchbook. Lory and Natalie talk about some boys and fix their hair. Most students talk in whispers and some cry softly. Maria doesn’t talk to anyone. Everyone is waiting for something to happen. Rudy cracks a joke and Kendall laughs, someone else shouts, “That’s not funny!”
“Shut up!” Rudy shouts back and stands up.
One of the teachers steps in-between them before it gets out of hand.
Maria’s eyes fill with tears, “Why is this happening?” When she finally speaks, her voice cracks again.
I start to breathe faster, trying to hold back tears of my own. I squeeze my eyes shut fighting them off. My stomach trembles as if I’m cold. I ball my hands into fists again and look out the window. The cops are still there but they’re not doing anything. I take a few more breaths. What are we waiting for? Is he going to come in here? Is he going to shoot us all? My eyes begin to sting and in another second I know the tears will fall.
“Don’t!” Pat says in a strong whisper. His voice interrupts my thoughts. I look at him — he looks serious but not afraid. “You have to stay strong.” He pauses and looks around, “See them,” he looks towards Rudy’s table, “their scared too, but they’re joking trying to keep everyone around them calm and distracted. Look,” he points his chin towards Maria, Lory and Natalie, who are all crying now. “They’re feeding into each other. If you cry, they’ll keep crying and then someone else will and so on. It’ll ripple through the crowd. We have to stay calm.”
I take a deep breath and nod trying to get my emotions under control.
2:30 pm comes and goes — that’s the time we normally get out of school. The cops out front don’t move, no one goes in or out. The cafeteria staff hand out drinks and snacks. We get an update every now and then from the overhead speakers or from the phone on the wall. Mostly, they tell us negotiations are still underway.
Around 3:30 pm we’re told that Mr. Wickes agrees to let the remaining classes on the second floor go home. There are sounds of protests from some students:
“What about us?”
“Why didn’t he let us go?”
“I want to go home!”
“What does he want from us?” I whisper.
But there is nothing we can do. He’s in a classroom that faces the front of the school. He’ll see if we try to escape.
My stomach tightens and I feel like I’m going to throw up. Thankfully the look in Pat’s eyes doesn’t waiver. He gives me another reassuring nod. I take a deep breath and try to think positively. We’re going to be okay … I hope.
The phone rings again and the relief on Mrs. Smith’s face means it’s good news. “Okay everyone. He’s letting us go.” We cheer and clap and some girls behind us start to cry again.
“Listen up, we’re going to line up. Put your hands on your heads and walk, don’t run, towards the front gate of the school. Stay next to the building. You’re parents are waiting for you two blocks down.”
Pat and I share a smile. We are going to be okay!
We half-jog with our hands on our heads but instead of going to the front gate Pat says, “Over there, come on!” He points to the parking lot. To my big relief we see our dad leaning on our blue Chevy Nova dressed in his school uniform.
We rush over to him as the tears threaten to spill from my eyes again. “It’s okay,” he reassures us as he shovels us into the car. He drives to the service entrance where a cop and another school worker stop us. Our dad explains that he was at work at another school in the district and he drove over as soon as he heard what was going on. He arrived so fast that he got inside the police lines and was waiting for us for hours. The cop nods, opens the gate and our dad drives us to the safety of our home.
We were safe! It was over for us, but not for everyone.
While our dad waited for us in the parking lot our mom waited for us at home, alone. I can only imagine how frightened she must have been. I don’t remember talking about the experience with either of them after that night. Writing about it now makes me want to ask them what it was like for them.
When we got home, I was terrified. I felt vulnerable, as if someone could come into our house at any moment to get us. But we were lucky, we were home and unharmed. We watched the news to find out that little by little Mr. Wickes let all the students go except for that one classroom. Eventually he let them go too, until it was just him and one other student, Bryant. For some reason, he felt he had bonded with Bryant.
They talked and listened to music for hours in that class. It was the same room where Mr. Wickes and Luis got into a fist fight two weeks earlier. Mr. Wickes knew Luis’ suspension was over. He walked into the school, up to that class on the second floor and shot Luis in the stomach.
Mr. Wickes had a mental illness. It was 1983 and it wasn’t something people talked or knew much about. Unfortunately, I can’t say we’ve gotten much better at helping people with mental illness since then.
After holding the school hostage for 9 hours, Mr. Wickes finally told Bryant he should go. As Bryant ran out of the class, he heard the gun go off. Mr. Wickes shot himself in the temple.
School was closed for three days. Luis and Mr. Howland eventually healed from their physical wounds but Bryant, he never seemed to recover. He was so pale and so quiet for the rest of the school year.
My brother and I went back to school, got back to our normal routines, graduated and moved out of Brentwood, NY. I lost contact with all of those high school kids.
This experience has become an interesting story to share, “My school was held hostage.” But every time there’s another school shooting, and there have been way too many since then, it comes back to me.
I’ve wanted to post this for some time, but I didn’t want it to be connected to or in response to any mass shootings. Thing is, they just keep happening. In 1983 it was a rare event but now it’s all too prevalent and yet the same questions remain: Why? How do we prevent these shootings? Why can’t we provide better services for people with mental illness? And so many more.
What about you, have you ever experienced anything like this? I’d love to hear your stories!
Still Here by Denise at Inspired to Ignite. Her blog post a few months back prompted me to want to share this story.