At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, it was Riley Howell, 21. At the STEM School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, it was Kendrick Castillo, 18. The two young men were hailed as heroes for assuming the unimaginable role of emergency responder to a school shooting.
Their actions, credited by the authorities with saving the lives of classmates, suggest that some members of America’s mass-shooting generation have learned — by instinct or intention — to act as professionals would in the face of deadly tragedy.
“I think everybody has this idea, ‘What if somebody comes in with a gun? What do I do?’” said Brendan Bialy, 18, who said he helped disarm the Colorado shooting suspect, a fellow student, after Castillo charged him. “I didn’t think consciously, ‘I’d do this and then this.’ It just happened.”
Drills for what to do during a shooting have become routine in schools across the nation, in some cases for children as young as in kindergarten. Most students have not been taught to directly confront shooting suspects, but rather to focus on what they must do to remain safe. Some young people, however, appear to have closely followed past massacres and concluded that they cannot wait for a teacher or security officer to protect them.
“The idea of ‘run, hide, fight’ is what they teach,” said Don Gilmore, whose son Spencer escaped unharmed from the shooting at STEM School on Tuesday and was friends with some of the students who tried to subdue one of the attackers. “Run if you can. Hide if you need to. And fight if you must. Some people are just wired to react to that situation.”
Spencer’s mother, Sarah, said she had spent part of the evening after the shooting thinking about how, had her son been in a different classroom that afternoon, Spencer might have been one of the students charging into gunfire. “They saved it from being much worse,” she said.
Even younger children were prepared to take action. Nate Holley, a sixth grader at the school, recounted to CNN how his teacher moved the class into a closet during the shooting. Standing in the corner, Nate got ready.
“I had my hand on a metal baseball bat, just in case,” said Nate, 12. “Cause I was going to go down fighting if I was going to go down.”
The thought of a child formulating a plan to attack a gunman with nothing more than a baseball bat may seem horrifying. But people like Greg Crane, whose company trains law enforcement on how to handle active shooters, say that when escape is not an option, confrontation might make sense.
“We do conduct training about taking back control,” said Crane, who created a training program called “Alice,” or Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. “Often it gets called ‘fighting back.’ There’s no fighting strategies taught; it’s ‘How do you control this out-of-control person?’”
He frequently cites as inspiration Jacob Ryker, who tackled a gunman at his Oregon high school in 1998, despite getting shot himself.
“It’s never been a question of whether kids can do it,” Crane said. “It’s just I think with predominantly more training on responses to violent events going on all over, yes, we would expect to see hopefully more of this.”
But not all training methods promote similar action — some endorse more running and hiding than fighting — and drills vary widely among school districts. What academics who study school violence have learned from their research is that what matters most is that the drills do not traumatize children, said Beverly Kingston, the director of the Center for the Study and the Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“It matters the way the training is done and how it’s done,” Kingston said. “It can either add to the trauma or reduce the trauma. We always want to do it in ways that reduce the trauma.”
Even more important is focusing on ways to prevent violence, she added, deploying threat assessment teams with multiple approaches to help people who are troubled. One way to identify those potential threats is to give communities — especially students, parents and teachers — the ability to anonymously report concerns that do not rise to the level of, say, calling 911.
“It’s not only this mass violence — it’s also increases in suicide,” Kingston said. “How are we working together as a nation to put into place programs that we know are proven to work when someone is suffering? That’s the harder question, but we really have to ask ourselves that hard question.”
Susan Payne, who after the Columbine shooting founded Safe2Tell, a youth violence prevention initiative in Colorado, lamented that, 20 years later, schools have still not adopted a consistent approach to try to prevent mass shootings.
“We can do a better job in this country, and I think we’ve seen a lot of movement in the aftermath of the Parkland tragedy,” said Payne, who worked in law enforcement for 28 years. “We need to get in earlier, and we need to realize that the culture and climate in a school is so important.”
She attributed some students’ instinct to confront an armed attacker to depictions of heroism in popular culture.
“Young people today are more informed than we even realize, and it’s through their own social norms and information they see in television, movies and online,” she said. “And I think kids are having that conversation at lunchroom tables, talking of what they might do.”
Bialy, the STEM School senior, described the takedown of the gunman as an effort among Castillo, himself and a third boy he declined to name, citing the boy’s wishes. Castillo was closest to the shooting suspect, about a foot away, when the suspect walked into their English class.
Once Castillo got up, so did Bialy and the other boy. They slammed the gunman against the wall. He fired his pistol once or twice in the skirmish, hitting Castillo. Students tried to tend to him, but he was unresponsive, Bialy said.
“Kendrick refused to be a victim,” Bialy said.
Castillo’s father, John Castillo, told The Denver Post through tears that he was not surprised by his son’s decision to go after the gunman, though he wished he had acted differently and perhaps survived.
“I wish he had gone and hid,” Castillo said, “but that’s not his character. His character is about protecting people, helping people.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.