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“I could die here, because it happens to people:” a Pittsfield high schooler describes the terror of shooting hoax

Ellen Klepetar.
Josh Landes
Ellen Klepetar.

Three Berkshire County high schools were sent into lockdown on Tuesday, as part of the latest string of hoax active shooter threats across the state. At a time when real school shootings continue unabated, unsubstantiated threats are traumatizing, too.

Tuesday morning, police across Berkshire County received calls that school shootings were underway at Drury High School in North Adams, Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, and Pittsfield High School in Pittsfield. While the claims were quickly proven to be a hoax, the emergency response plunged hundreds of young people into terror.

“I heard the principal come on the loudspeaker and say, lockdown, lockdown. And we were all kind of like, obviously, horrified, but also just really confused," said Ellen Klepetar, 15, who attends PHS. "We had a lockdown drill the day before, and we were like, there's no way that there's a drill two days in a row. And then our teacher like walks over to the door and closes it and says it's not a drill, and we're kind of just stuck there.”

The unexpected lockdown announcement came with news of the school shooting in Nashville a day before fresh in Klepetar’s mind.

“I was scrolling around Instagram last night, and I was seeing all of these posts about a school shooting that happened, and I was already upset and angry that this is something that people have to worry about, and that this is something that genuinely kills people, because it's devastating," she told WAMC. "So, I was definitely already thinking about it.”

With scenes of grieving families and body bags from the Nashville shooting and the hundreds of similar school shootings in the United States that have preceded it running through her head, Klepetar sat at her desk in PHS Tuesday waiting to see what would happen next.

“They update on the walkie talkie," she said. "And you can kind of hear the teachers running around the hallways, kind of clearing the bathrooms in the locker rooms. It's really horrifying, because everyone's really scared. We sat there for a while, and then the principal came back on the loudspeaker and told us that the lockdown was a response to a call or a threat. And then we kind of continued to sit there and just listen to the walkie talkie for updates. And then eventually, we heard that the police arrived and they were going to walk around the school and clear all the classrooms. And so they came in every classroom, and they just checked, and then they left. And then everything was cleared. We kind of went about our day again.”

After the building was cleared, the environment inside PHS was surreal.

“A lot of people went home, so it was emptier than usual," Klepetar said. "It was weird, because it wasn't- It's, everything is over. So, you're not scared anymore, and you know that there isn't a threat. And it's like, OK, but it's not OK, because how do you continue your day after something like that happened? Because that is the scariest thing that can happen. And you can't do any work because you can't focus, so you kind of just sit around in your classes and wait for everything to end. It's really weird. It's really weird to walk around the hallways and just be like, that just happened, but I have to just keep doing school, just keep going on like it's a normal day.”

Even before the scare, Klepetar says she and her friends had already considered the threat of an actual school shooting in great detail.

“It's horrible, because you almost plan," she told WAMC. "Like, you think about it. You talk about what you would do or where you would want to be in where you wouldn't want to be in, what classrooms are safer than others, and how you would manage, and what you would do and- It's terrible, and it's really morbid and it's not something that you should have to do, but it's like it's a real conversation that we have all the time because it's such a real thing.”

Klepetar says one question kept running through her mind.

“How?" she asked. "How do I go back to school? How do I go back to school and not be terrified? How do I walk around the hallways and not think about it constantly? How do I go to my classes and sit in them and not be unable to focus because something terrible just happened to all of us, and we're all terrified? It's so much worse, because it's so real and it does happen. And it feels like it happened. Even though it didn't, it feels super, super real. It's going to be so weird to walk back into the building and like, feel safe. Because you want to feel safe, but you can't.”

WAMC asked Klepetar if she could envision a world where she could go to school without the threat of a mass killing.

“I wish," she answered. "I really wish that I knew and I could say and I could be confident that there was a way to fix everything. And I think that probably there is and hopefully if there was better access to aid for mental health and less access to guns, that things would be better. But it's terrifying, because I don't know how realistic that is.”

For now, the ninth-grader wonders whether school will ever feel safe again.

“It’s just terrible. It's terrible. It’s so terrible," Klepetar told WAMC. "You just go around hoping that it's never going to happen, but you know it could happen. And then something like that does happen, and you almost accept it in the moment. You're like, yeah, this this is completely plausible. I could die here because it happens to people. The biggest thing to understand is just that it's absolutely terrible and it's terrifying, and I wish that we would do more about it immediately.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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