Saturday will mark one year since a gunman opened fire inside West Liberty-Salem High School, rocking the small community where many thought something so violent could never happen.
“I was in disbelief,” said Jacob King, whose wife owns a store on Detroit Street — the main road through the village of less than 2,000 people.
“It was like, ‘Can it really happen here?’” he said. “It’s like you hear it everywhere else but the way it is here, you wouldn’t expect it. You expect that in a big city.”
Since the shooting, the school district upgraded its safety measures and hired a counselor to help students get through the traumatic experience. But even with the response, West Liberty-Salem Superintendent Kraig Hissong said the schools and village might never be the same.
“Everybody has been left with a new sense of normal,” Hissong said.
While the shooting was devastating, the community backing of the district and the students also inspired many, Hissong said. And now students at the school are getting ready to partake in community service this week to show their appreciation.
‘You’re not dead?’
Friday, Jan. 20, 2017 was supposed to be a day of celebration for many in the West Liberty community.
Donald Trump was set to be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States and many who live in the school district voted for him. According to board of elections data, residents in the district voted for the Republican by wide margins.
But before the inauguration began, lives changed.
Police affidavits and court documents accuse then 17-year-old Ely Serna of sneaking a shotgun into school, hiding in a restroom stall to assemble it, putting on a camouflage jacket and a homemade mask that had an anarchy symbol on it, and then saying the Lord’s Prayer.
When he exited the restroom stall, he held a loaded shotgun, according to the police and court documents, saw then 16-year-old Logan Cole enter the restroom and allegedly fired at his classmate. Logan was shot in the chest and had more than 100 pellets in his body, including one in his heart.
A teacher identified in the report as Mr. Thomas then walked in, according to the affidavit, and the suspect allegedly began to shoot at him. Serna then left the restroom and allegedly began shooting at door windows before returning to Logan.
“He noticed that Logan Cole was not deceased due to seeing Logan Cole’s eyes blink,” a Champaign County Sheriff’s report says. “Ely Ray Serna stated that he exclaimed, ‘You’re not dead?’ Ely Ray Serna stated that he apologized to Logan Cole.”
Serna then allegedly handed the weapon to Logan and put his temple to the barrel, the report says, and asked Logan to pull the trigger.
“According to Ely Ray Serna, Logan Cole refused to pull the trigger,” the affidavit by Champaign County Sheriff’s Detective Glenn Kemp says.
The suspect was detained soon after by Middle/High School Principal Gregg Johnson and Assistant Principal Andy McGill.
Serna will face trial as an adult in Champaign County Common Pleas Court. He’s pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to 13 felony charges, including two counts of attempted murder. His next court date is Feb. 12.
West Liberty resident Janet Mally remembers seeing the rush after news broke of the shooting.
“Where we live, there were cars going up and down the street with parents going out there to get their kids,” Mally said. “I couldn’t believe that was happening here.”
Hundreds of people crowded Lions Club Park waiting to hold their children after the shooting. Many at the time said they couldn’t understand why this happened and were relieved when they finally saw their child come off a bus.
“I just want to hug them and not let them go all weekend,” Jennifer Kirkham said at the time.
While the news made it around town and eventually the country, King said realizing a school shooting happened in the small town was disheartening.
“Here, pretty much everyone that goes there is on the same level,” he said. “Everyone knows everyone that goes there. You just wouldn’t expect that here.”
Security upgrades, counseling services
School leaders got to work after the shooting to make sure their students were as safe as possible, Hissong said.
New entrance policies, door lock indicators and escape windows were included in the security upgrades at the campus.
“We had a lot of that stuff in place before the shooting but until you go through something like this, you don’t know for sure if you’re prepared or if your plan is going to work,” Hissong said.
WEST LIBERTY SHOOTING: Top stories of 2017: The West Liberty-Salem HS shooting
Along with the security additions, the school hired a counselor to help students cope after the shooting.
“We still have a counselor who is on staff who is an addition that came to us and worked with us and does ongoing counseling with students,” Hissong said.
The Springfield News-Sun spoke with leaders at other schools that experienced a school shooting and was told many students appeared fine right after the tragedy, but then develop issues later on. Hissong said his school saw that, too, which is why the district continues to offer counseling to students.
School leaders were proud of how students and staff reacted during the shooting, Hissong said, and believe the school had a good response plan in place. An announcement about the danger was made over the intercom quickly and doors were locked immediately, he said.
But changes still were needed to make sure students are safe and as equally important — feel safe at school.
“The key things are obviously having a basic safety plan in place and practicing those things to help speed up reaction for everyone involved,” Hissong said. “And having a way to get out of the buildings fast is also very important.”
Many students escaped from their classrooms last year by pushing open windows in the newly built school that weren’t designed to fully open. That was a design flaw, Hissong said, and it’s important to have escape windows in classrooms to allow students to get out when necessary. West Liberty-Salem is a combined k-through-12th grade campus and is all on one floor.
“Time is very important,” Hissong said. “You don’t have a lot so anything to make it quicker and easier, we wanted to do.”
Students are now only allowed to use one entrance into the school, Hissong said. That’s a result of the shooting as Serna allegedly used a side door to gain entry into the school before the shooting.
Indicators on the door were also added to make it easier for teachers and students to know if their door is locked or not. The school has fire doors, Hissong said, which means they can be unlocked from the inside by simply turning the knob. While this is convenient in the case of an emergency where students need to get to the hallway, it made it tougher for them to know if the door was locked during the shooting.
Now, thanks to the new indicators, determining if the door is locked or not is much easier, Hissong said.
“It gives you a very easy visual,” he said.
Along with the indicators, a door barrier has been stationed in every classroom. The barriers can be easily put on a door and are the equivalent of 1,200 pounds of force, Hissong said, making it tough for someone to get into a classroom.
The school also put a bullet-resistant film on windows and classroom glass to stop bullets shot into the rooms, Hissong said. Serna allegedly shot into classrooms from the hallway. A student, Adam Schultz, was grazed by a pellet when his classroom was shot at but wasn’t injured, according to the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office affidavit.
Despite all the security upgrades, the counseling and the community support, Hissong said the shooting has taken its toll on the students and district leaders continue to help any way they can.
“There is still impacts of it and that varies among different students,” Hissong said. “Different students have been impacted and are still working through them as best we can.”
Community Support and giving back
How West Liberty and the rest of the school district responded to the shooting makes Hissong proud, he said.
“What stands out the most to me is just the overwhelming amount of support from the community and from families from the large area that reached out to us to support us at that time,” he said.
The village was already a tight-knit community, Mally said, but after the shooting people grew even closer.
“People seemed to come together more,” she said.
To show their appreciation, the students at West Liberty-Salem are set to host Tiger Strong Day on Thursday. Jan. 18. Many high school students will work with elementary school students to create thank you cards for first responders and medical staff at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus where Logan was treated.
The community was important to the recovery of the school, West Liberty-Salem High School senior Taylor Henault said.
“The community was really great to us and made us feel loved,” Henault said. “We just want to give back to the community, which was so nice and supportive of us.”
They will also create chew toys out of old T-shirts for animals at PAWS animal shelter or for therapy dogs who also supported the students after the shooting. And the students plan on making cookies for schools who sent positive messages in the days after the shooting.
“The community support was a huge help getting through the process of recovery,” Hissong said.