East senior reflects on terror, thankfulness after school lockdown
When Karin Berdahl happened upon a large spider in the girls' bathroom at East High School on the morning of April 5, she wasn't pleased.
"I was terrified," she later recounted in a Facebook post. "This was the scariest thing I thought would happen to me that day."
It's amazing how 20 minutes can turn a person's perspective upside down, the 17-year-old East senior mused days later as she sat in her family's living room.
Twenty minutes is how long East students would end up in a full lockdown later that day. Police had received a tip that someone had threatened to commit a mass shooting.
Karin, of course, didn't know that. It was just an ordinary day at East — the Friday before spring break, so classrooms and hallways were, perhaps, a little light on students.
'The next Parkland'
Karin and her friends were in the school's orchestra room. They had just finished lunch and were talking about the book club they wanted to start. Karin had swapped books with another student that morning and was excited to start reading.
Fourth period was beginning — symphony orchestra. It was nearly 1 p.m. when the first announcement came over the public address system.
"They announced the soft lockdown, and we all looked at each other," she recalled.
Lockdowns were nothing new. There are many reasons for a "soft" lockdown, in which students and staff are not allowed to leave the building but the school day progresses as normal. Maybe there was a medical emergency and the hallways needed to be clear. Perhaps someone simply forgot to sign in at the office.
"We do soft lockdowns periodically, if (administrators) just don't know what's going on," Karin said. "It's not normally a time when you start to get freaked out."
So, the students in the orchestra room picked up their instruments and began to play their warm-up scales. The next announcement came a few minutes later.
The school was entering a "hard" lockdown. The kind of lockdown where everything stops.
Students and staff were asked to barricade their rooms.
"'There is an unidentified individual in the school with possible malicious intent,' or something like that," Karin remembers hearing over the PA. "And they didn't know if they were armed."
"Initial thought," Karin later wrote in her Facebook post: "We are the next Parkland."
The orchestra room has one door leading to the hallway and two going into an auditorium. With instructions from their teacher, the students stacked half the chairs in the room on racks and moved them in front of the doors. They pushed tables, too, up against the doors. Chairs were wedged against door handles to try and stop them from turning.
"Cello racks, we found, are really good to wedge under a doorknob," Karin said.
The barricade took about 45 seconds.
"It was surprisingly orderly," she said. "My teacher was absolutely phenomenal, saying, like, 'Section leaders, you're grabbing the chair racks,' so we're not all, like, tugging on chairs everywhere. There's an interesting amount of adrenaline and panic that can combine to create order as opposed to chaos."
Then, they could only wait.
"At that point, there's not really anything you can do," Karin said. "So then you kind of revert back to the kindergarten training of, 'Find the safest wall and sit there in the dark,' which we did."
If soft lockdowns are almost routine, then hard lockdowns are at least familiar.
When conducting drills, East High School uses the ALICE Training Program. The acronym stands for "Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate." The program focuses on a more proactive response during an active-shooter threat.
Devised in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings — 20 years ago today — the program is used in businesses, schools, places of worship and other organizations across the country, including in more than 4,200 K-12 schools.
Hard lockdowns are rare, but today's high school students have trained for them since they were little.
"I have these flashbulb memories of teachers being like, 'You guys need to be quiet when we're doing this,' because we would just chatter throughout the drill," Karin said. "We were, like, 6. We didn't care."
As students got older, she said, "we didn't care" turned into, "Oh, man, this is never going to happen in Duluth."
On this day, Karin said there was no chatter, no doubt.
"We all instantly went dead silent."
Amid terror, thoughts of life
In the dark, quiet room, the students listened to the barricade of chairs settling. They heard the lights humming and ticking. They heard what they thought was a police officer running by in the hallway.
"We were waiting for that first gunshot," Karin wrote in her Facebook post. "Hushed whispers reminded us what door we would evacuate out of and where the meet-up point was."
If they were to evacuate, their teacher said to stay in groups of three or four and to only worry about their own groups, she said.
And then there were the cellphones. The students weren't supposed to use them, in order to stay quiet and not clog the system for police.
"That didn't stop anyone from contacting us," Karin wrote. "Forty-some phones buzzing incessantly doesn't help in a terror-filled situation."
Still, she said, students tried to text their parents, to check on younger siblings, to check on friends.
"It's kind of a tossup between, 'Do I not clog the bandwidth for police? Or do I talk to my parents for the last time?'"
Karin had left her cellphone in her locker. Instead, she sat with one of her best friends, who sobbed in her lap. The girl's dad was a teacher at the school.
"She knew what would happen first if the suspect got into his room," Karin wrote.
As the students huddled together, chairs and tables barricading the room, music stands placed between them and the doors, Karin thought about her life, her plans, her future.
"I had just decided what college I was going to the week before," she said later. "One of my thoughts was, 'I did all this work, and I'm not even going to go there' — that kind of levity."
And then, she said, with her friend crying in her lap, the gravity hit her.
"The reality of that statement kind of sunk in — 'I'm going to end my life in an orchestra room in high school at age 17.'"
Karin thought about her best friend, on a choir trip to New Orleans, thankful she was safe. She thought about her sister in college and how she hadn't talked to her in a while. She wondered how her sister might react to her death.
She thought about Congdon Park Elementary School, just down the road — "a brief moment of thankfulness that it was us and not the 5-year-olds."
She thought of family trips, trips to the Boundary Waters, to a cabin in Canada.
"I was trying to put myself there," she said. "I suppose you could say, like, put myself in a happy place."
Her thoughts soon turned bittersweet.
"It's hard to keep a happy mindset, thinking about how it's the last time (I'd do those things)," she said. "It was going to be the last time because I'm going to die today."
But then, Karin didn't die. No one at East High School died on April 5.
Within an hour of the initial threat that placed schools on lockdown citywide, the suspect was found inside a locked cold storage room off the East cafeteria. Thirty-five-year-old Travis Busch of Duluth was arrested without incident.
About 150 students had taken refuge just steps away.
Busch had been working in the school as a job coach, supervising a cafeteria employee. He sent text messages to a relative that morning, allegedly threatening to shoot people at the school and any police who attempted to stop him.
Busch was unarmed when he was arrested. However, police found a gun in the trunk of his car, loaded and cocked.
The all-clear message came over the PA system 20 minutes after the hard lockdown began. The suspect had been apprehended, and classes would resume.
"So we turned on the lights, and we were just like, 'OK, now how do we function?'" Karin said.
The students removed the barricade. Shaking, Karin sat in the orchestra room in a group hug with friends.
The bell for the next class went off. They didn't care. Time felt "stretchy," she said.
Eventually, Karin stopped and picked up her cellphone so she could let her parents know she was OK. She went to fifth period, but few people were there. So, she asked a friend with a car for a ride home.
Waiting for the all-clear
At home, Tim and Laura Berdahl had received an automated call on their cellphones about the lockdown at their daughter's school. As with students, the call wasn't an immediate red flag for the Berdahls.
"My default often is, 'It's probably fine,'" Laura Berdahl said. "It's just somebody ... you know, of course, (something bad) could happen here, but there are 8 bazillion places where it doesn't, so odds are it'll be part of that 8 bazillion."
Laura, a pastor at Family of God Lutheran Church in Duluth, was on her way out the door to a doctor's appointment when a second call came through. The message was the same: East is on lockdown.
"I was hoping it would be the all-clear, (but) it wasn't," Laura said. She told her husband she'd like to go down to East, "because that was the instinct," she said, but they decided it would be better to stay clear and let the system work.
So, Laura Berdahl sent a text message to her daughter, and then she went to her appointment.
"I wasn't expecting a response, but I wanted her to know I knew and cared," she said. At her appointment, her heart was racing, "but again, I (wasn't) going to go there."
In the car, she got a call from her husband. Karin was home.
Back at East, students were pouring out of the school, Karin said. School staff tried to get them to sign out, but they weren't stopping anyone. Outside, parents, police and news media lined the way but kept a respectful distance, she said.
On the car ride home, Karin and her two friends — normally "super bubbly" — were quiet.
"(I was) very much so grateful for each second that was passing," she said.
In the orchestra room, she had prayed for the first time in a very long time.
"Just like, 'Let me be alive tomorrow,'" Karin said. "And then driving home, (I thought), 'I'm alive in this second. And this is a blessing. This is a surprise that I am here.'"
When she got home, "I just walked in the door and I dropped everything," she said. "My dad was downstairs, and I just ran downstairs to give him a hug."
Laura Berdahl was home within 10 minutes.
"I was sitting where she is now," Laura said, "and I just said, 'You need to come here so I can just have my little girl in my arms and let her tell her story.'"
That afternoon, Karin sat down and read the book she got from her friend that morning — "Outlander," by Diana Gabaldon. She read all 640 pages in one sitting.
East was on spring break during the week following the lockdown, and Karin spent her time relaxing, reading, baking and catching up with her best friend.
Laura, too, stayed close that week.
"I guess I'm just a mom who hates the idea that my daughter had to go through this," she said, nearly a whisper.
"And that ... we could have lost her. Then what would we do?"
Back to school
School resumed Monday, the first day back since the lockdown. Karin had been anxious about returning.
"I spend three hours a day in that orchestra room," she said. "It's kind of my safe haven in school. It was my favorite place, and now I'm scared to go in it."
When Monday came, some students discussed the lockdown. Karin said one friend's teacher took an entire class period to talk. Most students, though, seemed to settle back into their routines, she said.
Karin's first day back felt heavier.
"I walked into the building and started crying," she said. "But I think I was hit harder by the ideas that were running through my head. ... I was a bit shaky, and it was just kind of one of those days where you want to make yourself as small as you possibly can."
She was able to talk with friends about her anxiety the weekend before school resumed, she said. She also spoke with a school counselor on Monday.
School staff prepared for students' return, East Principal Danette Seboe said. Seboe sent a letter to parents after the lockdown detailing the resources available to students, staff and families, including guidance counselors, social workers and the school's crisis team.
"We often say, 'If you hear something, say something.'" she wrote. "The fact that someone did report what they heard was key in preventing a possible tragedy."
Despite her anxiety, Karin and her mother said the ALICE training and the systems her school put in place worked.
"I'm so grateful for how it was handled," Karin said. "And I'm here because of it."
Seboe said the ALICE model empowers students and staff to be proactive during a lockdown and make their own decisions about what to do.
"It's a very different way of doing lockdowns; it's not just sitting and hiding," she said.
Seboe, too, said Monday was more or less back to normal, with very few students seeking additional help, though resources remain available.
She wanted to remind students and families that there's no right or wrong way to respond to a scary situation. People respond differently to stress and trauma, and their support systems vary.
"Everybody felt differently, everybody's handling it differently," she said. "We don't want kids to feel like they should have been more worried or more scared. However you're responding is OK for you."
Karin graduates in June and will attend Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, in the fall.
She closed her Facebook post with a call for more gun control — a topic that, in the wake of recent shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Las Vegas, is fresh on students' minds.
Her family hunts with guns, and she'd like to think she can think about the debate from both sides, but right now she's having trouble.
"I reconciled myself with dying," Karin said, sitting in her living room last week. "I realized, 'I'm going to die today. And this is going to be the end of my life.' ... And those moments afterward of having to tell myself, 'I'm not dead, I'm not dead.' It's something I never thought I was going to have to do. It's something I don't think anyone should ever have to do."