Fate turned on something as thin as a pencil.
It was one of those yellow No. 2 pencils we’re all familiar with from the days when ours would have a worn eraser, maybe some chewed wood around the lead.
Thinking about it takes Terry Quinn’s breath away. If it hadn’t been for that pencil, what could have happened in his school?
Sometimes, though, that’s just how thin the razor’s edge is between life and a possible tragedy.
In this instance, that pencil essentially wrote the lines of a blessing for a junior high school and community.
A usual day at school
Nov. 13 began as a usual day for Quinn, 61, the principal at Sage Valley Junior High School, who is in his 40th year of education. He high-fived, joked, joshed and welcomed his nearly 630 students into the school that early morning.
Kids are his priority. To many, he embodies what it means to be a kid, especially those on the precipice of becoming adults.
It’s important for Quinn to welcome each student, to let them know they’re all wanted and accepted in a school where he has tried to establish a family atmosphere.
“I love coming to work so I can be around kids,” he said.
Most of those kids were in their classes when one came out of his classroom and asked to talk to Quinn for a moment.
The principal jokingly gave him some grief for avoiding class.
That’s when the morning turned on its head.
It can often be like that at school, especially in a junior high where he has to be ready for anything that can happen at any moment. He might not be able to prepare for specifics, but he has to prepare for the unexpected. That’s just what happens with this age group.
This was one of those moments.
The young student had been shown a gun by a classmate in the hallway as he made his way to his locker to get the pencil he had forgotten to take to class. After returning briefly to class, the student decided he had to let somebody know about it.
From there, the principal had a singular focus and responsibility. The safety of his students was on him.
So he acted.
He found out where the student was in class and told Vice Principal Adam Miller to come with him, adding, “put your coffee down.” Along their way up three flights of stairs, Quinn told Miller what was going on.
The student with the gun was in study hall, one of the school’s smaller classes.
The young man was typing and Quinn told him to hold still and not reach for anything or he would be removed from his chair.
And Miller? Well, he was Plan B if needed.
It’s not unusual for Quinn to walk into a classroom at Sage Valley. He often does it to watch a teacher at work or talk to students.
This time, he waved the other occupants of the room out the door. Then he sat inches away from the student.
He disarmed him without incident and they spoke for a few more minutes.
When they returned downstairs, the administrators placed the boy in an office with Miller watching over him. Quinn went into his office and placed the handgun on his desk, below the computer screen in a corner. As he went to collect a second gun the student revealed was in his locker, Quinn had his secretary call the police.
While Quinn and Miller diffused the situation without incident, the potential for tragedy is highlighted by the pending criminal charges filed against the student.
Going into lockdown
That was at 9:20 a.m. Soon afterward, the school went into lockdown. Every class went dark and students moved away from doors and windows but remained in their classrooms until police deemed it safe.
Then Quinn announced the lockdown — something practiced at Sage Valley at least once a month — over the school’s loudspeakers.
“It was one of the few times where I’ve said, ‘This is not a drill,’” Quinn recalled.
Then he sent an alert to parents.
The lockdown was lifted only after police questioned all of the students who had been shown the gun and had taken their statements. While a bit disappointed that at least three other students had seen the gun and had not reported it, Quinn also understands.
“I’m more gratified for the one who did,” he said.
Less than three hours. That’s how long it took for Quinn to resolve the situation, one eerily similar to another he had faced 10 years before. Only in that incident, a young man brought a gun to school to show it off to his friends.
“My first thought is the safety of students and everyone,” he said. “You just act. You’re processing it as you’re moving toward the scene. ... I believe in relationships over bullets.”
That’s why his instinct wasn’t to call the police before he confronted the boy. If police went in first, it could escalate the situation, he reasoned.
The next hours
The 14-year-old boy was later identified by authorities as Dale Warner, who has been charged as an adult with nine counts of attempted first-degree murder. Each count represents a student or staff member he allegedly intended to target that day, according to court documents.
Warner told police he planned to shoot up a class where he didn’t like the teacher and where the students “constantly made jokes about him,” according to court documents. He also planned to target other people “who made him mad.”
After Quinn turned the boy over to police, “The place began sprawling with everybody,” Quinn said.
Campbell County School District Superintendent Alex Ayers stood at Quinn’s desk answering phone calls while the handgun still sat near the computer. Police flooded into the school, many of them not in uniform at the time.
Some questioned Quinn’s first reactions. One officer suggested the next time Quinn should have his secretary call the police as he walked upstairs to see the student.
“I’m trained in kids. They’re trained in law enforcement,” Quinn acknowledged, saying that in hindsight, that may be the only action he would change.
“I’m not going to deal with ‘what ifs,’” he said. “We were going to focus on what the immediate thing was.”
As for Quinn and Miller, the phrase “put your coffee down” has become a running joke at the school.
Afterward, knowing how close his school and community may have come to an unforgettable loss, Quinn remained remarkably calm. He didn’t react with relief.
“Not so much this time,” he said. “I did the first time.”
But he did replay what happened.
“You want to do something immediately. All I know is what we did worked,” he said.
He also called his sons, ages 21 and 25, to tell them social media “may blow up” over the incident. They were the first calls he made when he got home at about 4 p.m.
While processing all that happened, Quinn also tracked Warner’s movements through the school via the cameras placed around the building. He has put some thought into what could have been.
His 88-year-old mother “scolded me a little bit,” Quinn said. Then her next thought was concern for Warner.
Quinn has five brothers, all in the military. Yet he’s the only one of them who has had to disarm anyone — and it’s happened twice.
So he spoke to his identical twin that night about what happened, still processing it all.
A hero? Nah
While some in Gillette have called the principal a hero, he doesn’t agree.
He was just doing his job, he said.
The heroes, he says, are the student who alerted Quinn and the teachers “who did a great job with the kids” during the 90-minute lockdown.
That includes two classes of second-graders from Stocktrail Elementary School that were visiting the Sage Valley Planetarium at the time. That’s where they remained during the lockdown and luckily, Quinn said, they had access to bathrooms there.
He feels many teachers and administrators in Campbell County schools would have done much the same as he did.
“When you go through it, you know you’re in control of the situation,” he said. “We rely on the connections we have with kids.”
One of his concerns was how the event impacted other students.
“You hope the next day the kids would feel OK to come back to school,” Quinn said.
And they did. Nearly 90 percent of the students returned that week and the rest returned after the weekend.
“You try to return to normal as soon as possible,” he said.
Pat on the back
Before the teachers left for the Thanksgiving break, though, Quinn arranged time to introduce every teacher to the student who reported the gun, who wishes to remain anonymous. He saw something and said something because of his pursuit of a pencil.
“Every teacher told him what he did was great and hugged him or congratulated him,” he said. They also contributed to a cash fund for the student, which amounted to $1,500.
Quinn told him not to spend it all at once, and he hopes his spending doesn’t include any new pencils.
“I think we want him having to walk to his locker for pencils,” he said.
Others, including parents and other educators, have layered praise and heartfelt thanks for Quinn and his courage.
But Quinn isn’t comfortable accepting it.
“My dad always said if you’re waiting for a pat on the back, nothing’s getting done,” he said. “I’m not a hero.”
In fact, he said he’s laid low — as much as he can — since the incident.
“People are very grateful,” he said. “It doesn’t mean much more than that.”
The principal said he’s relieved to be back doing the job he loves. He figures he may have had a guardian angel with him — his wife Kathy Quinn, who died last year after a long battle with cancer.
That may have played a factor in his reasoning that day, he said.
He’ll take any angels he can get.