IT HAPPENED TO ME: My 7-Year-Old Daughter Witnessed a Hostage Situation at Her School

A neighbor with a knife, a school yard and my daughter.
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Kelly Diels
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A neighbor with a knife, a school yard and my daughter.
My daughters, on the first day of school. Lola is on the left. She is, shall we say, unimpressed with the occasion. 

My daughters, on the first day of school. Lola is on the left. She is, shall we say, unimpressed with the occasion. 

“Call the police! Call the police!” he screams, which is strange, because he's the one holding a knife to the little kid’s throat.

---

When my daughters were in daycare and something went wrong, the owner of the daycare would call me and say the same thing every time: “Everything is OK, but...”. She always started the call with “Everything is OK.”

Now my girls are in school but the school secretary doesn't tell me everything is OK. She doesn’t sound OK. She’s too rattled to be careful, calming.

“Is everything OK?” I ask.

“No,” she says, “I'm sorry to say it's not. There's been a hostage situation at school, a child was taken hostage, and Lola was involved.”

The air goes out of my knees. I'm on my knees. I say something like, I'm coming, I'm on my way, I'll be right there, and I am. I am in the car, I am parking it wherever. So are other parents. 

Neighbors near the school have signs in their yards saying “No Parking” as though they own the city street and make the rules and we parents ignore them on ordinary days. Today is no ordinary day. We're ignoring all the rules, even the real ones. Cars are everywhere. We are everywhere. I'm out the door, I don't even close the car door, I'm running. Someone tries to stop me from entering the school. Something about we need parents to wait outside for their children.

“They called me,” I say, “about my daughter.”

“Who is your daughter?” she asks. She’s a stranger. I've never seen her before but I know before she tells me that she's the school counselor.

“Lola,” I say. “She’s seven.”

“Yes,” she says. “Come with me.”

---

I'm not afraid of strangers. I believe in statistics, my gut and gruesome life experience, all of which teach me the people to fear are my intimates: boyfriends, friends, fellow students, family, grandfathers. My grandfather. We all know how that story goes, so I won't tell it. 

This guy is a neighbor. “I see him walking his dog on the field all the time,” Lola tells me, which is strange, too, because you're not supposed to walk dogs on school property.

Today, though, he's not walking his dog. Today, during lunch hour when all the kids are outside playing, he jumps the fence between his house and the field and he grabs nine year old Joseph*. Joseph is in grade four. He's in my oldest daughter's class. The other kids near him think this must be a joke. It's Halloween, after all, so it’s probably a really scary prank. Joseph feels the blade against his neck, hears the man screaming, and he knows this is real. He starts screaming, too.

Joseph is screaming. The man is screaming. The kids start screaming “Code Rouge! Code Rouge!” They stream off the field and into the school. The adults lock the doors behind them, rush the kids into classrooms, push desks against the doors, call the police.

The man is still on the field. Joseph is still on the field. My youngest daughter, Lola, is still on the field. Her whole body is shaking. Angel's*, too. They clasp hands and try to hide behind a tree. There are three trees. They've been limbed to about twenty feet up so the only invisibility they offer is behind their narrow trunks. There are more kids behind the trees. Like Lola and Angel, they can't get to the school because the man with the knife is between them and safety.

Now they're behind the trees. Now Mr. B, the principal, is leaving the safety of the school, running towards the dangerous man. Now he slows down, walks with his hands up, palms out, fingers spread. Now he's on his knees in front of the neighbor with the knife, begging for Joseph's life. 

Now there's a woman behind the trees, shepherding the kids to a gate that isn't locked, into another yard, an open door, a basement. Now the police are here. Now the snap-snap of the Taser. 

“It sounded like they shot him,” Lola tells me, but they didn't. They shocked him, knocked him down, scooped Joseph up and away, led the man away in handcuffs.

Now the phone calls.

---

I don't remember where we went. I don't remember in which room we found her. I don't remember what Lola looked like, how big and wet her eyes were, what she said. I don't remember her rushing into my arms, I don't remember holding her. The thing to remember, thank God, is that she is safe, the little boy is safe, they are all safe.

Even the man with the knife is safe.

Maybe because he was the one screaming for the police. Maybe he was trying to get help. Maybe he didn’t want to hurt anyone, not even himself. Maybe because he didn’t have a gun or even worse, guns. Maybe he’s not a monster, after all. Maybe. It’s hard to know.

----

I don’t know what to do now, tonight. It’s been a very scary Halloween and there are still hours and hours of activities left in the day. Do we go trick or treating? Do we stay home? I ask the police officer and the victims’ services counselor and the school counselor what to do. Can Lola cope with crowds and scary costumes and fake blood and fireworks that might remind her of Tasers? I’m trusting these strangers to help me do right by my daughter.

Yes, they say. Take her trick or treating. Let her have fun and do little kid things. It’s been way too adult of a day.

So we get dressed up and we go out. I have a bad feeling about one house. The porch is decorated but the lights are out and no one comes to the door. In fact, the front door is open a smidge with a note saying “CANDY INSIDE.” 

Even from the end of the driveway, I can see where this is going. Best case scenario: it’s a prank designed to surprise and delight trick-or-treaters. Worst case, and highly unlikely: Yet another encounter with a dangerous neighbor. Either way, I don’t want Lola to endure any more terrors today, real or imagined. 

But before I can call them back, the kids open the door and peer in. RAWR! A monster jumps out. The kids scream, they laugh, they collect their candy and run down the driveway.

Lola is the last down the drive. She’s not running. She’s not screaming. She’s not laughing. I fight my inclination to hover, smother, swoop in and scoop her up. Mostly.

“Are you OK?” I ask her.

She gives me a look. “Oh Mommy,” she says, “After the day I’ve had, you think a fake monster can scare me?”

---

* Joseph and Angel aren’t their real names.