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Staff at school near Henry Pratt plant reflect on shooting one year later

AURORA – A year ago, students at Holy Angels Catholic School were told to stay in their classrooms for about two hours while the school was on lockdown after a gunman opened fire and killed five of his co-workers across the street at Henry Pratt Company.

One year later, several of those students handed out carnations for visitors to lay at the crosses of Vicente Juarez of Oswego, Josh Pinkard of Oswego, Russell Beyer of Bristol, Trevor Wehner of Sheridan and Clayton Parks of Elgin during a day of remembrance event for the shooting’s first anniversary on Saturday, Feb. 15 at the Aurora Historical Society David L. Pierce Art & History Center.

Bridget Stanislo, third grade teacher at Holy Angels Catholic School, said minutes before the students distributed the carnations that she remembers school officials instructing everybody to go on hard lockdown toward the end of the school day one year ago. Initially, she said, she thought it was just a drill.

“It was the helicopters,” Stanislo said. “That’s when I knew that this was not a drill.”

Tonya Forbes, principal of Holy Angels Catholic School, said she remembers watching everything unfold from her office windows, since the school is that close to the Henry Pratt building. She said the school was on lockdown about 20 minutes before Aurora police called to initiate it because Kane County Chief Deputy Pat Gengler, whose daughter was at the school at the time, called to let the school know what was going on.

Amidst the police activity outside of the school walls, Forbes said, the kids were amazing and calm as they watched videos and were coloring in their classrooms as the events were unfolding.

“The parents, I think, were more upset than the kids actually were,” Forbes said.

Forbes said she could empathize with parents that day, since they didn’t know what was happening and they couldn’t get in to see their children and make sure they were all right. She said she remembers the parents being very emotional when they finally got the okay to pick up their kids from the building.

Forbes said she also remembers getting emotional when she finally saw her husband, Rick, at the end of the day. She said she recalls the sheer panic she felt during the lockdown when she realized that Rick, a more than decade-long employee at Henry Pratt, might have been in the thick of the attack.

“He wasn’t working that day, but I forgot,” Forbes said. “In the middle of all the chaos, I keep calling his work phone and he’s not answering. And I’m freaking out, and then he gives me a text, ‘Yeah, what’s the matter? I’m getting my oil changed.’ … Then he looked at the TV. He was at Jiffy Lube and he turned around and watched it on the news, what was going on, and all of the people were talking about it and he goes, ‘I work there. That’s where I work.’ ”

And, Forbes said, the following weekend was difficult as she and Rick waited for the names of those who died in the shooting to be released.

Much has changed in shooting response procedures for Aurora-area schools in the last year, Forbes said. For example, West Aurora School District 129 started a monthly meeting for all of the public and private schools in Aurora and Naperville to debrief about what went right and wrong during the Henry Pratt incident and to continue to talk about best practices from there, along with the high school purchasing emergency radios with grant money, she said.

Sheridan Gurbal, technology coordinator and eighth grade literature teacher at Holy Angels Catholic School, said another change that was made was implementing a text alert system to families so that parents can get instant updates that way on top of phone calls.

“The whole information system was locked because of all of the emergency vehicles in the area, so all of the lines were overloaded,” Gurbal said. “So we were having trouble with our internet to get the phone calls made [and] to get everything posted social-media-wise.”

An additional measure school officials took in active shooter response training is providing classrooms with emergency bags, the three said. They said the biggest problem they faced with students during the lockdown was them having to use the restroom.

“Because we were an hour and a half, two hours there and they were little kids. …. It’s just one of those things that you just do not think about,” Forbes said.

Three of the students that helped pass out carnations on Saturday were also children of Forbes, Gurbal and Stanislo, who said she remembered her husband starting to cry after coming home that night a year ago.

“Because he said, ‘I sat back at work and thought, my gosh, my whole family is in that building – my wife and two kids,’ ” Stansilo said. “I think that night was the worst, once you finally got home and sat down and cried.”

Gurbal said through tears that she remembers that she couldn’t eat that night after the lockdown after being so distraught after the fact. She said her family happened to go out for dinner that night and she ran into a student who was at the school that day.

“And the mom just came up and hugged me and said, ‘Thank you for taking care of our kids,’ ” Gurbal said.

Stanislo said she also recalls parents buying teachers lunch for a week and otherwise continued to show gratitude for keeping their children safe among so much uncertainty yards away from building a year ago.

“And we just said, ‘We were just doing our job,’ ” Stanislo said.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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