Gunman opens fire at Wickliffe Middle school, killing one and wounding four

Gunman opens fire at Wickliffe Middle school, killing one and wounding four

A mentally ill former student barged into Wickliffe Middle School with a shotgun 20 years ago today and shot four people, killing one of them.

Over three minutes and 34 seconds, gunman Keith Ledeger - who has since died in prison - fired 10 shots.

School staff hid under desks as he shot. Assistant principal James Anderson, hit twice, fled out his office window. Gym teacher Lowell Grimm, shot and seriously wounded, escaped out a back door and collapsed outside the school. Wickliffe police officer Thomas Schmidt was shot in the hallways before officer Leonard Nosse Jr. shot and subdued the shooter.

Custodian Peter Christopher was shot in the chest and died.

For Wickliffe residents and Northeast Ohio as a whole, the reaction was one of shock and disbelief - not one of "not again" like many have today when hearing of school shootings.

"It was grim. It was unspeakable," David R. Tanski, superintendent at the time, told The Plain Dealer that day. "We've never had anything like this with a random, senseless act of violence. Nothing like this has ever happened before."

Consider: It was four and a half years before the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado made school security a national issue, and long before the shootings at SuccessTech Academy in Cleveland and Chardon High School in Geauga County made national news.

"It was a tragedy, like so many that keep occurring," district Treasurer Susan Haffey, who was also Treasurer at the time, said this morning. "We were just one of the first ones in this area, so it really took us by surprise. Unfortunately they're becoming more commonplace in America."

Haffey said there are still many teachers and other staff at the district who were working that day. She said there will be a simple observance - just an email from the superintendent to all staff - but no more.

A computer lab at the school is named after Peter Christopher, she said.

School shootings were so rare at the time, and the Internet so new, that coverage that day did not refer to any previous ones.

And attitudes about school security were very different. After the 2012 Chardon shootings, there was discussion about how well emergency response plans worked, but there was no detailed plan for Wickliffe Middle School.

Wickliffe Police Chief Randy Ice remembers the day clearly. He was not one of the first responders, but had to go to Richmond Hospital with another officer to be in the operating room with shooter Keith Ledeger.

"The surgeons were concerned when they brought him out of the anesthesia how he would react," said Ice, who was a sergeant at the time. "They wanted us in there."

Ice said that there were few emergency response plans or active shooter drills anywhere before the Columbine shooting.

"it wasn't an issue that was that prevalent back then," he said. "Since then, school shootings are occurring more and more often."

If there had been a plan, it might never had been carried out: The attacks started at the main office and shots were flying before any intercom notice could be out out. Calls to 911 were made from under desks. Students and teachers had no warnings, unless they had heard shots, so there was no lockdown like there would be today.

Discussions afterward about how to improve security at other schools in the area looked at measures considered standard today: Front doors were all unlocked and anyone could walk in, without needing to be buzzed in by the main office.

Today, all Wickliffe schools have locked doors with cameras and buzzers for entry. The police department regularly meets with school officials, Ice said, so they know each other. And teachers are taught to make choices between fleeing, fighting or locking students down when a shooter is in the school.

Just last week, Ice said, the district set up a radio system that is always on and with open lines between each school and police dispatch for use only in similar emergencies.

And this winter, Ice said, the district will hire actors to play the role of shooters to run drills for all staff inside a school on how to respond.

Ice also noted that training for police response to school shootings has come full circle since 1994. Wickliffe officers entered the building immediately that day on arrival to confront Ledeger. But after Columbine, police strategy shifted to gathering a group of officers together before encountering the shooter.

Ice said waiting for other officers has not worked, particularly in small departments where it can take a while for others to arrive, so police now do what they did in 1994 - enter and confront immediately.