MADISON TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- A Butler County teenager who survived a shooting at Madison Jr./Sr. High School nearly one year ago is exclusively sharing his story for the first time with the WCPO I-Team.
The school was forced to put its state-required safety plan into action on Feb. 29, 2016 when student Austin Hancock, then 14, opened fire in the school cafeteria. As a result of the incident, the school learned some valuable lessons, and has since improved safety procedures.
"It hasn’t really changed how I feel about the school or how I am in school,” Cameron Smith said.
The 15 year-old is reflecting on what he’s been through over the past 12 months.
"It's just been a rough time,” Smith explained.
He was in the cafeteria around 11 a.m. with dozens of other students when the shooting happened.
"I was sitting down eating lunch and then you hear a loud bang, and you look around,” he said.
Hancock shot Smith, also 14, in the back. The boys didn’t know each other. It was Smith’s first year as a student at Madison.
“I felt like a burn in my back and then I stood up and looked around and I see him with the gun like walking, and I go to take a step and I fall,” Smith recalls.
Hancock also shot another boy, wounded two other students, and then ran out of the cafeteria.
“We were immediately able to lock down all the classrooms,” A.J. Huff, the school district’s spokeswoman, said that day.
The school’s resource officer was feet from the cafeteria when Hancock started shooting. Other first responders showed up within minutes, and apprehended Hancock near the school.
Getting a plan in place
The coordination of that response is part of the state-required Emergency Management Plan.
It’s a lengthy document schools write that lays out responsibilities for school employees and law enforcement.
“It creates a team that works together to protect the school rather than the school feeling like they're on an island trying to create a plan,” Executive Director of Ohio Homeland Security Richard Zwayer, said.
Teachers and administrators throughout Ohio have been charged with rolling out Emergency Management Plans since state lawmakers mandated them in 2015. Before 2015, Ohio didn't offer schools much guidance about what to include in their safety plans.
Zwayer’s office works with the state Department of Education, and individual schools throughout Ohio to establish and evaluate the plans.
“We want to prevent not only these school incidents from happening, but also terrorist events.” Zwayer said.
Was the plan effective during the shooting incident at Madison Jr/Sr High School?
Zwayer explained, “With that particular school, it’s hard to say because they’ve been very proactive.”
Curtis Philpot, the superintendent of Madison Local Schools, said the Emergency Management Plan for Madison Jr/Sr High had not been approved by the state by the time the shooting occurred. The state rejected the first draft, which Philpot said he revised and resubmitted.
A plan evaluator reached out to Philpot the day of the shooting, and the plan was finally approved in June, according to emails Philpot showed the I-Team.
The I-Team requested state records showing if every school in Southwest Ohio has an approved Emergency Management Plan. The state wouldn’t release that information citing safety concerns.
Zwayer explains, "It's a good thing to report here in Ohio that every school has a plan."
Other school districts the I-Team asked about those plans were also not approved after the first submission.
Three Rivers Assistant Superintendent Tom Bailey had to file separate safety plans for Taylor Elementary and Taylor Middle School even though they're located in the same building.
The state rejected the first draft of the identical plans for different reasons that had nothing to do with the different aged children, according to Bailey.
To make sure that the plans were ultimately approved, Three Rivers hired an outside contractor for more than $2,500 plus $750 yearly maintenance.
Now the school has a safety app called Navigate Prepared that offers safety features like a silent alarm that can be triggered from any phone with the app that alerts all the other teachers and staff in the school of an emergency as well as outside law enforcement.
"We were doing our safety plans on our own in-house, and putting those together was just a very cumbersome process," Bailey said. "Now we have added benefits like a robust website and app that is going to help us with student safety, accountability, locating missing students."
Taylor's School Resource Officer David Bingle said the district still has the flexibility to customize safety planning depending on factors like a particular classrooms's access to escape routes or the capability of that room's teacher.
"With many different cultures who are employed here and attend as students, you have to tweak it to who you're talking to and make sure they get the general philosophy and where we're going with the program," he said.
Loveland Superintendent Chad Hilliker said his district has had an excellent emergency plan in place since before he arrived in 2003 that has been updated annually.
Loveland also hired an outside firm to help meet state requirements.
"The part that's been new for us is you get several different people looking at plans. The harder part is disseminating the information now because there are so may people to share it with," he said.
Schools are also required to complete three safety drills each year.
"So even if I say you should get into a safe place out of sight, lights off, stay quiet and calm, that's going to bring up so many questions," Sarah Kemme, a Taylor Middle School eighth grade science teacher, said. "Well, what if this happens, what if we're in the corner and they think we're there? We just go through different scenarios and let them ask questions and kind of feel for it themselves."
… But student safety is worth it
Norwood Superintendent Rob Amodio said he has a long list of gripes with state mandates -- starting with standardized testing -- but efforts to improve student safety are not among them.
"I can get into the redundancy of all the new reporting, which is kind of a boilerplate. But if at the end of the day that's the biggest complaint I have, that's a minor issue," he said, adding, "I'm never going to complain about efforts to improve school security."
Doug Baumgartner, who teaches seventh through ninth grade art at Norwood City Schools, liked a consultant's training last year that includes advice to go on the offensive when trapped, a shift from previous training that was mostly about fleeing or hiding.
"This guy said get kids in a safe place but be prepared to fight. His main point was if you can leave and go run, run. If there's an active shooter on the west wing and you're in the east wing, get out of Dodge," he said.
But if, for example, an attacker is breaking through a barricaded door and kids have no escape, teachers should try to break his arm when he reaches through the door, Baumgartner said.
"The push toward more of an offensive thing is great. Five to 10 years ago, they were still teaching us to hide under the desks sort of thing," he said.
Baumgartner said students will listen to him if he's done a good job of establishing trust.
"They're open to talk about it. They're not too uncomfortable. But you can tell that it's a shock to some. They have so many other things to worry about. It's another thing on their plate," he said.
Striking a balance
Bingle said he strives never to use the "fear factor" when preparing kids for the unthinkable.
"I'm in the classroom constantly. I talk with the kids kind of along the side and say hey have you ever thought about this or if you needed to go out a window," he said. "I work very closely with the special ed students. Students with autism tend to have more issues, so we make sure that we spend more time with them. If kids have fears, I bring them into my office and talk through it."
Kemme thinks it takes a toll on her students, though not as much as it might on their parents who only had to worry about fire and tornado drills decades ago.
"For me, I think it scares me as an adult even having my own children that they're going to go through situations like this where I never did those drills," she said. "But I think that it becomes kind of second nature to a fire drill, which unfortunately is the world that we live in."
Superintendent Philpot is now preparing students at Madison Jr/Sr High School to handle violent situations on--and away from--campus.
Philpot said the school uses a new approach. Instead of doing drills for different levels of danger, the response to all emergency situations is the same. He said students know what “lockdown” means.
Philpot also hired two full-time school resource officers, installed barricade brackets in all classrooms, and covered all school windows with safety film.
Cameron Smith’s grandmother and guardian, Melody Hollingsworth said she’s not sure if the state has enough safeguards in place to protect students.
“What is enough? That's the hard part… Don't ever think that it can't happen,” she said.
Smith said just like he feels safe at school now, he never felt unsafe at school before the shooting. Surviving the attack has, however, changed his life.
“I'm still affected but I'm doing OK,” he said.
"Cameron still goes to mental health therapy. And, I think it's good to get it out,” Hollingsworth said.
Smith also suffers from chronic back pain left over from the bullet that chipped his tailbone and lodged in his hip. He dreams of playing football again.
"Most of my muscles are still not as strong as they used to be,” he said.
Hollingsworth, Smith, and another family hired attorney Blake Maislin after the shooting. They have filed a civil suit against Austin Hancock, Hancock’s parents and Hancock’s great-grandmother. Police said Hancock took the gun he used in the shooting from her home without her knowledge.
"Maybe take things a little more serious even though you don't think your kid would ever do this,” Hollingsworth said.
Hancock pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted murder in April 2016. He's in a juvenile detention facility until he turns 21, which will be followed by an adult sentence.