Reflections on My Last School’s Shooting
By April 25, 2022 18 2007•
Named in honor of one of history’s greatest free-thinkers – Albert Einstein – the glass-enclosed causeway or “bridge” between the upper and middle school programs at Edmund Burke School, was designed to signify the school’s commitment to openness and trust. The principal’s office and faculty lounge at the progressive private school located at 4101 Connecticut Ave. NW are similarly glass-glazed to allow students, visitors, parents and staff to peer in and pop in anytime.
On Friday, April 22, the glass was shattered.
Just before 3:30 p.m. the school, named for the 18th century British parliamentarian and philosopher, was letting out after a long week. Parents were picking up their kids and kiss-and-ride car lines were forming in the alley beneath the causeway.
A crazed 23-year-old gunman who had set up a “sniper’s nest” on the fifth floor of an adjacent building at 2950 Van Ness St. NW fired more than 100 rounds at the school, crashing through the causeway’s massive windows, wounding 3 adults outside including a school security guard and one 12-year-old girl, and spraying bullets as far as Cleveland Park a mile away.
Inside Burke, students, faculty and staff immediately scrambled for cover, many terrified and some in tears. The school quickly entered lock-down mode – for which drills are regularly held – turning off lights, locking doors, hiding and staying deadly quiet.
Jennifer DiGiacinto received a frantic text from her son, a Burke 11th grader, alerting her of the shooting. “There’s something bad happening. I need you to turn on the news,” he said. “…Gunfire, I’m under a desk, we’re barricaded in,” DiGiacinto recounted to Reuters.
Posters for the school’s recent financial aid fundraiser, based on the board game “Clue,” lay among the glass shards on the causeway. The school’s principal and members of the faculty and staff had dressed up humorously for the campaign to play famous parts from the game. Just days before, fun videos had popped up on social media showing Burke’s causeway converted for the 2022 senior prank into an “airport” with a TSA screening zone and bemused teachers having their bags “searched.”
Within minutes of the shooting nearby University of the District of Columbia and Howard Law School entered lock-down and shelter-in-place modes. Assisted by FBI rapid-deployment teams, U.S. Secret Service and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives personnel the Metropolitan Police Department began a room-by-room sweep of the AVA Apartment building on Van Ness Street in a manhunt for the shooter. Ambulances, tactical response teams, police cars and media vans blocked Connecticut Avenue for hours.
As the dragnet proceeded, the shooter, 23-year-old Raymond Spencer of Fairfax, Virginia, uploaded onto 4chan what appeared to be his own live-action first-person videos of his shooting at Burke, the glass causeway and “Clue” posters directly in his assault rifle’s crosshairs. According to the Washington Post, Spencer also updated his own Wikipedia profile – since removed – proclaiming himself to be an “AR-15 aficionado.” As police closed in, Spencer also updated Burke’s Wikipedia entry to add, “A gunman shot at the school on April 22, 2022. The suspect is still at large.” (This entry has also been re-edited since then.)
As police reached his fifth floor apartment, Spencer took his own life, according to official accounts. Not until 9:30 p.m. was the manhunt officially ended. Photos of shocked Burke parents and their children having tearful reunions at the makeshift family reunification site at Cleveland Park Library also appeared in news reports.
For 19 years, I taught history at the Edmund Burke School. My office directly faced the balcony from which the school-shooter fired his weapon. That apartment building was always a pleasant reminder that Burke welcomes diversity and gives students a certain amount of freedom to explore the neighborhood’s urban environment. Sometimes in history class, we had humorous moments when residents on the balconies of the building didn’t realize our whole class couldn’t help but see what they were doing from our classroom windows. The shirtless barbeque guy was particularly distracting to students one year.
Although I retired from classroom teaching in 2018, I have remained close to many of my former Burke students and to current teachers and staff. Over the years, I taught through too many school shootings on the national news to count, from Columbine, to Sandy Hook, to Marjory Stoneman Douglas. At previous schools, I mourned students killed by gun violence. Over the years, our preparations for potential live-shooters in the school grew increasingly intense. In my last year at Burke, the school’s official policy was inching toward “active confrontation” with the shooter as a last resort. Security cameras and door-locking procedures were added along with regular discussions with students about what they should do in a crisis.
Since the shooting, I was surprised with the crush of emotions I experienced over the weekend. On Instagram, I saw many Burke teachers posting pictures of themselves wearing “Burke Strong” t-shirts, many former Burke students in college now posting photo collages of their close friends and celebrating the love they have for the Burke community, and some teachers describing how difficult it will be to return to class in the coming days. I posted a picture on Instagram of happy memories from my 9th grade Classical Studies class a few years ago.
I remembered all the fun activities that took place along that glass causeway, from mini “Olympics” with dolls and action figures to a crazy prank one year when drywall was erected by the seniors literally sealing the bridge off between the “old” and the “new” buildings (known as “Calvin” and “Hobbes.”)
Before retiring from teaching, I had developed an anxiety disorder and knew I needed a change of venue to save my health. Before the shooter was identified, I wondered and worried whether it could have been a past student. Over time, students I encountered – especially impressionable young men – were more likely to be targeted by extremists online and to become obsessed with first-person shooter games.
When I was a kid during the Cold War, we used to have “duck and cover” and air-raid drills at school and we had nuclear fall-out shelters in the school’s basement. Most of us, however, didn’t take the drills too seriously.
As school shootings started escalating in recent years, however, I was always saddened to see how seriously students took their lock-down drills. They knew how critical constant vigilance was in their school lives and the importance of hiding to save your life. Strategies for survival if a mass shooter entered the classroom were a constant consideration.
In reflecting on the anxieties that have resurfaced since the shooting at Burke, I know it was not based on my fear of having to confront a school-shooter myself. I always believed I was ready to throw myself in front of students to save their lives, but the anguish the children experienced was painful.
My anxieties also stemmed from my outrage over our society’s crushing failure to care for our children. Beyond enacting basic measures nearly every country on Earth takes to protect children from gun violence, we fail our kids by marketing them violent toys (have you looked at Lego toys recently?) and video games, promoting ultra-violence in entertainment, while fomenting a culture of toxic masculinity and gun-fetishism.
Moreover, when we look to our lawmakers for solutions, we see members who parade battlefield weaponry on camera while seeming to delight in anti-intellectualism. Many members seem more concerned today with removing math textbooks from students’ hands than with keeping AR-15s out of the reach of troubled young “aficionados.”
I recognize that few policy debates in the U.S. are as intractable as those over gun control. But I wish that people who profess to care about the safety of school children did something tangible to protect them.