Constable: When kids brought guns to school
The shooting wouldn't start until after school, but the plan called for 10 semiautomatic shotguns and 1,000 rounds of ammunition to arrive at school early on a Wednesday morning. The Arlington High School students involved walked to school with their guns, brought their guns on their bicycles along with their backpacks or simply carried a gun case onto the school bus. English teacher Wayne Wagner would secure the arsenal in a locked classroom closet until the final bell rang.
"Every Wednesday after school, my kids would take their guns out of my English room, load them into a school car and then we'd shoot on village property," remembers Wagner, coach of a shooting team that became one of the high school's most successful varsity sports, winning three consecutive state and national championships in the early 1980s.
Other suburban high schools had shooting clubs with teens bringing guns to school, too.
"Guns were in the schools," Wagner recalls, "and there were no problems with them."
Looking wistfully at old photos of smiling teens clutching guns and gathered around the school logo for the shooting team's official yearbook portrait, Wagner remembers an era when firing shotguns or rifles could earn a student the same varsity letter given to school basketball players who shot only baskets.
"When I was in high school, we had a shotgun club and a rifle club," remembers Dr. Andy Krock, a former Arlington High School club gunman from the Class of 1978 and current medical doctor with practices in Arlington Heights and Rolling Meadows. "I don't remember anybody even commenting that I was bringing a gun and ammunition to school."
Krock's grown daughter and twin sons, now in their 20s, "can't imagine how that was once OK," the doctor says. As a primary care physician, he says that he sees the need for gun control in today's world.
"It was a different time then," says Wagner, 74, whose shooting team disbanded when Arlington High School closed in 1984.
A longtime debate coach, Wagner continued teaching English and speech at Rolling Meadows High School until his retirement in 2002. In three decades, America's relationship with guns has changed more than Wagner could imagine. When his daughter was in grade school, Wagner delivered her .22-caliber rifle to her classroom.
"I brought it to school for show-and-tell, and nobody stopped me," Wagner remembers, explaining how the teacher even allowed all the children to get a feel for the unloaded weapon. "They looked out the window and aimed at cars in the parking lot."
A middle-aged man bringing a gun to a grade school today so that kids could practice aiming at cars probably would be met by a SWAT team, Wagner notes.
Arlington High School already had a rifle team in 1975 when Wagner persuaded the school to allow him to coach teams that shot trap (clay discs launched into the air from a bunker in front of the shooter) and skeet (clay discs launched from two different locations and sometimes at the same time).
"I wanted to share that with students," says Wagner, who still enjoys those shooting sports.
The high school had a rifle range under the swimming pool, but Wagner needed to negotiate with nearby ranges for his shotgun shooters. Some of those locations are housing developments or golf courses today.
While one of his principals, a World War II veteran, and a teacher who fought in Vietnam weren't thrilled with kids bringing guns to school, Wagner persuaded the school to treat his gun teams the same as traditional sports teams. Safety was paramount, and Wagner says no one ever pointed a gun at a person, fired a shot accidentally or committed any serious safety breach.
His trapshooting team won national honors, but always lost the North America title to the Canadian teams, which sported an all-star team of the best shooters from all the high schools in a province.
The Arlington High shooters, which won the trapshooting championship in 1981, '82 and '83, wore team caps and didn't get any grief from fellow students.
"I started a teenage Republican club, and for that I did get some flak," says Wagner, who never minded controversy.
He once invited the Black Panthers to speak at the school, and when opposition nixed that invitation, Wagner successfully substituted speakers from the American Nazi Party for a discussion moderated by a Jewish student.
Wagner tears up as he recalls the students' ardent support of the lone black girl at the school during a verbal attack by the Nazis.
Guns were just another subject Wagner thought kids should learn about. The top shooter for Arlington High School, 1983 graduate Chris Gersey blasted 198 of 200 clay targets to help his team win the 1983 championship. His score was high enough to earn him a monetary award from the shooting organization that sponsored the competition.
"I was already in college when a $16 check came," says Gersey, now a Ph.D. mechanical engineer with a New York company that works on nuclear submarines,
"When I grew up, they (his guns) were in my bedroom," Gersey says. "Now, I have a gun safe in the basement, and I'd have to move a bunch of boxes to find the paper with the combination."
Society's opinion about guns has changed, but Gersey says that he hopes his two young sons learn gun safety in the Boy Scouts.
Wagner, who took the training to qualify for his concealed-carry permit, says he and Krock still shoot trap on a regular basis. While some high schools around the nation still sponsor shooting clubs, Wagner says society will have to change many things before he could see suburban schools reopening their doors to kids carrying guns.
"They learned the same kinds of things on this team as boys would learn on any other team," Wagner says of his shooting squad. "They learned cooperation. They learned devotion, They learned responsibility. They learned to help each other out. It was a great team event, and I was very happy to be a part of that."