FORT GIBSON — People remember the horrible day in 1999 when school violence, then an unusual and often isolated incident, visited this small Muskogee County town.
“It is, understandably, a sensitive subject for a lot of people around here,” said Fort Gibson Superintendent Derald Glover. “When you hear of these school shootings around the country, it is hard for a lot of people here in Fort Gibson because they are living it. They were here.”
They remember the Fort Gibson Middle School shooting that left five injured. It is not something they want to rehash.
“It was 18 years ago, but it is a pretty vivid memory,” said Greg Phares, the Fort Gibson Middle School principal in 1999 and still in the same job today. “The one thing that kind of stands out for me is how the teachers took care of those kids.
“The teachers were there and did all they could. It was not normal.”
Five teachers remain in the Fort Gibson school system who were teaching at the middle school on that day 18 years ago when a student took out a gun started firing.
Fort Gibson Mayor Myra Cookson said she was at work when she heard of the shooting. Her daughter was in ninth grade at the time.
“I was flying as fast as I could to the school,” said Cookson. “It was very crazy and very chaotic.”
The school shooting forever changed the community and school system.
“It was a dark day for Fort Gibson,” said Fort Gibson Police Sgt. Michael Roberts.
Fort Gibson, 9 miles northeast of Muskogee, has moved on in the past 18 years, but that incident remains a brutal reminder of how vigilant officials must be to keep students safe.
“We have a very sophisticated emergency response and on-site plan, and we review those procedures quite often,” said Fort Gibson Assistant Superintendent Tom Stiles, who was superintendent at Fort Gibson from 2001-2005. “We are very aware of school safety.
“We know the significance of school safety. We believe we have a very good game plan.”
Seth Trickey, 13 at the time, wounded five classmates when he took his father’s 9 mm handgun from a backpack and opened fire at Fort Gibson Middle School.
“I remember it was a Monday,” said Phares. “The next day we moved all the kids to a different building because the middle school was still a crime scene. They did what they called a debrief of all of us.
“By Wednesday we were all back in our regular classrooms, but it wasn’t normal. It changed everything.”
Trickey was released from custody in 2005 after five years, three months and 23 days. He spent nearly four years in secured state facilities, a county lockup or a private mental-health treatment center. The Oklahoma juvenile justice system does not hold offenders beyond their 19th birthday. He was 18 when he was released.
“I came to Fort Gibson as superintendent six years after it happened,” said Glover. “Any time we hear of a school shooting it is a terrible feeling for a lot of people around here. We all know people who were here when it happened.
“We are very serious about safety for our students, staff and visitors. It is our top priority. We try to reassess our plan all of the time. We stay up to date on all of the latest technology. But no matter what you do, you can’t be secure enough. You have to be very diligent.”
School shootings were rare in 1999. However, the school shooting in Florida last week that killed 17 is the latest in a long line going back years.
“Every time I hear about one of these shootings, it just reopens my memories of that day,” said Phares. “It brings back a very clear memory of that day.”
The shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida, just 45 days into 2018, is reported to be the 18th time a firearm was discharged on school property this year.
“I know when these school shootings happen these days, the memory for some folks of what happened in 1999 is very vivid,” said Stiles.
Fort Gibson Public Schools implemented new safety measures not long after the shooting and has refined those plans over the past 18 years.
“We have done a lot of training with the staff over the years,” said Roberts. “We have a pretty extensive plan in place and have had for quite some time.”
Soon, in conjunction with the Fort Gibson Police Department, there will be a full-time police officer assigned to the school system campus.
“Make no mistake, we’re very diligent about safety at this school,” said Stiles. “We take the safety of our students, our staff and anyone visiting our campus very, very seriously.
“It is an ongoing plan of action that is in full effect every day on our campus. We do our due diligence to make sure we provide the safest environment we possibly can at our schools.”
Donnie Yarbrough, Fort Gibson police chief, is in the process on setting up a satellite police office on the school campus.
Sgt. Roberts said the “school resource officer” will be a full-time police officer assigned to Fort Gibson Public Schools. “It is a work in progress, but it is huge, especially in response time, to have an officer on campus,” said Roberts.
Police and school officials have been working together and developed several emergency response plan and on-site prevention plans.
“We’re always working with police to make sure we have the safest schools,” said Stiles.
It isn’t just active shooter situations. The school system and police have devised plans for all sorts of emergencies.
“From earthquakes to a tornado to active shooter,” said Roberts. “We have an emergency response guide, and we reassess it every year.”
On Dec. 6, 1999, Trickey pulled out a gun on the Fort Gibson middle-school courtyard and fired 15 bullets at fellow students.
Three seventh-graders — Cody Chronister, Billy Railey and Brad Schindel — were wounded. A 12-year-old girl, Savana Knowles, was shot and hospitalized. Dakota Baker was grazed by the bullet that passed through Chronister’s arm.
According to court records, Trickey attributed his violence to family pressures, a military obsession and fascination with the Columbine school massacre.
The Columbine school massacre in Colorado, perpetrated by senior students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed 12 students and one teacher. It injured an additional 24. It happened on April 20, 1999, less than eight months before the school shooting in Fort Gibson.
“We all know someone down here that was touched by what happened here in 1999,” said Glover. “It is a difficult subject to talk about.”