McCrabb: In 10 seconds, Madison’s innocence gone

When an eighth-grader in the Madison Jr./Sr. High School allegedly shot two classmates in the cafeteria, the perception of the rural school district changed in Butler County and around the country.

On Monday morning, when James Austin Hancock, 14, allegedly pulled the trigger several times on a .380 caliber hand gun sheriff’s investigators say he stole from a relative, that singular event shined the spotlight on the district, for all the wrong reasons.

Less than three hours after the first shot was fired, about 10 live TV trucks from Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus and Indianapolis were broadcasting from a church parking lot near the school.

There were helicopters overhead, those from Butler County law enforcement agencies and area media outlets.

In the 10 seconds it took the teen suspect to fire his weapon several times, the district’s reputation were ruined. Madison, known for its strong academic and extra-curricular programs and for producing graduates — many of them whom stayed in the community to raise their families — now was known for having an “active shooter.”

Until Monday, Madison was a quiet district that rarely made the news unless one of its high school basketball teams advanced far in the state tournament. There were those in the state who couldn’t tell you the difference between Madison Twp. and Madison County.

That changed.

Forever.

Now, when people think about school shootings, Madison will be the newest example.

There is a list of school shootings on Wikipedia. There have been about 160 since 2000. The day after the shooting, there was Madison, at the bottom on the list, with the words: “A 15-year old boy and a 14-year old boy were shot and injured when another 14-year old boy used a .380 caliber handgun in the cafeteria at Madison High School. A 14-year old boy and 14-year old girl also suffered shrapnel injuries.”

“We are forever going to be on the list now,” said AJ Huff, communications coordinator for the district.

“We are on the list and we’re never not on the list,” said Superintendent Curtis Philpot. “There is a before and after the shooting.”

“That’s hard to stomach,” said Huff, who reached for a tissue.

This pains those in the district, and those in surrounding communities. In the days that followed the shooting, at least three prayer vigils were held, all in Middletown, two at churches, one outside Middletown High School. Local school districts encouraged their students to wear red, one of Madison’s school color, to support the district. Businesses put out signs, encouraging those to pray for the district.

Huff said her email was flooded with pictures of Madison alumni around the world who sent in supportive notes and photos. Once a Mohawk, always a Mohawk, they wrote.

It will be interesting to watch how the district responds to the shooting. Philpot never thought he’d say the words “active shooter” when discussing his district. But for the last several days, he has been the face of the district, the man behind all those TV microphones.

“A part of Madison, I don’t want to say died, but it changed that day,” he said in an exclusive interview with the Journal-News. “We will never be the same. We will never be the same, but we still will be great. We will be different great. What’s really weird, alumni reached out to me, including my daughter. They are devastated by this. Because they love their school. They are wounded, they are hurt because they know their school is changed.

“We got to move forward. We don’t know what the new Madison will look like.”

He knows the words “school shooting” are written in permanent marker. When you hear Sandy Hook, Columbine, and Chardon what comes to mind?

Add Madison to that sentence.

The shooting caught everyone off guard.

“Everybody who has been interviewed on the news has said, ‘I can’t believe it happened here,’” Philpot said. “The reason they say that is this truly is a community with a family atmosphere. Our teachers know our kids. They have relationships with them. They know if they are having problems at home; they know if they’re not getting the proper food at home.

“My theory was: The key to not having a school shooting is to have a school environment and culture where there is positive relationships between staff and students. So no kid feels isolated. No kid feels like they have nobody. There is a connection. We value that.”

After the shooting, Philpot sat down with his son, Austin, 18, a senior at Madison. He knows his son’s class, the Class of 2016, will forever be linked to the shooting. It will be on students’ minds at prom, graduation, and a topic at every class reunion.

His fatherly advice?

“This is just a big dark cloud,” he told his son.” We will get through it. And honestly, we are already getting stronger, forging more power. We will be better but there always will be a before and after.”

Innocence is a precious commodity.

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