Cover Story

Paradise lost

A rash of school sieges culminates in the violent invasion of a private world-Amish country-and rekindles concern for school safety policies. Where, now, is safe?

Issue: "Can't run or hide," Oct. 14, 2006

Just as headmaster Sandy Outlar spoke to a group of elementary-school students at Lancaster Christian School about the Bible's warning that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, he learned that a terrifying object lesson was unfolding a few miles away: In the picturesque town of Nickel Mines, Pa., Charles Carl Roberts IV had pounced on a one-room Amish schoolhouse.

Roberts' vicious Oct. 2 rampage left five little girls, all under age 13, dead, gunned down at point-blank range. Another, age 6, was taken off life support and transported home to die. Four others remained hospitalized with serious or critical gunshot wounds. Less than an hour after Roberts laid siege to West Nickel Mines Amish School, police burst through the windows as the 32-year-old father of three killed himself.

In the hours that followed, the opposite worlds of the Amish and the outsiders they call "the English" collided in stark ways: A steady stream of black-clad men with long beards and wide-brimmed hats stepped off horse-drawn buggies to talk with armed law enforcement officers in police cruisers.

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Amish women in long black dresses and simple white bonnets, who typically eschew outside attention, trekked past long lines of television trucks and scores of reporters. Helicopters hovered overhead, some carrying victims to hospitals, others carrying photographers straining to snap photos of a community that cherishes its privacy.

But the most jolting scenes unfolded at the simple one-room schoolhouse for grades 1-8 tucked behind a cornfield on a country road: The small room, filled with nearly 30 desks, a chalkboard, and a sign that said "Visitors Brighten People's Days," was also filled with broken glass, blood, and bodies when coroners arrived at the crime scene. Deputy Coroner Janice Ballenger examined the corpse of Naomi Rose Ebersol, 7, and counted nearly 20 bullet wounds in her 50-pound body.

Authorities say Roberts left a hand-written note to his wife of nine years, saying he was "angry at God" over the death of their infant daughter in 1997. A cell phone call to his wife during the siege suggested Roberts had planned to sexually assault his 10 hostages, though authorities don't believe he acted on that plan.

But desperate notes and frenzied phone calls couldn't explain Roberts' depraved actions to an Amish community that abhors violence and zealously attempts to isolate itself from the world's spiritual and physical dangers. The peaceful Amish schoolhouse seemed the last place on earth such terror would reach. But a hard truth is settling over Lancaster County, Pa., that rings true for the rest of the world: Ignoring evil won't keep it at bay.

"It just goes to show you there's no safe place. . . . There's really no such thing," Bob Allen, a bookstore clerk in a neighboring town, told the Associated Press.

That reality is settling in not only for the 55,000 Amish people in Pennsylvania, but for other Christian schools and churches in the Lancaster area. Back at Lancaster Christian School, Headmaster Outlar said the Nickel Mines murders reminded him and his staff: "We are just as susceptible as everyone else." The recent rash of school shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin is sobering, he said, "but now it's come to an Amish schoolhouse. . . . We've been put on alert."

Outlar told WORLD that he spent the morning after the murders talking with his teachers about safety measures at the 300-student school. Though Christian schools have a much safer track record than public schools, he warned: "We can't let our guard down."

The headmaster also talked with staff about dealing with the psychological fallout of such heinous crimes against children. Elementary-school students especially wondered: "Are we safe?" Outlar encouraged teachers to remind students of the school's safety measures, but he also encouraged them to pray with their classes and to remind children of God's sovereignty.

Richard Thomas, superintendent of Lancaster Mennonite School, is giving similar counsel to the teachers at his four-campus, 1,600-student school. The school already has detailed security measures such as elementary-school doors that remain locked and require codes to enter. The school also maintains emergency and intruder plans, but Thomas says: "We've begun to review everything."

While safety is a chief concern at the school, Thomas is quick to tell parents and children: "We want to operate a school based on faith, not fear. . . . Our security is ultimately in God's hands, not in locks and bars and programs."

Area churches are also trying to absorb the Nickel Mines tragedy while considering how to respond. Sam Smucker, pastor of The Worship Center in Lancaster, hosted a prayer vigil at his church the night following the murders, with some 1,600 people from the community attending. Singer Michael W. Smith, who was scheduled to appear at a rally for Sen. Rick Santorum, sang at the prayer vigil after the senator canceled his gathering due to the tragedy.

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