SURREY – On October 31st, 2013, a man with a kitchen knife jumped the playground fence at Surrey’s École Gabrielle-Roy and grabbed a 10-year-old boy. Thanks to the quick action of CUPE Local 4227 members, no one was harmed.
Among the six education workers supervising the playground that day were Isabelle Rheault and Latifa Kahany. They shared the remarkable story of the day when their training was put to the test.
“It was just a regular recess,” remembered Rheault. “And I saw him.”
“It was on Halloween day,” specified Kahany.
“I saw him jumping the fence,” said Rheault, who was the first to spot the man. “I was in a zone with not many kids but doing active supervision, looking everywhere, seeing what’s happening. Then I saw a man, his silhouette from afar. It seemed weird. I thought if it’s a teenager from the high school it is not looking like it is a very good joke, so I started to walk towards the guy and I then saw his knife and he tried to grab a kid. Then he grabbed a second one, because he missed the first one. The other kids saw the knife, and started yelling and running away from him. It was a kitchen knife, as big as scissors, I would say six inches. It happened fast, but it seemed like a lot longer.”
“I didn’t see exactly where he came from,” recounted Kahany. “I was doing supervision inside the school. By the time I went outside my colleagues were spread everywhere in the schoolyard, everyone doing their duties. All of a sudden I see kids running like crazy saying ‘Madame Latifa, there is a Code Rouge!’ Code Rouge means there is a really bad situation in the school, so I opened the door for them, the big door, and then they started entering. I realized this was really something. So I ran. There were six of us running towards the same place. And I saw Isabelle beside this man.”
“I was with the guy, by myself, for I guess about four or five minutes,” said Rheault. “I was trying to calm him down. He was obviously someone who needs help. He had the child at the knife. He was threatening. He was saying he wanted to kill a cop or he wanted to battle with the police, all sorts of crazy things. He wanted to go in the school. The thing is you never really know what you are dealing with. You just try to have the kids away. There were eleven children hiding in the bushes with one of the supervisors. And there was the rest us, kind of making a fence.”
“I have three children here [attending the school],” continued Rheault. “I did not even think of them until the end of that, and then I was like ‘Oh my gosh! Where are they?’ Because we have all this training: red code, orange code, yellow code. You know sometimes you kind of feel [the training] is a waste of time. You practice. It takes lots of time. You go outside with the kids, line up, etc. Without that, the kids would not have known what to do. But in about three minutes they were all inside the school, locked and hiding. It was great. The kids responded really well. The secretary said when they heard me on the radio, my tone of voice, they knew it was something important.”
With the students inside, Rheault remained close to the man who was holding the knife to the child’s neck.
“We all have walkie-talkies, with our names on them. We grab them every morning,” explained Kahany about the workers supervising lunchtime recess. “Sometimes the teachers come out too, but at the time it was just us, CUPE staff. We were all running, and I realized the guy was standing up holding the hostage with his left hand and pointing the knife with the right hand to the neck. Then Isabelle was trying to communicate with the guy, and the child was devastated saying ‘why me?’ So it was an absolutely devastating situation because we have known that child since he was in kindergarten and Isabelle was strong enough to [stay focused], and that’s really amazing. I was talking to the front desk, passing on the messages from her because she could not. She turned [the walkie-talkie] off because she didn’t want [the man] to know, because she realized he speaks French. So she was talking, I was passing on the messages to the front desk, while they called the police. I was thinking in my mind ‘Oh my goodness, is he going to start killing the child first? Then who’s next? Is she going to be next?’ But Isabelle was not afraid.”
“The funny thing,” added Kahany. “We were supposed to have the training with the whole school. We do it several times a year. We were supposed to have it that Friday, the next day. So instead we lived the real training. It was so amazing for me for to see that. And the response from the students… it was amazing. I would say in less than 3 minutes the schoolyard was clear. No students, no nothing. They were inside.”
“It seemed to be a long time,” said Rheault. “When looking back at the [security] camera: when I saw the guy it was around 12:35. The police got the call just before 12:40, and they arrived around 12:47. It was seven to ten minutes I was with him and the child.”
“There were three police that came right away,” remembered Kahany.
“There were about twenty in total,” said Rheault. “That surrounded the place. The man said he wanted to fight with the police. That was his goal. So [the RCMP] said ‘let go of the kid so we can fight.’ So he did let go of the kid, and they tasered him.”
“We are so lucky the kid is okay,” said Kahany. “He was back at school right away.”
Rheault and Kahany learned later that the man suffered from mental illness and had sought help on numerous occasions.
“I feel like sometimes the system for that kind of help is not there,” said Rheault. “They said in the newspaper that he was schizophrenic. He went to the hospital three times that week. He previously attacked a policeman on a SkyTrain, a couple weeks before that. So, living on his own, not taking his meds. I don’t know what was going on exactly, but this is what happened. This happened in the school. It could have happened in a park or in a mall. At least here kids were supervised. It was a cry for help.”
“I don’t know what is behind it,” reflected Kahany. “If he’s been to the hospital, they have to agree to look after him, if he is really mentally having challenges. He needs to be taken care of. Imagine if he had a gun.”
“The government cuts the services,” remarked Rheault. “This is what happens. They end up on the street.”
Since the incident staff and students are doing well. The RCMP debriefing along with counselling and other support have helped the school community heal from the incident.
“Here [at École Gabrielle-Roy] we are all francophone,” said Rheault. “It’s a small community. It’s like a family. [The incident] created a bonding between all of us. Nobody was injured. We got a lot of cards and emails saying ‘good job, well done.’ We are happy to know that when situations like that happen you are trained for it and doing the right thing. So the job, it’s more than a paycheque!”
“Even the police were saying, after they interviewed each one of us, [we] should be absolutely proud,” said Kahany. “The kids they knew exactly what it was. They were yelling ‘C’est un vrai code rouge!’ It was a devastating situation, and traumatizing for many of us, but with a good ending. It would be nice to spread the word all over BC about what could happen, to be aware, because any situation could happen to anyone at anytime. We got the help we needed. We got the counselling we needed, [but] some nights I do have nightmares.”
“The next day some of the kids were still frightened,” said Rheault. “Counsellors came to the school on Friday.”
“Now [the students] are playing police and criminal,” said Kahany. “Maybe that is their way of expressing themselves.”
Both Rheault and Kahany hope the incident can inform other education workers across BC and Canada.
“If you have an opportunity to have training, even if you do not think you are going to use it, take it. It’s always good,” instructed Rheault. “And refresh everything that you know every year. Read a book about it. It’s very important. It is not just a protection of the child. I feel very safe here because I know that my co-workers know what to do.”
“It was amazing to have all of us on walkie-talkies,” emphasized Kahany. “We were on the same page, the six of us, standing without movement. We were all calm and we were helping each other. I would say to other people doing the same job just do whatever you have to, do it faithfully and wholeheartedly, and don’t forget your walkie-talkie, make sure the battery is on, because it saves lives.”