by Becky GINOS
SYRACUSE—In the wake of school shootings across the nation, some may have forgotten a local incident that took place 20 years ago – except those who lived it.
It was a normal day at Syracuse Junior High Feb. 5, 1998. Some 1,300 students were attending class when the unthinkable happened. Shots rang out in the cafeteria. An eighth-grader who had recently enrolled at the school stood on the stage then aimed his gun at Vice Principal Darin Allred’s chest.
In the meantime, not far from the school Syracuse Police Officer Mark Sessions was off duty working outside in his yard when he heard a siren. “I went inside my home and turned on my police radio to listen for just a moment,” he said. “I heard that the emergency vehicles were responding to Syracuse Junior High on a report of a shooting at the school cafeteria and hostages were being held. No one knew if anyone had been shot or injured.”
Session said he ran to his closet, grabbed his service revolver and badge and advised dispatch he was responding to assist. “I backed my patrol car out into the road and turned on my red and blue police overhead lights and put my car in drive,” he said. “With tires squealing I turned on my siren. My mind was going a hundred miles an hour because my 13-year-old daughter was in the school somewhere along with a full student body and faculty.”
Struggling with what he needed to do – find his daughter or go after the shooter – Sessions pulled into the school parking lot. “I knew what I had to do and that was to find out if anyone had been shot and if he was still in the cafeteria.”
As he approached the school he saw some of the faculty leading students out and across the street to Syracuse Elementary School. “I was met by a custodian,” said Sessions. “I asked him to tell me where the shooter was. He stated that he thought he was still in the cafeteria. I knew the layout of the school and knew the doors just inside the school entrance on the left side led to the back of the stage. I also knew there were several layers of curtains that could work to my advantage.”
Sessions pulled out his revolver and opened the stage door very slowly, hoping he wouldn’t come face to face with the shooter.
“I went through the last set of curtains before the entrance to the cafeteria and observed the assistant principal standing in front of me,” he said. “I started looking to see if my daughter was in the cafeteria and observed that there were about 30 students sitting at tables throughout the cafeteria. Thankfully, I did not see my daughter or anyone injured.”
He saw the shooter was holding two boys hostage. “He had a handgun up to the temple of one of the hostages and then he would move it back and forth between the two,” said Sessions. “I could see fear in their eyes.”
The police chief was negotiating with the suspect who was demanding a vehicle and Sessions knew he needed to put himself in position to stop the teen from leaving with the hostages.
When the chief told the suspect the car had arrived, Sessions went out the back of the stage to the entrance of the school. “As I excited, I went out to the edge of the wall and made the decision that as soon as he walked past me with the hostages that I would hopefully tackle him,” he said. “As I peaked around the corner of the building we caught each other off guard. He hollered at me and said ‘what is going on?’ as he put the gun up to the head of one of the other two hostages and pulled the hostage in front of him so I could not stop him.”
Sessions told the suspect he was taking them to the getaway car, then started walking about eight feet beside him and pulled out his gun when he turned his head. He planned to tell the hostages to get in the back of the car and then he would hit the suspect as hard as he could to take him down.
“We were about 10 feet from the car and the Davis County Sheriff’s Office SWAT commander Sgt. Lane Gleave came toward us and told the suspect to drop the gun,” said Sessions. “Sgt. Gleave had a flash grenade in one hand and an assault rifle in the other. I closed in on him (the suspect) and put my gun in his back. Sgt. Gleave threw the grenade over at us and I felt it hit my feet.”
Before he could take any further action the grenade blew. “I heard a shot go off by my head,” Sessions said. “The suspect and the two hostages were knocked to the ground. I felt another person on top of me as I now found myself on top of the shooter.”
It was a Clearfield officer that had landed on Sessions. “I looked around and saw a gun off to my right side on the ground and grabbed for it,” he said. “I handed him (officer) the gun and put mine in my holster. Then I held the suspect down with my knee until I was able to get him handcuffed.”
Sessions’ ears were ringing but his training kicked in. “I stood next to the two boys that had been hostages,” he said. “They were now sitting on the curb. One was bleeding from his leg with what looked like a minor abrasion, possibly from a piece of metal from the flash grenade.”
Reports after the incident indicated the suspect had been having trouble coping with problems at home. Crisis counselors met with students and teachers the following day.
Sessions will never forget that day 20 years ago either. “This case affected too many for too long.”