Interview with Angela McQueen
Angela McQueen wrestled a gun out of a wannabe killer’s hands in her high school cafeteria, most likely saving many lives.
On 04 Nov 2022, I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Ms. McQueen where the incident took place, at Mattoon High School in Mattoon, IL. I’ll refer to her and the other involved persons mostly by their first names in this article.
Angela was born in Marshall, IL. Her parents were teachers. Her dad taught Driver’s Ed and PE. Her mom became a Special Ed teacher later in life.
Angela played basketball and softball when she was in high school.
Angela has a Bachelor’s in Kinesiology and Sports Studies, as well as a Bachelor’s in Mathematics, both from Eastern Illinois University (EIU). She also has two Master’s degrees, in Education and Educational leadership, from EIU.
Angela did not grow up handling firearms on a regular basis. She may have played with a BB gun here and there as a kid. A few of her relatives had shotguns that they hunted with.
In about 1997 (two decades before her life-or-death struggle in the Mattoon HS cafeteria), as part of her Kinesiology and Sports major, Angela took an EIU class called Rifle and Pistol Shooting. In that course, they practiced fundamentals of marksmanship, firing rifles from prone, kneeling, and standing positions. They fired pistols from standing.
As Angela recalled, the instructor for the Rifle and Pistol class was Dr. Mary Redden. The professor taught them fundamentals of safety and handling: how to load and unload a firearm, how to load magazines, how to know when the gun is out of ammo and needs to be reloaded, etc. Knowing when a pistol is out of ammo served her in good stead when she fought over the pistol at Mattoon HS (keep reading).
Angela had zero military, LE, security, or emergency services experience.
Neither Angela nor anyone in her immediate family served in the military or law enforcement. She never had an uncle or aunt pull her aside to teach her a few of their “patented moves.” She had never taken martial arts training, although now she occasionally does Les Mills Body Combat programs to stay in shape.
Angela started teaching at Danville High School (in Danville, IL) in January 2000. She subbed a little before getting on full time at Mattoon HS in January 2001. She has been at Mattoon HS, teaching PE and Math (mostly PE of late) ever since.
Angela and her fellow Mattoon High School teachers had been through ALICE Active Violence training. They threw tennis balls at a role player who entered their classroom. Some police officers fired blanks in the hallway so the teachers would know what shots sounded like BEFORE they ended up hearing what real shots sound like, as they did on 20 Sep 2017.
As a lifetime military and law enforcement trainer who, along with many of my students, has been through both wartime deployments and stateside critical incidents, I know that prior exposures to such “stress inoculation” or “experience fragment” stimuli are known to shorten OODA processing times in emergency situations.
Angela’s ALICE training did not, that she remembered, have much if any hands-on fighting practice, other than throwing items at the assailant to distract him so you can escape or close to inside his minimum effective range. The samurai called this metsubishi.
Angela’s Tap on the Shoulder
“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared on unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”
–Sir Winston Churchill
On 20 Sep 2017, Angela took over lunchroom supervision for another teacher about halfway through First Lunch. About 5 minutes into her period of supervision, she had completed one walking circuit of the cafeteria, which is expansive.
Jarad K, a coach (now Dean of Students), was way across in the opposite corner of the lunchroom. Pam, the Lunch Supervisor, who had the only radio, was in about the middle of the room on the opposite side from Angela. Another adult was taking money for lunches in the middle of the room.
A student approached Angela and pointed out a teen who been showing a gun to some of the other students. Angela found out later that another adult had also been told that information, but that adult had run out of the cafeteria, to the Admin office to pass the word. Other than Pam, they did not carry radios (the district has since provided better quality digital radios to many of the staff).
The student in question was seated, facing away. At first, Angela thought it must be some misunderstanding; perhaps a bad joke. Maybe it was a toy or a BB gun, but she had to be sure.
She approached the wannabe killer from behind, and came around in front of him, facing him, placing her body between him and the students in front of him.
He was wearing a hoodie and was hunched over. When Angela got in front of him, he looked at her with a hateful glare, “like he wanted to rip my heart out or my face off or something.” He was holding his hands in such a way as to indicate he was carrying something under his sweatshirt.
Per their policy / the Illinois educational code, only admin staff were allowed to search students. Teachers were NOT. As she confronted the student she pulled out her cell phone and began to scroll through her contacts to find the Admin number, in order to get the student searched.
He pulled out a silver .40 pistol.
She dropped her phone.
I defaulted to my right “finger pistol” in these photos. She recalled later, as she was showing me how their tug o’ war over the gun went, that he might have been holding the pistol with his left hand.
She started in front of him, and slightly off to his left. Angela grabbed his hand(s) and wrist(s). He tried to pull the gun away from her (toward his right). She wound up beside him to his left, with them both facing the gun. As they struggled, the gun pointed in various directions and discharged a few times.
One student was struck. The round went through the bystander’s hand and cell phone before striking just below his shoulder. That student survived and thrived, although today he has some damage to his hand that makes it feel like he has a tight glove on.
Angela pointed the assailant’s gun hand(s) up, away from the other people in the room. He emptied the pistol into the ceiling, running it to slide lock.
She knew enough about pistols to know that if the slide locks back, that’s a good indicator that it is out of ammo. Angela grabbed it and said “Let go of the gun!” He loosened his hold on it a little. She peeled the gun out of his hand and set it on the table back behind her.
Angela still controlled the back of his left wrist, so she locked his arm out behind him and grabbed his other hand, locking that arm too, taking him down to the ground like a farmer holding an old-fashioned plough.
About that time, the School Resource Officer (SRO), Kasey Alexander, came in and shouted “What the hell!?!”
Kasey ran over and cuffed the wannabe killer. Angela looked around to see if anybody was hurt. Almost all of the students had already run out of the cafeteria by the time they got the assailant cuffed.
Administrator Richard S told her “Give me the gun!” She picked it up off the table she had set it on and handed it to him. Kasey, the SRO, was still hands-on with the assailant.
I would be remiss if I didn’t reiterate something here. SRO Kasey Alexander ran to the sound of the gunfire and immediately made entry into that cafeteria. Most SROs would, but you rarely hear or read or watch video about the 99.9% who do. The fact that Angela McQueen’s courage is extraordinary doesn’t diminish Kasey Alexander’s–or for that matter, Richard’s–one iota.
If Angela hadn’t been there, Kasey would’ve had a much messier situation–and a much more complicated tactical problem–to deal with. But he’d have taken care of business.
After the attacker and the gun were secured, Rich told her to get out of there.
Angela exited out the cafeteria door she had been closest to when the concerned student had told her about the gun. A few students were near the door. She shooed them and another teacher all the way down to the end of the hall and out of the building.
I read in the Journal Gazette & Times Courier that school nurse Vicky Wright treated the GSW victim’s wounds.
Mattoon High School’s chosen family reunification point was at Riddle Elementary, another school some distance away. Most of the students went there.
The parents of the shooter wound up at Mattoon HS, crying and looking for their son, which was awkward (and something I’d never thought about but will bring up in future classes: we should plan on what to do with them). Angela and two other teachers who had called 911 were ushered into an ambulance, she thinks so they wouldn’t be right there with the assailant’s parents, till a law enforcement vehicle was free to take transport them. Mattoon PD took her to the station so she could give a statement.
The students did not have to come to school the next day but most of the teachers did. Angela was given the option of staying home but would not have wanted to be home alone with her dogs while the other teachers were also trying to process what they’d experienced, so she went to school the next day as well.
Reporters rang her doorbell and her phone incessantly the day of the incident and for some time after.
In June of 2018 Angela was invited to a national SRO conference where she was presented with the annual Jake Riker award. SRO Alexander had nominated her.
The award is named after a high school wrestler (later a US Marine) from Oregon. On 21 May 1998, an active killer shot up the lunchroom at Thurston High School in Springfield, OR. He shot Jake through the lung, but Jacob pounced upon him, ending the spree.
Like Angela, Riker was an athlete. As a wrestler, he drilled every afternoon to close with, tackle, and control an opponent. Although he probably never trained to do so in the context of an active killer (we would call that “scenario based” training), the skills and drills he practiced served him in good stead in his school’s hour of need.
If you are an elementary teacher, you can drill your kids on survival skills–like racing to the back of the dumpster–without putting it into a scary context. That way, if they ever need it, the skill will already be there, like Jake’s wrestling skills.
Another commonality between Angela and Jake Riker was that both had previous firearms training. Neither was a counterterrorist commando nor a member of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, but they had enough hands-on experience with guns to know that firearms can only hurt that which is directly in front of them. More importantly, having handled guns before, they were not afraid to touch one.
As I frequently admonish our Violence Avoidance and Survival students, you do not need to be a life member of the NRA to wrestle a gun out of a killer’s hands. But if you are afraid to even touch a gun, it’s not reasonable to expect that you will suddenly sprout the courage to take on an armed killer with your bare hands.
Many agencies who teach Run – Hide – Fight qualify the latter with the CYA phrase “Fight only as a last resort.”
This is disingenuous and misleading at best. At worst, it’s tripe.
If the guy is in your classroom or personal space, it’s probably too late to run and almost certainly too late to hide. Hiding only delays the inevitable, and running gets you shot in the back. Hiding may last long enough for you to ambush the bad guy, but without a counterattack, hiding when he’s already in the room with you is useless. He’ll just walk around (or shoot through) whatever you’re hiding behind or under. Fighting may be your first, best, and most importantly, safest option.
The previous year’s recipient usually gives the Jake Riker award to the present year’s winner. Andy McGill of West Liberty Salem High School presented the Riker Award to Angela McQueen.
On 20 Jan 2017, eight months before Angela’s death struggle in the Mattoon cafeteria, student Logan Cole walked into a bathroom at West Liberty-Salem High School in Ohio and blundered into an assailant preparing for a death spree. The wannabe killer was wearing a homemade mask with the words “F__K YOU” written on it. Logan caught two shotgun blasts.
West Liberty – Salem Principal Gregg Johnson and Assistant Principal Andy McGill ran to the scene of the commotion and entered the bathroom.
I’ll say that again: They ran to the scene of the commotion and went in.
The bad guy who Logan interrupted while he was mentally and physically preparing for his final death spree was in a stall. The muzzle of the shotgun was sticking out. Logan, who had been shot twice, was on the floor trying to talk him down, saying that nobody had died yet and that it was not too late.
The student with the shotgun was a ball player (which is not typical; usually, these payasos are couch potatoes). Andy, his coach, had some influence over him and talked him into setting the gun down and surrendering. It is NOT common for active killers to respond to negotiation after the shooting has started. After the first bodies hit the ground, the “let’s talk about this” ship has (almost always) already sailed.
I’m guessing talking worked on this occasion for any or all of these reasons:
- Logan had interrupted the wannabe killer before he was mentally quite ready to begin
- Logan’s used calm verbal logic in response to extremely violent provocation, and
- The attacker had a pre-existing “padewan” relationship with “Jedi master” Andy as his coach.
Either way, it took very serious commitment for Gregg and Andy to go into that bathroom after shots had come from within.
Girding Loins for the Death Spree in a Public Restroom: A Common Pre-attack MO
Not for nothing, but at West Liberty – Salem, as well as in that mall in Indianapolis, at the Fairchild Hospital Annex, and elsewhere, the killers dragged their gear into a bathroom and changed in a stall, putting on their “scary killer” or “wannabe commando” outfit and unlimbering their guns and ammo.
This modus operandi is too common to be ignored.
In movies (the opening sequence of Eraser comes to mind, as well as preparation before the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers), a common rising action trope is the antagonists suiting up before combat. In active violence attacks, that is when the killer builds up his final motivation to do the unthinkable.
Wherever potential victims are gathered in large numbers (such as a school or mall) a suspicious looking person schlepping a large bag into a restroom should be intercepted, and their bag searched, before they can set their evil plans into motion, unless it’s in a place where this is normal, such as the changing rooms at a beach. Even there, a beach bag full of towels and sunscreen is relatively light. A bag with a rifle and lots of loaded magazines is longer and obviously heavy.
Andy got the Riker award that summer (2017), and presented it to Angela the summer after her conspicuous gallantry (2018). “I learned a lot from Andy and he helped me a lot in the process of moving forward,” Angela said.
The next summer (2019) Angela presented the award to Jason Seaman of Noblesville, Indiana’s West Middle School. Jason was teaching on 25 May 2018 when a 13 year old came into his classroom with two pistols: a .45 and a .22 TCM (which is a bottlenecked cartridge with much more kinetic energy than the more common .22 long rifle).
The wannabe killer shot fellow student Ella Whistler. Jason tackled and subdued him. Jason was shot in the forearm, hip and abdomen. Jason and Ella survived, in part due to his quick, decisive actions.
Jason’s former student Abbie Tank posted a tweet (quoted by WTHR Channel 13 News) stating:
I remember every time we had a code red drill in 7th grade Mr Seaman always told us he would take a bullet for anyone of his students and how he would do whatever he could to protect us. What a true hero to live up to that promise. Words can’t describe how much we love you ♥
–@abbietank 4:43 pm, 25 May 2018
Like Angela and Jacob Riker, Jason Seaman was an athlete. According to the IndyStar, Jason competed in football, basketball and track in high school, and played college football for Southern Illinois University.
People who play sports seem to be less afraid to get physical when necessary. Sports don’t make athletes violent, they make athletes team players who tackle problems hands-on when push comes to shove. Not to mention burning off stress chemicals.
While there is some debate about how much violent video games and violent imagery influence active killers, a clear pattern has emerged: the maladjusted people who bring violence to schools, houses of worship, and shopping malls tend to be couch potato video game junkies. The people who risk their lives to stop them tend to be athletes. Not a 100%, universal constant, but a significant correlation.
“Scars are the tattoos of the brave.”
Angela bears a scar from the slide of the pistol slicing the back of her hand. It’s a small scar, and a small price to pay, compared to what could have happened.
Mental scars run deeper and the effects last longer. At the end of Star Wars (the real Star Wars, the very first one made), the actors marched up to the stage after destroying the Death Star and were awarded to loud applause. They smiled with shiny white teeth and and apparently didn’t think about the squadrons of their mates who were killed, or the thousands of Imperial lackeys’ spouses they widowed, or how close they came to losing everything. It wan’t in the script.
Reality is rarely like that, even for the “fortunate” brave ones who successfully resist lethal assault with little bloodshed.
It used to happen to Angela more often, but even now, occasionally, somebody will say “Hey–you’re her! You’re the teacher!” When she admits that she is, in fact, an educator, they say “No–I mean, you’re THAT teacher!” and thank her.
These days, Angela teaches a Reboot Recovery class about dealing with mental, emotional, and / or spiritual trauma.
Mattoon’s Upgraded Security
When I visited Columbine High School, they had three–count ’em, three–police officers patrolling the parking lots. For some reason, they take the security of their students and staff very seriously.
I arrived at Mattoon High School almost at the end of the school day on 04 Nov 2022. The doors were locked, as they should be. Even though I said I was expected, they did not just “buzz me in.” An administrator came to the door to look at me up close before opening the door for me. Even then, I did not have direct access to the student body. I was routed through the admin office, where I waited for Angela to get done teaching.
As a lifetime security professional, those procedures warmed my heart. Nobody’s kid should ever have to be sacrificed for anybody’s convenience.
Mattoon HS also ensures that even their students get some Active Violence training. It essentially boils down to “in an emergency, listen to the adults.” The students probably take it more seriously than they would have before the fall semester of 2017.
Angela McQueen is an exceptional person, and perhaps an exception to a major rule: almost all of us only rise to our level of training.
In WWII, only a small percentage of soldiers fired their guns in battle (see Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War by SLA Marshall). Psychologist David Grossman postulates that this is because most humans are reluctant to kill their own kind, even those their government tells them are enemies. There may be some truth to this, although having been shot at on soil both foreign and domestic I personally believe a lot of it had to do with many of them not wanting to draw any unnecessary attention to themselves.
Besides, the other guys aren’t just going to stand there and let you shoot them. By the time you see them and swing your rifle around to get them in your sights, the smart ones are already diving for cover.
Regardless of the reasons why, the US military found that through operant conditioning they could increase firing rates dramatically in subsequent wars (see Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society). This was nothing new. Millenia before BF Skinner did his research, even the Romans knew that if you practice a skill long enough and hard enough you will be able to do it, perhaps even do it well, in the heat of battle. When a Roman legion wasn’t fighting, it was training to fight.
I started training warfighters in 1983. My own experience in military and law enforcement training, as well as in two wartime deployments and stateside critical incidents, plus interaction with numerous trainers more experienced and far better qualified than I, tells me that the vast majority of people will perform as they are trained under life-threatening stress. The more they have trained, and the better they have trained, the more likely it is and the more closely they will follow their training, even unto death.
A very, very tiny percentage of people, far fewer than Hollywood and the media would lead us to believe, will be combat ineffective regardless of their training, cowering in fear, at least the first time they are in mortal danger.
Then there are those others.
People like Angela McQueen.
With almost zero hand-to-hand fight training, Angela rose to the occasion, went hands-on, and saved many lives.
Does this mean you don’t have to train? Of course not. Almost all of us are somewhere on that bell curve between Medal of Honor recipients and wilting lilies.
But even the Audie Murphys of the world perform better when they’ve had quality, recent training.
It should also be noted that Angela had taken ALICE active shooter training before the incident.
If you are an administrator reading this, get off your budgetary wallet and make sure all your staff have hand held radios. Cell phones, which are slower and require finer motor skills to operate, should be considered backup forms of emergency communication, not primary.
Since that incident, Mattoon’s entire school district has upgraded the quantity and quality of their radios.
Don’t be afraid to go hands-on
In my day, if a student slapped a teacher, she would immediately slap the student right back. In education and training, this is an example of positive feedback, a response to a behavior.
When the parents found out about the slap(s), they would be embarrassed that it had happened in the first place, feeling (quite appropriately) that it might be a reflection of the student’s upbringing. They would tell that teacher “I hope you slapped Johnnie back, hard enough for him to learn his lesson.” After little Johnnie got home, he would get his REAL lesson, and his bottom would be too sore to sit down for a few days.
Through such positive feedback we learned self control.
Some would argue that violence begets violence, but back then, it wasn’t cool to murder your classmates en masse, either.
Today, the vast majority of American teachers are forbidden by their district’s policy from touching their students.
There are some good reasons for such policies. Obviously, we don’t want a potential predator fondling third graders and then claiming he was frisking them for weapons. But fear of losing their jobs makes teachers hesitant to search a student, even if they have actionable intelligence that the student is armed.
In subsequent communications, Angela told me about Good Samaritan protections, and a US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) case, New Jersey v. TLO.
All 50 of the United States have Good Samaritan laws to protect people who are trying to do the right thing from being successfully sued. I had been familiar with Good Sam laws in a medical context, but the same concept applies in a fighting context.
The example Angela gave was of seeing two students fighting and pulling one off the other. If one of those students hurt their head in the process, the teacher trying to break up the fight would not be liable (as long as the Good Samaritan laws in their state are written broadly enough to include trying to do the right thing in other than medical circumstances).
New Jersey v. TLO
In NJ versus TLO, the SCOTUS decided that the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution DOES apply to public schools, which are government agencies, BUT, schools have a special needs exception to the 4th Amendment’s probable cause and / or search warrant requirements. “Special needs,” in this context, does not apply to learning challenges, but rather the requirement to keep students and teachers safe.
A short explanation of probable cause is that it’s more likely than not (say, 70 – 80% likely, as opposed to preponderance of evidence, which is more like 51%). If a person is standing over another person’s prostrate form with a bloody knife, they might not have done it, but a reasonable person would have probable cause to believe that they did.
PC does not require extreme, life or death circumstances. If the sticker on your license plate says “19,” but the present year is 2022, an officer has probable cause to believe your registration may be expired. She can pull you over and detain you long enough to determine whether or not it’s true. But the more life or death the circumstances are, the more inclined a jury will be to tolerate decisive, even hands-on, action on a teacher’s part.
The burden of proof for school personnel searching students established by the SCOTUS in New Jersey v TLO is reasonable suspicion.
Reasonable suspicion is more than a mere hunch but less than probable cause. SCOTUS said reasonable suspicion is enough for a frisk in Terry v. Ohio. A frisk is a pat down. It’s more intrusive than looking for bulges in a person’s clothing but less intrusive than a strip search.
In Angela’s case, a student who (I assume) appeared concerned, perhaps even scared, and was not known to be in the habit of lying to her, gave Angela actionable intelligence that a student was showing other students a gun. Actionable intelligence is information received in or near real time, soon enough to do something about it, when it is still a fixable problem.
Real Time Intel
Far too often after active violence events, people come forward saying that they knew something was about to happen. Fat lotta good that info does after the fact.
Such information is only actionable during the brief window of opportunity between when we find out the student may be armed or planning an attack and when he removes all doubt by shooting the place up.
Can Something be Done?
We know for a fact that Communist China is harvesting the organs of religious and political prisoners. We can ask the Chinese government to stop, perhaps even censure them in the court of world opinion, but since nobody wants a third World War, our options for making them stop are limited.
A 14 year old carrying a knife or gun is also dangerous, but not as dangerous as a nuclear armed nation state that our entire economy is beholden to. There are things we can do in real time to prevent that student from becoming a killer.
Since the killing hasn’t started yet, the student is either:
- armed for protection (perhaps they have a side hustle involving narcotics), or
- they are waiting to ambush a particular student, or
- they are waiting till they have the maximum number of potential victims.
The Columbine killers did research for months in advance, noting when, on average, the most students would be in the lunch room (think what they could’ve achieved if they’d put that energy into positive pursuits).
Confronting and searching them is not without risks, but far less risky than waiting till they have chosen the time and place to show people the business end of their weapon(s).
You can learn techniques for simple pat-downs, stuffing the draw, off-lining, and disarms. Various entities give such training. But if you’re a teacher, don’t count on the school district giving them to you, or even encouraging (much less paying) you, to learn and practice such skills.
You’ll probably have to invest in obtaining life saving skills on your own time, on your own dime. But no matter how expensive it may be, it’s cheap life insurance. Most educators are female, and most population centers have somebody providing free or low cost empty hands defense training for females. Martial arts can be useful in a parking lot after work, as well as in the school cafeteria.
In Angela’s case, the school district’s policy and / or state law prohibited teachers from searching students. Only administrators or peace officers (including SROs) could normally pat students down in Illinois. But as Angela learned firsthand, leaving the ball in the bad guy’s court long enough for an administrator to get there may be too late.
The bottom line is this: I resolved many years ago to follow policy when I could and to obey the law when I should, but that I was never going to die, or watch those around me die, out of lemming-like adherence to anybody’s ill-conceived or “one size fits all” policy.
Thankfully, when the bad guy didn’t wait for admin to get there, Angela stepped up and saved the day.
I’m immensely indebted to Angela McQueen, not only for saving the lives of kids I don’t know, but also for taking the time to share with me–and now, you–the benefits of her life-or-death experience.
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