Everything was normal for Palm Beach Central sophomore cheerleader Ashley Jacob on Saturday. Normal. … except for what greeted her at the stadium when she arrived for the Broncos regular-season opener at Atlantic High.
Crime scene tape that helped funnel spectators through two entry points. Being scanned by a hand-held electromagnetic wand like every other spectator that passed through the gates. Heightened security at all checkpoints and surrounding the players and cheerleaders.
This is the new normal for area high school football games. The old normal shattered the instant multiple gunshots pierced the air during Palm Beach Central’s preseason game Aug. 17, setting off a chaotic scene as thousands of panic-stricken fans headed for safety – wherever that was – many barreling down the aluminum bleachers trampling some in their way.
Full coverage: Wellington game shooting
“When I first got there, I was a little nervous,” Ashley said about getting back on the sideline Saturday and cheering for her school for the first time since the shooting in which two people were injured and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said was not a school shooting but a feud between two groups of adults.
“Once I saw the cops, I felt safe with them there. The wands were a little weird but I understand why they are doing it.”
“I just took off”
Ashley, 15, heard something. She knows it was two pops at first but for a split second she wasn’t sure. Then she saw the panic. People running and screaming and she knew what she had to do.
“I just took off,” she said.
“I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t think it would be a gun because I never thought there would be a shooter at our school. When I heard everyone saying, ‘Run, there’s a gun, there’s a shooter,’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s actually a shooting.’”
Ashley made the split-second decision to run and not enter the school like she saw so many people doing.
“I wanted to get away,” she said. “I just felt like I’d be a sitting duck. If there was a shooter who could have just came in there. I’d just be stuck in there.”
She started running north, away from everything, tapping into her athletic skills as a soccer player and triathlete, weaving between students and football players until she was outrunning them all. She passed the tennis courts and headed west until she reached a fence that separated school property from Lyons Road. She was one of the first ones there before others started to catch up.
“Everyone was, like, ‘jump, jump, jump over the fence,’” she said.
Once on Lyons Road she recognized a friend from middle school and they took off north until reaching a roundabout about 1½ miles from the school. There, they encountered about five police vehicles. The officers, wearing vests, were directing traffic away from the direction of the school. That’s when for the first time she realized she was carrying something.
It wasn’t a phone or her bag. … but her pompoms, which she had the entire way, even while climbing the fence.
“Once I realized I had them in my hand the whole time, I dropped them, I was like ‘I don’t need these right now,’” she said.
The minute she felt somewhat safe she thought about her family. This is real, she remembers thinking. My family is there. I don’t know where they are. I don’t know if they are safe.
“I started to freak out.”
Where do you run?
Gary Jacob, Ashley’s father, is a physical education teacher at Royal Palm Beach Elementary. He first remembers thinking that even school campuses are not safe when Barry Grunow, a Lake Worth Middle language arts teacher and basketball coach, was shot and killed by a 13-year-old student on the final day of the 2000 school year.
Ever since that day, Gary’s wife, Nathina, tells him to be careful on the last day of school.
“I try not to think about it too much because being a PE teacher you’re (outside) in a wide-open space,” Gary said about the notion schools are vulnerable.
“You think about, if something happens, what do I do?”
Gary is always aware of his surroundings. When he enters a movie theater, he looks around for the closest exit and has a plan in case he needs to get his family out.
That training kicked in for Ashley on Saturday before the Broncos’ 14-0 loss to Atlantic. One of the first things she remembers doing after arriving at the stadium was checking her surroundings and looking for a way out if something happened.
“I did think, ‘Where would I run?’ because I don’t know the area,” she said. “At our stadium, I know my way around.
“But I figured nothing would happen because there were so many cops there.”
A Delray Beach police department vehicle sat a the main entry point, it lights flashing the entire game, and both Delray Beach and the Palm Beach Country School District police departments had several officers on site.
“I don’t want to die”
Gary and Nathina were in the bleachers with their daughter, Lindsay, 10, when the shots rang out. They turned to see a swarm of people headed toward them and decided to assess the situation before heading down.
“They were screaming with looks of horror on their faces,” Nathina said. “I couldn’t see what was happening. All I could see was the people standing and running down.”
Their first thought was to shield Lindsay. Then they moved out and were briefly separated with Nathina and Lindsay taking cover in an alcove by an entry way into the school, a decision she made after hearing what sounded like another shot – although in retrospect she is not sure if it might have been a metal door slamming – and seeing a man fall, his belongings flying everywhere and people stepping on his limbs as they escaped the scene.
At that point Lindsay, sobbing, said to her mom, “Please don’t let them kill us, I don’t want to die. Please, Mommy.” That was when fear really set in for Nathina.
“I realized I’m in a situation that I don’t have any control over what’s about to happen,” she said. “I just have to keep my child calm.”
Nathina was not sure if they should go inside, but that decision was made for her when two school administrators unlocked the door she was standing by, went inside and closed the door without inviting them in. “They looked at us and opened the door and went in and closed the door behind them and the woman made eye contact with me,” Nathina said.
Once Gary, Nathina and Lindsay were reunited, their attention turned to Ashley. Finally, the call came and they knew she was safe. Gary headed up Lyons Road to find her, deciding it was probably better not to run with police flooding the area and looking for anything suspicious.
When he reached Ashley, they had to walk about another mile north. Ashley started cramping, but they finally reunited with Nathina, who drove around to Southern Boulevard with Lyons Road closed.
But not before Lindsay had trouble breathing and vomited in the parking lot.
“I just think the panic and we were running,” Nathina said. “It was a lot for her.”
Devising a plan
Ashley was not sure she could stomach going back to school on Monday. On the night of the shooting she said to her father, “If I’m not safe at school I’m not safe anywhere.”
But when she heard students were not targeted she felt better about it. Counselors greeted the students and an announcement was made early Monday they were in the media center for any student who needed to talk.
During the week, Ashley and her teammates met with Capella Flaherty, who is in her third year as Central’s varsity cheer coach. The night of the shooting was chaotic and Flaherty and the parents were frantically group-messaging, asking about the kids: Are they safe? Are all accounted for? Where are those who haven’t been heard from?
“You never know when something like this is going to happen,” said Flaherty, who works at Wellington Landings Middle School. “You have to try to keep a level head as much as it’s scary. Some of them had their natural instinct to run and go as far as they could because they didn’t want to get hurt. And that’s totally fine.
“From a coach’s standpoint, I was a little concerned because I couldn’t find all my athletes. In the end, obviously we did. They just know we’re a family and the best thing to do is stick together.”
Flaherty said many of the girls were apprehensive about returning to the field on Saturday, and some opted not to attend the game because they were were still upset (21 were there). “If they’re not ready they know that I’m here, and the team is here whenever they want to come back,” she said.
On Friday, Palm Beach Central plays its first home game since the shooting, hosting Miami-Braddock. Another hurdle, another day towards getting things back to normal.
Or the new normal.
“Having a home game might bring back memories of what happened,” Ashley said. “But I think I’ll be fine.”