Skip to Content

Bravery Unrewarded

A Selfless, Heroic Act Almost Gets a Custodian Fired

Dave Arnold

Superman wears a big red cape and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. He's also faster than a speeding bullet. That's part of what makes him a superhero in the fiction world.

I know a human hero who wears a T-shirt, short pants and tennis shoes. On some days, he covers his 55-year-old noggin with a baseball cap, which makes him look a little like the Skipper (played by Alan Hale, Jr.) from Gilligan's Island.

He's endured hip surgery, 33 years of loyal service as a school custodian, and the unjust humiliation of almost losing his job for wrestling a handgun away from a school intruder and then locking her in a teacher's restroom.
I met this custodian last March at the NEA Education Support Professional (ESP) Conference in Nashville. When he introduced himself, I was surprised to find that he worked only an hour's drive from my school in Brownstown, Illinois. Small world.

A school official didn't allow me to reveal his name or that of the school's.

Gun on Campus

As the custodian was sweeping the hallway one morning, just before student-filled busses were to arrive, he noticed a woman enter the school. She could have easily been dismissed as just another mother looking to talk with a teacher.

The custodian, however, recognized her. She was an old classmate of his. He attempted to speak to her, but she didn't respond. He then noticed she had something in her hand.

It turned out to be a pistol. Without hesitating he grabbed it out of her hand before she could react. She fought back, but the custodian was able to shove her into a small teacher's restroom. He locked her in and yelled for the secretary to call the police and administrators.

While the students were diverted to another entrance, the custodian stood guard outside the door until police and emergency personnel arrived.

Crazed Intruder

He says the woman was belligerent, though it was later learned that she had quit taking her antidepressants and was delusional. Her intent was to kill a teacher who she believed was having an affair with her husband.

One can only guess what might have happened with packs of students entering the building. One would assume that the custodian would be recognized for his bravery and selflessness. But no.

The principal tried to have him dismissed because he didn't follow procedure. Under school policy, employees are required to go to the office and declare a Code Red before doing anything else. This requires students to hurry to their classrooms, which in this case would have put the students in direct confrontation with the intruder.

The principal contested that the custodian endangered the lives of all those present when he took it upon himself to disarm the intruder.

Saved Lives

When police and emergency personnel heard that the principal was calling for the custodian's dismissal, many of them showed up at a school board meeting along with a good number of parents. The police chief testified that the custodian's quick thinking and action saved lives.

Ironically, the woman he disarmed later thanked him for stopping her. She stated that she would have never thought of harming anyone, but lost control over herself due to not taking her medication. The principal's request of dismissal was dropped, but a reprimand was placed in the custodian's file. That principal, by the way, eventually resigned.

While the school had a crisis plan for intruders, it would have been a poor decision in this case to follow it verbatim. The situation called for quick thinking and quick actions. The custodian answered that call while giving no thought to his own safety.

A Series of Heroes

His primary concern was the safety of the staff and children entering the building. He undoubtedly saved lives and that makes him a hero in my book. I just wish he could receive the recognition he deserves.

I have had the privilege of meeting three ESPs who in my mind qualify as heroes. This is the first in a series of three articles that feature each of them individually. The other two are titled, "Putting Others First" and "A Deafening Silence."

(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.

Dave's View has been discontinued following the retirement of its author, Dave Arnold. Even though new columns will not be posted, we encourage you to review past columns.