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Paradise lost

A rash of school sieges culminates in the violent invasion of a private world-Amish country-and rekindles concern for school safety policies.

Paradise lost

Just as headmaster Sandy Outlar spoke to a group of elementary-school students at Lancaster Christian School about the Bible's warning that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, he learned that a terrifying object lesson was unfolding a few miles away: In the picturesque town of Nickel Mines, Pa., Charles Carl Roberts IV had pounced on a one-room Amish schoolhouse.

Roberts' vicious Oct. 2 rampage left five little girls, all under age 13, dead, gunned down at point-blank range. Another, age 6, was taken off life support and transported home to die. Four others remained hospitalized with serious or critical gunshot wounds. Less than an hour after Roberts laid siege to West Nickel Mines Amish School, police burst through the windows as the 32-year-old father of three killed himself.

In the hours that followed, the opposite worlds of the Amish and the outsiders they call "the English" collided in stark ways: A steady stream of black-clad men with long beards and wide-brimmed hats stepped off horse-drawn buggies to talk with armed law enforcement officers in police cruisers.

Amish women in long black dresses and simple white bonnets, who typically eschew outside attention, trekked past long lines of television trucks and scores of reporters. Helicopters hovered overhead, some carrying victims to hospitals, others carrying photographers straining to snap photos of a community that cherishes its privacy.

But the most jolting scenes unfolded at the simple one-room schoolhouse for grades 1-8 tucked behind a cornfield on a country road: The small room, filled with nearly 30 desks, a chalkboard, and a sign that said "Visitors Brighten People's Days," was also filled with broken glass, blood, and bodies when coroners arrived at the crime scene. Deputy Coroner Janice Ballenger examined the corpse of Naomi Rose Ebersol, 7, and counted nearly 20 bullet wounds in her 50-pound body.

Authorities say Roberts left a hand-written note to his wife of nine years, saying he was "angry at God" over the death of their infant daughter in 1997. A cell phone call to his wife during the siege suggested Roberts had planned to sexually assault his 10 hostages, though authorities don't believe he acted on that plan.

But desperate notes and frenzied phone calls couldn't explain Roberts' depraved actions to an Amish community that abhors violence and zealously attempts to isolate itself from the world's spiritual and physical dangers. The peaceful Amish schoolhouse seemed the last place on earth such terror would reach. But a hard truth is settling over Lancaster County, Pa., that rings true for the rest of the world: Ignoring evil won't keep it at bay.

"It just goes to show you there's no safe place. . . . There's really no such thing," Bob Allen, a bookstore clerk in a neighboring town, told the Associated Press.

That reality is settling in not only for the 55,000 Amish people in Pennsylvania, but for other Christian schools and churches in the Lancaster area. Back at Lancaster Christian School, Headmaster Outlar said the Nickel Mines murders reminded him and his staff: "We are just as susceptible as everyone else." The recent rash of school shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin is sobering, he said, "but now it's come to an Amish schoolhouse. . . . We've been put on alert."

Outlar told WORLD that he spent the morning after the murders talking with his teachers about safety measures at the 300-student school. Though Christian schools have a much safer track record than public schools, he warned: "We can't let our guard down."

The headmaster also talked with staff about dealing with the psychological fallout of such heinous crimes against children. Elementary-school students especially wondered: "Are we safe?" Outlar encouraged teachers to remind students of the school's safety measures, but he also encouraged them to pray with their classes and to remind children of God's sovereignty.

Richard Thomas, superintendent of Lancaster Mennonite School, is giving similar counsel to the teachers at his four-campus, 1,600-student school. The school already has detailed security measures such as elementary-school doors that remain locked and require codes to enter. The school also maintains emergency and intruder plans, but Thomas says: "We've begun to review everything."

While safety is a chief concern at the school, Thomas is quick to tell parents and children: "We want to operate a school based on faith, not fear. . . . Our security is ultimately in God's hands, not in locks and bars and programs."

Area churches are also trying to absorb the Nickel Mines tragedy while considering how to respond. Sam Smucker, pastor of The Worship Center in Lancaster, hosted a prayer vigil at his church the night following the murders, with some 1,600 people from the community attending. Singer Michael W. Smith, who was scheduled to appear at a rally for Sen. Rick Santorum, sang at the prayer vigil after the senator canceled his gathering due to the tragedy.

Smucker has a particularly strong connection to the Amish community: The 59-year-old pastor was raised in an Amish family in the area. "I had my own horse and buggy and everything," he told WORLD. Smucker left the Amish community at age 18, an option open to all Amish youth, and he became pastor of The Worship Center in 1977.

"It's really an indescribable jolt," Smucker said, describing how the tragedy will affect the community he calls "a culture within a culture." Smucker said he doubted most Amish "ever thought they'd need security."

Smucker says he is certain that the Amish community will rally around one another, and recalls from his childhood: "If somebody's barn burned down, they had another one in two days." The pastor is also certain of the Amish response toward the Roberts family: "They will forgive and they will not hold a grudge."

Forgiveness from the Amish community emerged in striking ways just hours after the shootings. Dwight LeFever, pastor of Living Faith Church of God, where members of the assailant's family attend, said he spent that afternoon with Roberts' wife and parents. LeFever told a prayer vigil gathering that an Amish neighbor came to the house while he was there: "He wrapped his arms around Charlie's dad for an hour. He said, 'We will forgive you.'

Daniel Esh, a 57-year-old Amish woodworker whose three grandnephews were inside the school at the time of the attack, told AP: "I hope they [Roberts' family members] stay around here and they'll have lots of friends and lots of support."

Residents of Lancaster County want to make sure the families of Amish victims have plenty of support as well. Several nonprofits have set up funds to help victims' families pay for medical costs. The Christian-based Upward Call Counseling Services, which has already served some of the families, is offering free counseling services as well. And a local bank has set up a fund to assist Roberts' widow and her three children.

Meanwhile, the families of the slain girls prepared to bury their daughters in white dresses in simple pine boxes placed in hand-dug graves in a cemetery near their homes in the town of Paradise. Emma Mae Zook, the teacher at the Nickel Mines schoolhouse, remembered the dead children as she visited with families shortly after the incident, according to the Intelligencer Journal. Zook, 20, told the families: "They were happy little girls."

Nickel Mines dead

The Pennsylvania school shooting was the third in a week. Three girls died at the schoolhouse-one in the arms of a state trooper-and two died overnight in hospitals. Those confirmed dead:

Naomi Rose Ebersol, 7; Marian S. Fisher, 13; Mary Liz Miller, 8, and sister Lena Z. Miller, 7; Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12

The shootings followed a Sept. 27 hostage-taking at a high school in Bailey, Colo., where gunman Duane R. Morrison killed himself and 16-year-old student Emily Keyes. Two days later 15-year-old Eric Hainstock killed rural Wisconsin high-school principal John Klang.

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.