Philip Barbour teacher tells hostage survival story; offers lessons learned to other school officials

By Shauna Johnson in News
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When students return to Philip Barbour High School on Aug. 15 to start the new school year, Twila Smith, a freshman world studies teacher, will be among the staff members again ready to teach them.
To start the new year, she’s returning to the same classroom where she and 29 students were held hostage by a 14-year-old freshman boy with a gun nearly a year ago.

“Yes, it’s going to be difficult. This has been a long, at some times, dark journey for me,” Smith, a 30 year education veteran, told MetroNews.

“One of the reasons that I am going back is because I have hope and I am a teacher first and I want to continue to be a teacher for a little bit longer.”

She taught for the second half of the previous school year in alternative classroom space.

“It is not a good feeling to be afraid to go somewhere that you have loved going and so that has been difficult, but I am headed back into the classroom,” she said.

Smith was in Charleston Tuesday to speak to school administrators from across West Virginia during the West Virginia Center for Professional Development’s 3rd Safe Schools Summit.

Geared toward school principals, the Summit provides a venue for topics that include drug awareness, school threat assessments and decision making, bullying, suicide prevention and appropriate uses of social media.

It was during 6th period on Aug. 25, 2015 when Smith said a student who was not assigned to her class entered her classroom. “You’re going to die today,” Smith said is what the student told her as he put a gun to her head.

While he kept the gun on her, Smith said the student told her to lock the door, cover the window and throw her keys across the room.

He also had the students in the classroom put their phones away and made them hold their hands in the air before starting to single out students for questioning, telling them if they didn’t answer correctly, they were going to die, according to Smith.

No one knew what was happening inside that classroom until the bell rang for the next period and a teacher across the hall realized something was wrong because Smith was stopping students from entering her classroom.

“I didn’t think I was going to walk out of that room, but I was not going to let another child walk in,” she said Tuesday.

The teen boy, who at times put the gun to his own head in Smith’s classroom, later released all of the hostages unharmed and surrendered to authorities after talking with his church pastor. He was taken to a juvenile detention facility.

Smith said the situation could easily have ended much more violently.

As the end of the summer neared, “There’s kids that don’t want to come back to school in August so now, if they don’t feel safe, we’ve given them another reason not to come to school,” Smith said.

“They’re not going to learn if they don’t feel safe.”

During her Safe Schools Summit talk, Smith called for greater police presence in schools; regular, active safety meetings; school-based mental health services; school transition help and coordinated community efforts in support of school safety.

“I want every school to walk away today, the people that are here, and say, ‘I’m going to go and make mine the safest school in West Virginia,’” she said of the lessons she hoped other school officials would learn from what happened at Philip Barbour High School.