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For four hours on Sept. 11, 1991, Deanna Zent sat in a Stevens High School classroom, one of 22 students held hostage by a classmate with a sawed-off shotgun.

The experience changed her life.

"I became a school psychologist. It was a direct result," said Zent, who is now Deanna Woockman in Rapid City. "I wanted to help shape kids."

That day changed retired Rapid City Police Capt. Christopher Grant, main negotiator during the standoff, in other ways.

"It haunted my thoughts and dreams for some time afterward, and even to this day, I can clearly relive many of the moments of that day, especially the feeling of knowing that if I said the wrong thing to this individual, I would have felt responsible for the death or injury of the kids in that classroom," Grant said. "I think about it frequently because it was a very significant event for our community and significant personally."

In what was one of the first widely reported school violence incidents in the country - long before Columbine and Virginia Tech - 17-year-old Stevens High School student Ryan Harris carried a 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun into his Stevens math class the morning of Sept. 11, and ordered teacher Joe Pogany out. Police said Pogany prevented greater violence that day by leaving, removing a potential threat to Harris which would have likely escalated.

For the next four hours, communicating through the school public address system, Harris demanded everything from pizza and cigarettes to $1 million and a helicopter. Officer Tracy Wiest made the deliveries, "putting himself in harm's way," Grant said.

Grant said that while he did most of the talking with Harris, several other local law enforcement officers contributed to all aspects of the negotiation strategy.

"It was truly a team effort," he said.

During the standoff, Harris shot 10 rounds into the walls, ceiling and door of the classroom. Though they could hear, Grant and his fellow negotiators couldn't see what Harris was shooting at.

"It was terrifying for us. Every time that weapon was discharged, I anticipated hearing screaming," Grant said, "and a little bit of me died inside every time."

During negotiations, the Rapid City Police Department and Pennington County Sheriff's Department placed special response team sharpshooters on a nearby roof, where they could see Harris and shoot him if he appeared to be putting students' lives at immediate risk.

Woockman, who lived down the street from Harris throughout her childhood, believes that he suffered from bullying.

"He looked depressed all the time," she said.

Woockman said she is not sure Harris would have ever shot any students.

"I think it was more to say, ‘This is kind of cool. I'm going to shoot this,'" she said. "But nobody really knew what he was capable of."

Woockman said she believes Harris faced a difficult upbringing. She remembers him mostly as withdrawn and quiet.

Carrie Thovson, who now lives in Pittsburgh, was also in the classroom that day. Thovson attended St. Martin's Academy with Harris before both transferred to Stevens. Thovson said she worried more about Harris shooting himself than shooting anyone else during the standoff, but that didn't make the situation any less stressful.

"It was traumatizing," she said. "I remember my heart pounding in my head, and I've never felt that before or since."

As Grant continued to talk to Harris, Woockman said students were mostly calm. Thovson remembers them playing Hacky Sack and trying to act normal in order to keep Harris calm.

Woockman's father, Cliff Zent of Rapid City, was driving back from Fort Meade when he heard about the standoff on the radio.

"I never anticipated that my daughter might be involved in it," he said.

When he arrived at his job, he was immediately directed to Stevens.

"Then I think I knew she was in the classroom," Zent said.

Principal Ken Burnham and law enforcement officers directed Zent and other parents, including Jerry and Sandy Thovson, into a room. There, parents were kept updated. It was quiet and tense. "As parents, we were all just trying to figure out what could be done and what was going on," said Thovson.

Shortly before 3 p.m., not quite four hours in, Harris briefly laid down his weapon just long enough for Stevens senior Chris Ericks to grab it and end the standoff. Fellow student Joe Keough also helped, Woockman said.

"To this day, I'm so proud of Chris Ericks for having the courage to do what he did to bring the situation to a close," Grant said.

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Ericks declined to be interviewed for this story, but in 1991 he told the Rapid City Journal that "I knew there was no way anybody in that room was going to get out unless somebody inside took some action."

Harris told police he was acting out a scene from a favorite Stephen King novel, "Rage."

He eventually pleaded guilty to one count of kidnapping, three counts of aggravated assault and one count of intentional damage to school property. He was sentenced as an adult to 40 years probation on the condition he completed psychiatric treatment, pay for counseling for his victims and pay for damage to the school.

Harris walked away from a Colorado psychiatric unit in April 1992, returning on his own days later. He was then placed in a locked ward, according to Journal stories.

Principal Burnham had been at Stevens since 1984 when the standoff took place. He said the ordeal had a profound effect on him.

While the students were confident they wouldn't be hurt, he was far more concerned.

"I never thought it would be OK and we would just go back to classes," he said.

He credits law enforcement for handling the delicate standoff with precision and caution.

"The one thing I probably have thought about more than anything is that we were able to get through it without anyone being shot or injured," he said. "That could have happened very easily."

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Woockman and Thovson, as well as their fathers, also heap great praise on local law enforcement officers for their ability to defuse the situation.

"He did a great job of keeping Ryan calm," Woockman said of Grant.

"The police and the SWAT team, they did a great job," said Thovson.

Following the standoff, Grant was asked to speak to other police departments around the country about negotiation techniques. And in 1998, police in North Carolina called Grant for help with Harris, who was involved in another standoff.

According to Journal articles, North Carolina discovered a woman who had been shot dead in an apartment complex parking lot. Witnesses told police that a man who looked like Harris was last seen with her. When police attempted to pull over Harris' vehicle, he fled to a convenience store. The store clerk locked Harris out, but he held police at bay outside the store with a semiautomatic pistol for 15 hours.

"I recall telling the officer that in all likelihood, law enforcement would either have to kill him or he would kill himself," Grant said.

He was right. Harris shot and killed himself in that standoff.

While Grant continued to work as a negotiator for a year or two more, he eventually "left the team," he said.

"The Stevens situation had something to do with that decision," he said. "That responsibility is very demanding, very stressful and although I know I could have continued to do that work, I felt it best to allow others the opportunity to do so."

Grant eventually retired from the police department as captain and now works as a gang and drug specialist, largely with Native American tribal communities.

Thovson believes the standoff hasn't affected her work choices - she works in digital photography and advertising - but it may have made her more sensitive.

"It makes me look at people who are kind of broken in a different way," she said. "It's hard for them."

Though she chose a career in child psychology, Woockman is now staying home with her five sons, ages 2, 4, 6, 7 and 8. She occasionally thinks about the standoff and the fellow student who was bullied and depressed and whose life came to a tragic end.

"I just felt so bad that he suffered so much," she said.

"In the big picture ... it's just been my reminder that there are no guarantees in life. You have to appreciate what you have," said Woockman.

Contact Lynn Taylor Rick at 394-8414 or lynn.taylorrick@rapidcityjournal.com.

 

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