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Photo contributed by Maria Latham / Molly Hudgens is the first recipient from Tennessee, and only the tenth female recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor Citizens Honor medal awarded to her by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in 2017.

It takes Molly Hudgens, a guidance counselor and the only recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor Citizens Honor medal in Tennessee, about 30 minutes to give the short version of the day she stopped a middle school student with a gun from shooting up the school.

What she did during those 90 minutes with the 14-year-old to talk him into letting her take the .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol and rounds of ammo strapped around his ankle is heroic enough, but it's what she did in the 18 years leading up to that Wednesday at Sycamore Middle School in Pleasant View, Tennessee, near Nashville, that likely saved untold lives.

Hudgens will return to Chattanooga and the Charles Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center on Saturday, Feb. 20, to promote her book, "Saving Sycamore: The School Shooting That Never Happened," and to celebrate the museum's one-year anniversary.

On Sept. 18, 2016, Hudgens was in her office around 7:30 in the morning when a student she had counseled on the prior Friday came in and said he needed a follow-up chat. She arranged for him to come back later in the morning. Just after 8, he was back saying he didn't think he could wait.

"Within 15 minutes, I knew something was very wrong," she said. "His eyes were jittery and darting around the room. I felt light-headed and thought I might pass out.

"He said, 'I have something to tell you that I bet you've never heard before.' I said, 'Well, I've been here a long time, so maybe I have.'"

That's when he showed her the gun clipped in a holster to his ankle.

"I said, 'Let me take that and we can talk.'"

As scared as she was, Hudgens said she had been preparing for just such an occasion for 18 years.

Her first year in teaching was in 1999, a year that saw six major shooting events culminating with the mass killings at Columbine High School in Colorado. Two seniors at the school killed 12 students and one teacher that year and the tragedies resonated with Hudgens that she would dedicate her life to being a guidance counselor instead of a teacher and she would educate herself on school shootings in particular.

"I left the classroom in 2009 and went into counseling. I believe it was God's hand. I researched everything I could find about school shootings."

She also chose to stay in middle school rather than move up to high school because she said that age is especially tough, and she believes that's when they need help.

"If they are having trouble or hearing voices, I want them to come to me so we can intervene while they are still young enough to help."

If you go

* What: Lecture and book signing with Molly Hudgens

* Where: Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, 2 Aquarium Way, Suite 104

* When: 2 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 20

* Phone: 423-877-2525

 

She created a training program for recognizing red flags and the educator's role in recognizing the potential for school violence. She said kids are in need of help everywhere, even in a small town like Pleasant View.

"I believed it could be possible to happen here, and here it was happening. I couldn't believe it."

Hudgens believes many things happened leading up to that morning that helped prevent what could have been another school-shooting related tragedy. She also feels those same activities led to a positive outcome for the young man, the school and the community afterwards.

"Here, we focus on physical health first, mental health next and then we teach," she said.

She believes the school had created an environment that not only encouraged students to talk to their teachers and counselors but one that encouraged students to raise their hand when they saw a fellow student in need. The week prior to the incident, Hudgens led a classroom guidance lesson about how one life can make a difference.

"If you see someone in need, reach out and help," she told them. "There may be a time when the person who needs help is you."

On the Friday of that week in 2016, a student approached Hudgens about a friend who needed help. She sought him and they talked.

"He had a lot to pour out and, for close to 45 minutes, I just listened."

He returned that Wednesday with the gun.

"I believe he came to me first because we had talked, but he obviously had thought about it all weekend and Monday and Tuesday and still felt he had to go through with it."

Hudgens said that after the student said he couldn't give up the gun, she walked over and knelt beside him and intertwined her hand with his right hand.

"I knew he was left-handed and that if he was going to shoot me, it'd have to be with his left hand."

She stayed that way for nearly the full 90 minutes and the two talked and cried and cried some more.

Then she did something that she thinks about a great deal still.

"I said, 'God has a plan for you.' He immediately stiffened and asked if I believed God has a plan."

Immediately she thought, "'Why did I do that? He's gonna shoot me now.'"

Hudgens said she knew from her research that the mention of God and religion can be a trigger for people who feel at the end of their rope.

Hudgens did not recount what issues the young man had, but said he had not been bullied and his reason for bringing the gun was not to seek some sort of revenge, but he clearly had some demons telling him that shooting people at his school was something he had to do.

"He said, 'Do you know how many times I've asked God to help and he hasn't?'"

But, Hudgens said, her next thought was about the Apostle Peter and his denial of knowing Jesus, "and I knew I was not going to deny."

Her next thought is something that comes up during her many lectures around the country, especially up North and in Texas, she said, when she speaks to public school staff.

"I was worried I'd lose my job for mentioning God and religion, but I prayed the most heartfelt prayer of my life with him. Thanking God for bringing him to this school and me. We cried the whole time with his eyes squeezed shut.

"We have separation of church and state, and we know that. It is not legal to have prayer unless it is student-initiated or student-led."

She said the subject came up only once after the shooting when a school official said only, "'Molly, I don't care what you did, you saved a lot of lives.'"

After, the young man noticed a medal Hudgens had gotten for running a marathon and asked about it. She told him she loved to run and kneeling was hard on her knees. He asked her to sit, but she said, "I won't until you give me the gun."

"As I held his hand, we just talked. He understood he was already in trouble. He believed that if he did not go through with the shooting, there would be even more trauma for him."

Hudgens said she suggested she take the gun from him, so that he wouldn't have to voluntarily give it up. That seemed to appease him, and she got the weapon and the bullets and locked them in a filing cabinet.

Taking her seat, she managed to send texts to the school resource officer, who calmly arrived and safely escorted the young man out without anyone else knowing what had happened.

Hudgens said what has happened since that day makes her more proud of her school and the community. Two days after the event, a student asked if the staff was going to address the issue with students or "sweep it under the rug."

Staff gathered the students together "and answered every question they had. They knew the student, but we asked that they not reveal it or talk about it, and they haven't four years later.

"My prayer was that he would have a second chance and not go to jail, but get help, and he did. I'm proud to tell you he has graduated and he has a job."

Hudgens said averted school shootings are a rarity and of the ones that are known, "There has never been one like mine. To me, what's different is the thing nobody will touch with a 10-foot pole, and that is the God thing. I believe that the praying with me was the game-changer."

She recounts that message in her talks across the country and also tells fellow counselors, teachers and administrators, "There is a kid right now on your heart. Go back right now and talk to them."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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