It’s a September morning in Illinois, and the Mattoon High School cafeteria is starting to fill with students enjoying an early lunch. Suddenly, shots ring out, and this everyday scene turns into a nightmare of terrifying proportions. Then, one teacher steps into the fray, her mind focused only on stopping the carnage before it begins.
Angela McQueen was born and raised in Marshall, a city in eastern Illinois close to the border with Indiana. There, she attended Marshall High School, where she developed a passion for basketball. A talented player, she notched up over 1,000 points over the course of her time as a student.
And McQueen wasn’t just one of the stars of the Marshall Lions basketball team. She was also a committed Christian, known for her kind and caring personality. Although her contemporaries remember her as aggressive on the court, her community recalls a gentle young woman with strong religious beliefs.
In 1995 McQueen graduated from Marshall High School, going on to study at Eastern Illinois University. After gaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physical education, as well as a master’s in educational administration, she took a position at Danville High School, some 50 miles from her hometown.
After a year in Danville, McQueen left to begin teaching at Mattoon High School in the small town of Mattoon, IL. There, she taught both physical education and mathematics. In her faculty profile, she wrote that she wanted to become a teacher in order to “make the world a better place.”
“There are so many negative influences in the world,” she continued. “I wanted to provide a positive role model.” To that end, she also became involved in the school’s “Believe it or not I care” – or B.I.O.N.I.C. – program, working to build stronger communities through service-learning.
To all intents and purposes, then, McQueen was a model teacher, admired and respected by the students at her school. But one September morning, all that would be put to the test as a nightmare descended on the sleepy community of Mattoon.
September 20, 2017, began just like any other day for the 1,000 or so students attending Mattoon High School. Then, at around 11:30 a.m., something happened that would change their lives forever. As groups of young people began to gather in the cafeteria for lunch, gunshots rang out across the room.
All around the school, the reality of what was happening began to sink in. In the girls’ bathroom, someone dialed 911 to report gunfire in the hallway. Meanwhile, school officials heard the shots and raced towards the source of the commotion. But by the time that they arrived, things were already in hand.
Apparently, McQueen had been in the cafeteria when the shooter, who was reported to have been a white male, launched his attack. Allegedly, he fired one round, striking a victim in the chest. Then, with no thought to her own safety, McQueen tackled the gunman and managed to grab his arm.
According to witnesses, McQueen was able to keep the shooter’s arm pointing towards the ceiling as he continued to fire another five or six rounds. Apparently, in the chaos, another victim was hit. But by the time that a school resource officer arrived on the scene, McQueen had managed to subdue the attacker.
The suspect was disarmed and then restrained until police officers arrived on the scene. Meanwhile, the local community had descended into panic. With no clear idea about what had happened inside the building, parents began to descend upon the school en masse.
As the dust settled, it became clear that McQueen’s actions had stopped a far greater tragedy from taking place. “Lives were saved by the quick response of a teacher here,” Mattoon Police Chief Jeff Branson subsequently told a news conference, as quoted by The New York Times.
Meanwhile, Mattoon students were also full of praise for their teacher. “She was walking around and making sure everything was OK,” Anna Morton told CBS News. “And I went up and gave her a hug and thanked her. Because that could have been a lot worse.”
Although Branson told the press that McQueen had been trained to deal with such situations, there can be no doubt that the 40-year-old teacher has become a hero in the eyes of her community. In fact, she has been inundated with offers of free dinners and drinks. And homemade placards expressing gratitude have appeared outside her home.
“Some people may be surprised because she’s a little timid and quiet,” fellow teacher Amy Hines, who grew up with McQueen, told The News-Gazette. “But overall most people know if someone was going to do it, she’s the person people figured would jump in there and get things taken care of like she did.”
Similarly, McQueen’s mother Barbara told the Chicago Tribune that her daughter had acted on her “strong Christian values.” But despite all the publicity that her actions have received, McQueen herself has kept out of the spotlight.
Meanwhile, the suspect, who has not been named, was taken into custody immediately after the event. He was allegedly a freshman at the school, and some reports have suggested that he may have been the victim of bullying by other students. Currently, he is said to be undergoing assessments for any mental disorders he may suffer from.
Back in Mattoon, meanwhile, the two students who were injured are recovering well, and things are slowly returning to normal. But while some of the pupils are still understandably on edge, they can relax knowing that McQueen will still be there to protect them. As early as the day after the incident, in fact, she had already returned to work.
Shockingly, however, the incident was the fifth high-school shooting to take place in central Illinois in as little as a month. And as the Mattoon community counts its blessings, there are countless other families around the country for whom the ending was not so happy.