Hours after tackling a student who fired two shots inside the busy commons area of North Thurston High School, teacher Brady Olson was thrown into the national spotlight.
Over the year since, he’s received numerous awards and special recognition for the April 27, 2015, act, including the Governor’s Lifesaving Award and the prestigious Carnegie Medal. Olson, 44, of Lacey said he’s been humbled by the attention and outpouring of support.
“I get emotional just thinking about how people have treated me and my family,” he said. “It’s just been fantastic. I want to figure out how to return the favor.”
Olson has taught government and civics at North Thurston for a decade. Before that, he taught at Black Hills High School in the Tumwater School District.
The 1990 Shelton High School graduate spent three years in the Army as a combat engineer before attending South Puget Sound Community College, Saint Martin’s University and City University.
In January, he announced a run for a seat in the state Legislature, but canceled it less than a month later, citing disillusionment over local party politics. He planned to run as a Democrat for a House seat in the 22nd Legislative District, and had raised nearly $7,000.
Olson sat down with The Olympian last week in his classroom at North Thurston to talk about the shooting and how it’s affected his life.
Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Q: You mentioned you’re a little bit on pins and needles this week. Is that how it is (for everybody at North Thurston)?
A: I haven’t heard anything from the students about it.
I think the one thing that’s a little bit different for me is that that was my son’s (13th) birthday, so he didn’t get much of a birthday, obviously. And so we have made it huge. We kind of call it the weeklong extravaganza for him.
I think I’m a little more conscious of it. I’m hoping the kids don’t think anything of it. That’s my hope.
Q: It was a few moments in your life, right? How much time was it?
A: From the time I realized it to the time it was over, you’re probably talking all of 30 seconds.
The one thing I love to get out are how many stories I’ve heard afterward: Of our PE teacher guarding the door with an umbrella because that’s all he had to grab, with 25 students behind him.
And some of the teachers in the upstairs. There’s an exit that they easily could have gone out, and they didn’t. They grabbed students — one of them was my daughter — and kept them in classrooms.
My daughter spent the next hour huddling in a corner, with the lights off, texting my wife.
Q: You weren’t able to be in contact with (your family), were you?
A: No. I was sequestered within the first little bit. I got to watch administration, our principal Steve (Rood), who was just as shocked and he was right there with me, as I was, gather himself, gain his composure as best he could and move forward. I didn’t have to do any of those things. So everyone keeps (talking about me), and I’m like, you know, “I fell on a kid, and I feel like I was just in a position to do it.”
After that, though, I saw some incredible things from our police force.
The first in the door was the graveyard shift who were technically off duty and happened to be driving by as they were heading back to the station, and they came in and cleared things.
And then you just saw police from Tumwater and Olympia and Lacey and the FBI.
I don’t think there’s any question that the school and the district and our community — I can’t say it enough — have been phenomenal.
One of the things I push forward and keep talking about is: How do we capture that feeling, without having to have a tragic situation?
Q: That sense of community, right?
A: Absolutely. … A big hug, that’s how it felt.
Q: Talk to me a little bit about the next few months. How long did it take you to process what happened?
A: I was ready to go back to work moments after it happened, but I think the biggest kind of “in my face” was when my wife wanted to see where it happened. I can describe it, but until you actually see that I was 7 feet away from the kid, along with my principal and my dean of students right behind me, with a .357 in his hand with hollow point bullets.
I think her emotional response, and her kind of looking at me, and like, “You realize what could have happened?” …That really started to set in about a week later.
One of the most pivotal things that happened was I hadn’t talked to my (older) brother in seven years. We had a falling out, and he immediately got in contact with me and we’ve been best buddies ever since.
And it’s gotten me closer with my family. A realizer that, wow, this is a finite amount of time.
Q: So it was kind of life-changing for you?
A: I don’t think there’s any question. I don’t like to try and, you know, make it more than it was. But for me? Yeah. My life has definitely been different.
My wife has said, “You are the same teacher and the same person who impacted kids, and now people get to know about it.”
I’ve gotten some definite perks because of it. Getting to throw out the Mariners pitch? I mean…
Q: What was that like?
A: I think that was pretty awesome.
(Another) one of the highlights: I’m a huge, huge Huskies fan, and Coach Peterson sent me a card, and a little gift of a coach’s jacket and shirt. … He’s just a class act and he sent me a great personalized handwritten card and said some nice things and that really made my day.
I got to go back to Washington, D.C., and have lunch with my congressmen, Denny Heck. Our family toured the White House.
The governor came to school. … He got to meet a bunch of the kids, and he came to my classroom spent about 20 minutes talking about civics and government. It was a thrill.
Q: You dipped toes in the political water a little bit. Kind of follow up with us on what’s new with that, or is there anything new?
A: I’ve thought about (running for public office), as I said before, for a long time.
My thought was that if I did get elected, I’d have to quit teaching. And I kind of got to this point where I can do that and have minimal impact based on the political climate that we’re in and have to raise money and raise money and raise money and you know please your party. Or I can say “You know what? I’m OK here.”
I think my new goal has been if I want to go out and talk about this and help in any way, any school district, or any business or any group that wants to listen to me, that’s kind of my new direction.
I’m speaking at the WASBO (Washington Association of School Business Officials) conference on May 12, and I’m kind of excited about that. It’s at the Convention Center in Tacoma.
I just kind of feel like if I can lend something, that’s my goal.
Q: Have you talked in front teachers about it, or teacher organizations?
A: WASBO is going to be my first opportunity. As we’re getting away from it a little more, people are now kind of going, “OK.” I think people have been afraid to ask me (to speak about the incident) and I really appreciate that. I think right now I feel like I have processed it to a degree where I think I can really do some good with having gone through the experience.
This belief that the body can’t go where the mind hasn’t been is kind of this idea that I use, that it’s easy to talk about certain events like this. We almost always talk about them in perfect situations or perfect scenarios. … This was an example that it happened in the morning with a full commons of 600 kids, and we reacted in an incredible way as a school and our district and police.
Q: So, do students ever talk to you about it?
A: Not so much anymore. In my press conference, it was funny, because my kids just kind of looked at me that next day. And I was kind of like, “You guys can talk about it. You guys can ask me questions.” I think there’s this real reluctance to want to (talk to me about it) and I think that just lends to how great our kids are.
Q: You’ve been referred to as a hero countless times. Who are some of your heroes?
A: My favorite president of all time was Teddy Roosevelt. He had an idea what he thought was best and he sold it. And he worked to both sides.
I looked at teachers that I work with differently.
The way my family handled it? I can’t say enough.
Steve Rood has been incredible. He’s only 10 years older than me, but he’s kind of like this dad figure who’s very protective of me, students and others.
If you’re looking for heroes, then I don’t think you need to go any further than the teachers in this building, there’s no question.
Q: In past interviews, you’ve also mentioned the kid were heroes.
A: Oh, there’s no question. The way the kids reacted and the way kids cared about others. … It was just amazing.
Q: What keeps you in education?
A: I think one of the ways you take stock on any job is thinking about getting away from it.
I’m the only teacher in this school that only teachers seniors. And having these young people with the excitement and “I’m going to kick the crap out of the world attitude,” which I love, and teaching government, which sometimes can be difficult, especially in this environment, and they are still are so idealistic and they still are so positive.
And I think it’s one of the things that kind of excites me and intrigues me and keeps me coming back.
I’m an old football coach, so this idea of getting the kids ready every Friday, it’s kind of how teaching is. Getting them ready and every June getting to push them off and say, “Make me proud.” It’s kind of fun.
Q: Tell us about the Carnegie Award.
A: It’s pretty humbling to be involved in that group. They do it four times a year, and there’s a few of them in this latest group that lost their lives doing what they did.
It makes you once again take stock in how lucky we all are and how this thing has worked out.