Tucked snuggly into the end of a cul-de-sac in a quiet Pennington, N.J. neighborhood, Camelot Nursery School does a nice impression of a suburban home. Other than pick-ups and drop offs, it doesn’t get a lot of traffic. So when the doorbell sounded around 10 a.m. on December 3, indicating someone had opened the door, the school’s director, Susan Galli, was surprised. She left her desk to see who was there and stood face to face with an unfamiliar man in the doorway.
“I thought it was a little bit odd because I didn’t have a tour that morning, so there was no reason for somebody to come in unannounced,” Galli recalls. “Then I noticed he had a knife in his hand.” The man cast an imposing figure—about 6’2″—especially in the puffy coat he wore to shield him from the cold. “I said, ‘Can I help you?’ and he replied, ‘I want to kill some kids.’”
With those words, she was suddenly cast into that nightmarish moment—that one you shudder to imagine and wonder what you’d do. But what she actually did likely saved kids and teachers from being hurt or killed.
While the neurons in her brain were firing off a torrent of warning signals to the rest of her body that this man represented a grave danger to the children, teachers, and to herself, she managed to keep her face calm and impassive.
As Galli approached him, she passed an open classroom door, turned her head, and very calmly mouthed to one of the teachers, Colleen Hanson, the words “lock down,” which set into motion a series of practiced protocols, including engaging the Hopewell Valley Police Department. While, under other circumstances, Galli might have reacted more demonstratively or even run, she says her instincts kicked in because the children were there. That proved to be what helped her act calmly and strategically, steadying her nerves when they should have been erratic.
“He repeated that he wanted to kill kids, and I said, ‘Okay, let me help you.’ And I think he was kind of flummoxed by that,” she says. Galli later learned that he was 51-year-old Kenneth Hauser, a mentally ill man from Ewing, N.J. who had been living in a halfway house near the College of New Jersey. “I opened the door and guided him out. I said, ‘Tell me what you want to do.’ He moved outside with me, then I closed the door, and one of the teachers immediately came over and locked the door behind us.”
Galli remembers clearly having an active inner-monologue as she walked out the door, a calm exterior giving way to an adrenaline-flooded interior, frayed nerves, and fear for her students. “I asked myself, Are you prepared to take this to the end? Would you do whatever it takes to stop him at this point? Is a confrontation your only option? And I realized it wasn’t,” she says. “That didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right to be aggressive right away. I decided I would try to work it out and get him out. I was also thinking that it really wouldn’t be good for the kids either.
“I felt like we didn’t need a savior. What we needed was just for me to stall.”
From the moment the door shut behind them to the moment the police arrived felt like about 12 minutes, likely the longest and most courageous minutes of Galli’s life, as she maneuvered Hauser around the property.
The plan that unfurled in her head was simply to keep him talking, to show compassion, interest, and provide a distraction from his purported desire to kill children. And that’s exactly what she did—engaged Hauser in conversation until the police arrived—while remaining cognizant of the 7-inch knife he held at his side.
Galli asked Hauser question after question: Did his parents know where he was? Did he like Christmas? Why did he want to hurt kids? By approaching Hauser in a nonthreatening way, Galli says she was able to keep him off-balance and distracted long enough for the police to arrive.
“When they got here, they took over. They told him to freeze and drop his weapon, and he tried to hide in a neighbor’s shed. But they had him,” Galli recalls. “I immediately ran back into the school, because I knew they had the situation under control. The police were absolutely brilliant.”
While Galli wouldn’t change any of her actions, she knows she was incredibly lucky that he had a knife instead of a gun. Secondly, she was grateful she was the one that answered the door, instead of a person who might have tried to handle the situation by confronting Hauser physically.
The police arrested Hauser and took statements from Galli and some of the staff. They asked Galli to send an e-mail notifying the parents that an incident had occurred but that the kids were all safe. “The threat was completely gone, and the police didn’t want parents driving at breakneck speed and possibly getting in an accident or stepping through where the knife had been dropped,” Galli explains. “They wanted the whole crime scene and everything to be as protected as possible because they wanted a conviction. They wanted to make sure that all the t’s were crossed and the i’s were dotted. Parents were upset because they said they wanted more information. But we couldn’t have done that, and the parents couldn’t have done anything. It was already over, and the police wanted it managed in that way.”
Galli had the locks changed and a new security system and cameras installed because of this incident, but she says the unfortunate reality is that if someone wants to get into a school, it’s difficult to stop them. “They don’t respect those boundaries. They could come in by breaking a window, for example. The police will be called, but it’s going to take them 10-15 minutes to get there.” That’s why she urges parents to carefully consider the character of the people at a school even more than the security systems or the facilities. “Look at the people in charge and ask yourself, Do these people make me feel comfortable?” Galli says. “If something happens, are the people watching your children people you trust?”
For the parents of the 70 kids at Camelot Nursery School, Galli was exactly the knight they needed on that December day, so now more than ever the answer is a resounding yes.