Adolescence is a time that most of us would rather not relive. It is a time of awkwardness and insecurity, and rarely a time of roaring courage. It is difficult to get through this time in life under normal circumstances, but these days, the threat of school violence can make the life of a teenager even more stressful.
The two stories we share today show the immense courage it takes for a student to report their peers and our responsibility, as the adults in the room, to listen and take action.
Overheard on the Bus
(Uniontown, Pennsylvania – 2018)
Imagine being 14 years old, sitting quietly on a bus, and overhearing a classmate bragging about his plans to carry out a shooting at your school. People laugh nervously or brush him off, but part of you knows there is truth behind what he is saying. You’ve seen him get angry. You’ve heard him talk about his weapons before. You’ve seen the news about shootings at other schools, and deep down, you know there’s always a possibility it could happen to your school. To your friends. To you. You also know that if you were to tell anyone, you could become the number one target if you are not taken seriously.
This is the pressure facing kids today, and this is exactly what happened in Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 2018.
One brave student told his parents and later authorities what he heard on the school bus that day. Police carried out a search warrant on the classmate’s home and found one semi-automatic rifle, one shotgun, two lever-action rifles, one revolver, one crossbow and bulk ammunition for all weapons in the 14 year-old’s bedroom. They also found throwing knives and two machetes.
In their investigation, police learned that the student was planning to target four individuals at his school and open fire on the rest of the school. He had a specific plan for targeting the individuals with a sniper rifle, as well as a plan for causing mass casualties with other weapons. He also told police how easy it would be to get his guns inside the school.
The student was arrested and charged with terroristic threats, possession of firearms by a minor, and criminal attempt to commit catastrophe.
The reporting student was hailed by parents and school faculty as a hero. His courage was not lost on those who would have been directly affected by these horrific plans.
A Haunting Online Conversation
(Arlington, Vermont – 2018)
When Angela McDevitt reconnected with an old friend on Facebook, she noticed immediately that something was wrong. The Jack Sawyer she had known before was “a very kind person,” but months after they had last seen each other, he had grown despondent. Their conversation took a turn when he started talking about his desire to carry out a shooting at his old high school in Vermont, the same school that Angela still attended.
It was February 2018, and the day after their conversation, the Parkland shooting in Florida happened. Seventeen people were killed by a former student.
Angela knew she needed to talk to Jack again. Not only was their previous conversation haunting her, she knew they had a mutual friend who had attended the school in Florida.
She got on Facebook and brought up the shooting to Jack, mentioning their mutual friend. She expressed how horrified she was by the events, and asked him what he thought. His response? “That’s fantastic.”
At that point, she knew she had to tell someone about their conversation. Unsure of who to contact, she first sent an email to her school’s guidance counselor saying she needed to speak to her in the morning about something urgent. After a sleepless night, she spoke to the school social worker the next morning and showed him the messages from Jack. The social worker then shared the information with the SRO (School Resource Officer) and Sheriff’s Deputy. The message was then distributed to police.
As it turned out, she was not the only one who had noticed a change in Jack. Another friend had reported that his demeanor had changed dramatically, and he was already on the authorities’ radar.
Once Angela submitted her report, police learned that Jack had made a series of threats against his former school, and he had recently purchased a shotgun and four boxes of ammunition from a local sporting goods store.
Jack Sawyer was arrested the same day that Angela reported.
There are two important takeaways from these stories: 1. Students must feel empowered to report suspicious behavior from their peers; and 2. Adults must take them seriously when they do report. It is crucial for schools and communities to create an environment where students feel safe coming forward with information. These stories could have ended very differently if the adults had not taken these students seriously and acted quickly.
One important thing a school can do is make sure there is an anonymous reporting system in place that is being monitored daily. When students have information to share, they need to know where and how to report. If your school is already set up with the nSide platform, you can spread awareness about our anonymous TIPs page at tips.nside.io.
If you would like to learn more about how to improve your school’s safety plans, please contact us today. Our support team is available 24/7 to answer any questions you may have. You can reach us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, calling 1.800.604.1822, or by using our live chat function available on our website and on the platform.