Lessons Seen in Handling Of Alleged School Plot

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Investigators say it could have been another Columbine.

A group of teenage boys in New Bedford, Mass., allegedly planned to emerge from a high school restroom with handguns and shotguns hidden inside their black trench coats. When the bell rang for the change of class periods, they would "come out shooting everyone in sight from thugs, to preps, to faculty," according to police reports.

But another student's decision to alert school authorities to those plans, followed by five weeks of intense cooperation between police and school officials, is being credited with foiling the alleged plot and preventing a tragedy potentially on the scale of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo. That incident left 15 people dead, including the two student gunmen.

That students and staff members at New Bedford High School did not meet a similar fate is viewed as evidence by school security experts and police that lessons learned from Columbine and other campus shootings in recent years are finally taking hold.

More schools are heading off copycat incidents, they say, thanks to closer relationships with local police, increased safety training, and new efforts on the part of teachers and administrators to gain students' trust.

"Columbine was a wakeup call—there's no question about that," Lt. Richard M. Spirlet of the New Bedford police department said last week. "As a result of Columbine, we were able to be ahead of the curve rather than behind it. One of the things that worked in our favor is that we reacted right away."

New Bedford police charged five teenagers as co-conspirators in the plot.

Officers arrested three of the suspects in the early-morning hours of Nov. 24. Those students, 17-year-old Eric McKeehan and two 15-year-olds whose names were not released, pleaded not guilty on Nov. 26 to conspiracy to commit murder and other charges. Two other students, Amy Lee Bowman, 17, and an unidentified 16-year-old, were arrested the next day on the same charges, Lt. Spirlet said.

Except for Ms. Bowman, who recently transferred to another school, all are currently enrolled at New Bedford High.

Police searches of some of the teenagers' homes yielded recipe books for bombs, an array of knives, shotgun shells, a voodoo doll with a noose around its neck, pictures of Adolf Hitler and other Nazis, notebooks with "satanic and death writings," an ax, and billy clubs, according to court documents.

'A Family Approach'

Despite the disturbing details of the suspected conspiracy, one of the stories unfolding in New Bedford last week was about trust and cooperation.

"I attribute this potential tragedy being averted to a family approach we take here at the school," said Joseph S. Oliver, the headmaster of the 3,300-student public high school.

Visitors to the school are greeted by a large sign at the front entrance that reads, "Welcome to the New Bedford Family." It's a place where New Bedford Superintendent of Schools Joseph S. Silva says students "are comfortable interacting and sharing their thoughts with a teacher."

The investigation was launched because a New Bedford High student confided in a teacher that she had overheard several students planning an attack that would "surpass the Columbine tragedy," according to police reports.

The teacher immediately shared the student's tip with an assistant principal, who took it to one of the school's two police officers.

Elsewhere, unwillingness by students to come forward with rumors and threats of violence has been deemed a critical failure in school security in recent years, a gap in communication that can lead to deadly consequences. ("Student Tips Called Key to Avert Violence," March 14, 2001.)

Lately, though, "one of the number-one things administrators have really been doing is trying to change the school culture, to make the switch from 'snitch' to 'tell,' " said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm in Cleveland. "Nowadays, they're really working hard to ingrain in the culture ... that you could save lives, including your own, by coming forward with this kind of stuff."

The students at New Bedford High School are repeatedly coached about the importance of telling an adult about threats or rumors of violence, and teachers are taught to take tips seriously, Mr. Oliver said. "This student thought about everything we'd talked about and decided it was important to come forward with this information," he said of the girl who told the teacher what she had heard.

New Bedford High's full-time police officers—who began working in the school this September—and the city police department also took the student's tip seriously and started collecting names and other details in what would be a five-week investigation.

While the presence of police officers in schools has been widely debated, it has also been credited with preventing deaths. Both Mr. Oliver and the police department said last week that the officers at New Bedford High had proved themselves essential.

"It goes without saying that the newly instituted [school police officer] programs in the schools have had a positive impact on the flow of information between officers, school staff, and most off all, the students," Lt. Spirlet wrote in a press release.

Another break in the investigation came two weeks ago when a janitor found and turned in a note detailing the students' alleged plans to blow up bombs at their school and shoot fleeing students.

Mr. Oliver said the custodian's actions reflect the fact that the administration includes support-staff employees in the school's safety training, a step security consultants encourage all administrators to take.

"Secretaries, janitors, and bus drivers are equally important in a school's safety plan," Mr. Trump said. "It's the secretary who takes the bomb-threat call, the janitor who will find the threatening note, and the bus driver who is the first and last person to see the students each day. They can really play a critical role."

Vol. 21, Issue 14, Page 3

Published in Print: December 5, 2001, as Lessons Seen in Handling Of Alleged School Plot
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