Former Principal Advises: ‘Step Up and Take Charge’
Bill Bond’s easygoing nature and often self-deprecatory humor belie the toll that the shootings at Heath High School took on him.
The former principal slept infrequently and poorly for months after the Dec. 1, 1997, shootings at the West Paducah, Ky., school that left three students dead and five injured. In fact, he still has trouble sleeping. And while he was a picture of strength on campus, at home he was emotionally exhausted. He couldn’t talk about the violent incident for years.
His wife, Linda, said she saw a marked improvement in Mr. Bond when he took the job as a safety consultant for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in 2000. Her husband feels a sense of purpose, she said.
In Mr. Bond’s frequent talks to principals, assistant principals, teachers, and school resource officers around the country, he emphasizes the importance of strong leadership in a crisis.
“I don’t believe in caving in to fear. You have to either step up and take charge, or [the crisis] will destroy you,” he said in a recent interview. “Teachers need a leader. If you freak out, teachers freak out. And if teachers freak out, students will freak out.”
Mr. Bond reopened Heath High the day after the shootings. The tasks he managed included handling the news media, dealing with frightened parents, helping with students’ funerals, and trying to operate as normal a school day as possible after such a traumatic event.
“He was really the rock for our school,” said Russ Tilford, the current principal of Heath High and a former student and protégé of Mr. Bond. “He carried us through.”
Mr. Bond jokes that he now has an “ego problem” because he feels compelled to talk to educators about school safety so much. “I get a charge,” he said. “I get fired up.”
But he hopes they listen and take his story to heart. He wants to help them prevent violence at their schools, but at the same time, prepare for the worst that can happen.
Some of the lessons Mr. Bond learned included how to communicate with worried parents in a crisis, while not letting them overrun the campus searching for their children. He also drew up a plan for how teachers should conduct classes in the first days after a violent incident and made sure teachers, not just students, got crisis counseling.
He wryly noted that he learned to hold thrice-daily briefings for reporters, whom he plied with coffee and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. That way, he said, “They get so full, they don’t hunt down your kids.”
Mr. Bond gave countless interviews to newspapers and radio and TV stations and offered reporters access to other school officials and local law-enforcement officers.
It worked. The third day after the shooting, the dozens of journalists camped within shouting distance of the school shut their notebooks and turned off their videocameras and microphones. Then they left.
As difficult as the shootings were, Mr. Bond never was one to retreat from a challenge, he says.
His father was an ironworker who traveled from job to job, and his family moved frequently in East Texas and Tennessee when Mr. Bond, now 59, was growing up. In 2nd grade alone, he attended seven schools. So he had to establish himself pretty quickly with his new classmates. While he was the perpetual new kid on the block, little Billy Jack Bond was no one to mess with, he recalls.
The skinny boy from Fordyce, Ark., would pick fights after school. And he’d win. “I wouldn’t back down,” Mr. Bond said.
A quick study who found book learning easy, he also mouthed off to his teachers. “I was the guy in the back of the classroom that challenged authority,” he said. “Grades didn’t motivate me.”
What did motivate him was teaching environmental education. An avid hunter and fisherman, Mr. Bond graduated with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education with a concentration in chemistry. And in the 1970s, he taught public school students in Paducah’s urban core—many of whom had never set foot off blacktop—about plant and animal life, wilderness-survival skills, and self-sufficiency.
He brought that independent spirit to his eight-year tenure as the principal of Heath High. Mr. Bond started programs to improve test scores and create a more supportive school environment. They included block scheduling, a teacher/student adviser program, and a “Second Chance Saturdays” program, in which students redid work in classes they were in danger of failing. The latter program was so successful that other local schools adopted the program, he says.
Now as a practitioner in residence for the NASSP, he has another challenge: helping school leaders make their schools more safe and secure.
“This is my passion,” Mr. Bond said.