School Climate & Safety

Safety Expert Shares Hard-Won Wisdom

By Rhea R. Borja — May 10, 2005 6 min read
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Bill Bond watched as 40 students slouched into a classroom here at Lame Deer High School on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, chatting with friends and studiously ignoring him. As he spoke, many looked at the tall white man placidly. But some whispered to classmates, doodled in their notebooks, or stared at the floor.

That didn’t bother the safety consultant for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, a job that’s back in the news with the recent school shootings in Red Lake, Minn.

Bill Bond, a former principal whose school in West Peducah, Ky., experienced a deadly shooting, talks to educators in Montana.

He knew he’d soon have their attention on this snowy April morning.

Mr. Bond was the principal of Heath High School in suburban West Paducah, Ky., on Dec. 1, 1997, when a 14-year-old freshman shot three fellow students to death. The gunman wounded five more, paralyzing one from the waist down.

The incident took only 12 seconds. But Mr. Bond replays it every day. He feels compelled to share his story, a deadly lesson that he wants other administrators and students to learn from.

“Kids said, ‘Oh, I didn’t want to get him in trouble,’ ” he told the students here, recalling the attitudes of some Heath High students, an edge cutting his soft Southern drawl.

Mr. Bond looked down at the Lame Deer students, his eyes dark. “But they don’t know what trouble is.”

On the Road

As the resident practitioner for safe and orderly schools for the NASSP, Mr. Bond travels at least 40 weeks a year to talk to administrators, teachers, and school resource officers about responding to school crises.

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Mr. Bond, 59, retired from Heath High School in 2000, after the last of the students wounded in the 1997 shootings graduated. The community rallied around the school, which reopened the day after the slayings. Both enrollment and test scores rose.

“If I didn’t open the school because of fear, who was really in control? The killer,” Mr. Bond said. “And no way was I going to let that happen.”

The fall after his retirement, he began working for the Reston, Va.-based NASSP, where his position was funded by a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education. When that grant expired, AIG/Valic, a subsidiary of AIG, an insurance and financial-services company based in New York City, stepped in with an $85,000 annual grant.

Mr. Bond is one of a select band of experts who help administrators with the wrenching task of moving on after violent incidents. While educators who have had a shooting at their school tend to shun outsiders, they welcome him.

At 6 feet 5 inches tall, he cuts a lean and imposing figure. But his down-home demeanor and easy charm—he calls himself “just a redneck with good shoes”—puts people at ease.

He helped educators at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., after a student shot and killed two other students there in 2001. Mr. Bond was also in Red Lion, Pa., after a student shot and killed a principal in 2003.

And he flew to Minnesota to counsel the educators at Red Lake High School after the March 21 shootings there left eight people dead at the school. In their grief, Red Lake staff members seemed to be at a loss about how to proceed.

Mr. Bond gave them a shoulder to lean on as well as practical, advice on when and how to reopen school. The school, on an American Indian reservation, opened again three weeks later with his help.

“He really helped lift the spirits of everybody,” said Chris Dunshee, 57, the principal of the 270-student Red Lake High, who is recuperating from an April 26 heart attack. “He has that calming reassurance that it’s OK to feel fear, doubt.”

Here in Montana, the principal of the 160-student Lame Deer High School, which shares many of Red Lake’s demographics and challenges, asked Mr. Bond to speak last month in the hope of avoiding any such violence at his school.

“His life experience gives him instant credibility,” said Principal Tobin S. Novasio, 32. “He’s been through it. His message really hit home.”

While Lame Deer High hasn’t had to deal with students bringing guns onto campus, several nearby schools have, including an elementary school, Mr. Novasio said.

Mr. Bond spoke to the students here of Jeff Weise, the 16-year-old who shot and killed five other students, a teacher, a security guard, and himself at Red Lake High. The boy had also fatally shot his grandfather and his grandfather’s companion.

“He just started shooting in cold blood. Then he put the gun to his head and blew half his face away,” Mr. Bond said to the 9th and 10th graders.

“There was blood everywhere,” he said, spreading his arms wide. His voice dropped almost to a whisper. “That floor stank so bad you could hardly walk into [the school].”

The room quieted down and the students, even the cool boys in the back, listened intently.

‘Big-Picture Guy’

Mr. Bond’s calm confidence and logic in a crisis were two reasons the NASSP hired him, said John Nori, the director of school services for the 33,000-member secondary school principals’ group.

“He’s a big-picture guy,” he said. “He can say, ‘OK, we need a place for the press; we need a response team for teachers; we need a response team for parents.’ ”

He told of how Mr. Bond was in Washington for a meeting two years ago when a local high school student shot another student. Soon after Mr. Bond heard about the incident, he hopped into a taxi to go to the school to help.

Bill Bond speaks at Lame Deer High School in Montana last month. He travels 40 weeks a year, sharing the story of shootings in West Paducah Ky., and hoping to prevent other such incidents.

Marleen Wong, the director of crisis counseling and intervention services for the Los Angeles Unified School District, is also part of the loose network of people called to help after school shootings.

“He’s a very straightforward person who just comes right out and says, ‘I went through this. I understand what you’re going through,’ ” she said of Mr. Bond. “What distinguishes him is that he wants to share his experiences.”

When Mr. Bond tells his story, he spares no details.

Monday, Dec. 1, 1997, started out much like any other school day. At 7:41 a.m., the school halls were still quiet. Mr. Bond watched as a prayer group of 35 students stood nearby, their heads bowed, their lips moving. A secretary said he had a phone call, and he stepped inside his office. Less than a minute later, gunshots echoed in the hallway.

“I heard, ‘Pow! Pow!’ ” Mr. Bond said in an interview. “I hoped it was firecrackers.”

He ran outside and Michael Carneal was standing not 20 feet away from him, firing five more shots in an arc. Students were lying on the ground, bleeding. Mr. Bond rushed toward Mr. Carneal, who put down his gun.

The principal grabbed the .22-caliber pistol with one hand and Mr. Carneal’s arm with the other, while fending off other students who ran to the scene. Mr. Bond also scooped up four other loaded guns nearby, as well as a backpack filled with 1,020 rounds of ammunition.

One bullet was left in the chamber of the gun. Mr. Bond still wonders why the student gunman, now serving a life sentence in prison, didn’t shoot him. And he still feels guilty that he lived, while three young women died.

Daily Prayers

Every day, he prays for them. And he makes it a point to say their names aloud: Nicole Hadley, 14; Kayce Steger, 15; and Jessica James, 17. But Mr. Bond refuses to say the name of the 9th grade gunman ever again.

“I went to Nicole, and her brains were coming out of her head,” he said in a whisper, tracing a finger to his forehead. His voice, normally resolute, shook a little. “I laid her back down. I felt so bad. But there was nothing I could do. I moved on to the next student.”

That was Ms. Steger, who was shot in the carotid artery of her neck. Every time her heart beat, blood spurted out of the wound. Ms. James, who was shot in the chest above her heart, was still standing, leaning against a wall.

“I told her, ‘Lie down, lie down, you’ll be all right,’ ” Mr. Bond recalled, looking stricken. “I lied. Within 37 minutes, she was dead.”

His wife, Linda, says from their home in Paducah that she believes her husband’s life was spared so he can encourage educators to better know their students and prevent shootings.

Mr. Bond wishes that he had been closer to some of his students, and that those who knew Mr. Carneal was planning “something big” had alerted him.

After his presentation here, the former principal gives an almost imperceptible shrug. For a moment, he looks tired. While he speaks often, Mr. Bond says he doesn’t know how much he’s done to help. “I don’t know if it’ll ever do any good,” he said, watching the students leave. Then he squares his shoulders. “But it won’t do any harm.”

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