At a standing-room-only public forum held at Key Peninsula Middle School the evening of April 18, concerned parents asked hard questions in the aftermath of a thwarted incident resulting in the arrest of three students on April 7. The three boys were charged with allegedly planning to set fire to the school then shoot certain students and staff members. Much has been publicized about the aborted plot; however, telling components included in the police report, made public in a Pierce County Juvenile Court hearing on April 12, have gone unnoticed.
From the school stage on that evening, after Superintendent Jim Coolican spoke, Principal Sharon Shaffer said, “I am proud to stand before you and tell the story of something that did not occur. Vigilance. Communication. Community.
“Through these, the efforts of an entire educational body and law enforcement averted a potential tragedy,” she said.
Officials credit students, teachers, parents and administrators for stopping a tragedy by assessing rumors seriously and acting quickly.
Investigating statements in the Prosecuting Attorney’s Declaration for Determination of Probable Cause stated: “A search of one boy’s locker revealed a compact disk containing a download of the ‘Anarchy Cookbook,’ which describes how to make a variety of explosives… the plan was ultimately revealed to school staff when one of the boys tried to recruit additional students to carry out the plan.”
District staff say the safety of students, staff and visitors is a major aspect in the myriad of everyday activities, systems and protocol in practice on a daily basis in every school in the Peninsula School District. At the forum, Coolican stated emphatically several times that the entire district’s first priority is safety; both physical and psychological, with ongoing continuous practice and preparation for crisis contingencies.
During the forum’s question and answer period, some parents expressed frustration. “Don’t we need to know how we failed them?” one parent asked. “Our kids could be the (next) ones who feel that desperate and do something crazy.” Before a school or enforcement person could respond, another parent provided the answer: “We can’t know. Only they (students) know, and they may never tell.”
Dennis Goss, attorney for one of the defendants, was present for the discussion, and advocated prudence, citing the Constitution’s guarantee of “innocent until proven guilty.” He contended that a valid question existed, and it is, “What is making our kids react this way to this school environment?” He said, “Until these kids have been convicted of a crime, there has been no crime committed.”
In a statement that drew applause from some, new Key Peninsula resident Pablo Nichipor said, “I set the temperature that measures attitudes with/for my kids as much as I can.” He added that his own responses to situations set the tone for his kids’ reactions, and said in East Los Angeles, his former community, police officers were always present in the schools. He expressed his concern about response contingencies to reduce injuries and fatalities.
In reply, Coolican said, “We can’t predict every crisis, but we know what to do. There is a plan in place, a precise lock-down procedure. Kids are never alone; teachers never have to leave the classroom, and all rooms have communication systems linked to first responders.”
Both Coolican and Sheriff Paul Pastor assured participants they worked together. Pastor said, “After Columbine, we visited there and worked to design a computerized, photographic map of every school and industrial site in our area. We are one of the best agencies in the state (prepared for crisis response).” A parent himself, Pastor had high praise for Peninsula residents. “We need more communities like this one,” he said and explained that today’s families are “parenting up-stream against a culture that glorifies thugs and the idea of alienated, hostile kids.” He asked citizens for patience, for cohesion in standing with schools and police. “Our job — all of us — law enforcement and every citizen,” he said, “is to make sure it doesn’t happen here.”
Brandy Berthoff, a young mother and wife of a ninth-grade teacher, told the audience, “As a parent, your job is to be sitting down with your kids and know what’s going on with them.” She implored parents not to look for blame; teachers cannot answer every need, although they try. Her comment brought a heated retort from an audience member: “Not all parents recognize their children’s instability…”
The last parent to speak was Kate Van Slyke, recently relocated from New York. Her 13-year-old daughter, Patience, now living out of state, knew two of the accused students. “They are not bottom-feeders,” she said. “They are not heartless children; we cannot blame peer-pressure, the teachers. There is no one influence around kids that makes them feel (included or excluded).” Van Slyke urged other parents to be aware, to try not to judge. She expressed sincere support of KPMS, saying, “The staff at KPMS treated my daughter with respect and kindness even when her behavior did not merit it.”
After the forum, Sheriff Pastor passed along some wisdom every parent needs to know and remember. “Kids need boundaries. I know what is in my kids’ rooms, what music they listen to, whom they are with and where they are. They need both boundaries and love. We forget they need that bright line that clearly points to right and wrong, values, morals, and ethical (behavior).”