LEWISTOWN – You don’t choose tragedy, but you can choose your response.
This was the message of John-Michael Keyes during a seminar about preventing school violence held Monday night on the Penn State University Park campus. The event was live-streamed to Penn State Learning Center and Extension Office in Lewistown.
Keyes said his daughter, Emily, was a student in an AP English class that was seized by a gunman on Sept. 27, 2006 at Platte Canyon High School in Colorado. The gunman fired a round into the wall of the classroom and asked some students and the teacher to leave. With some hostages still inside and deputies outside the door, he threatened to set off explosives strong enough to level the building, Keyes said.
“(First responders) don’t want parents there,” in the case of an emergency, he said.
But like any concerned parent, he mapped out a back route to the school and waited in the street for word from his daughter.
With the help of a local reporter, he sent a text message to Emily’s cell phone asking whether she was okay.
“I love you guys,” she messaged back.
Keyes said it was the last thing they heard from Emily before the Jefferson County Regional Squat Team entered the room, the gunman shot Emily and then turned the gun on himself – a fatal conclusion that lasted just over three seconds.
Though the effort didn’t save Emily, Keyes said his family offers nothing but respect to the law enforcement and school officials who “did all the right things.”
“There were some heroes in that room, as well as a coward with a gun,” he said.
Since Emily’s death, Keyes and his wife, Ellen, have established The “I love U guys” Foundation, an organization that promotes and institutes programs and initiatives advancing student safety, according to its website.
After Keyes spoke, he joined a panel of experts in the field of youth and school safety to discuss their approaches to move from emotion-based reactions to developing practical policies and practices to reduce school violence.
Brian Bumbarger, director of Penn State’s Evidence-Based Prevention and Intervention Support Center, said the incidence of mass homicides is very rare, and predicting them is like predicting a lightning strike. However, risk factors can be identified and lessened, reducing the likelihood that an incident will occur, he said.
Teaching emotional awareness and self regulation has a positive impact on the reduction of bullying, aggression and truancy, he said. Several evidence-based programs exist in Pennsylvania to build competencies in children from a young age. Bumbarger mentioned Big Brothers Big Sisters and Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies as initiatives that encourage emotional growth and development.
Bumbarger said schools throughout the state may also participate in the Pennsylvania Youth Survey, conducted every other year. The survey asks questions about the community, family, school and peer group of students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades
Dr. Karen Bierman, Penn State professor of psychology, said risk factors can exist in students’ environments. She said the ability of students to be part of a community and build a community in times of stress and conflict is critical. Children should learn to play by the rules, take turns, and deal with social issues from a young age. For some children, those normative behaviors can be very difficult, she said.
Community response to acts of violence was another topic discussed among the panel of experts. Bierman said communities must be careful not to create a perception of greater vulnerability than what actually exists.
“There has to be a balance between keeping our kids safe and sending them to a fortress,” Keyes said.
The panel agreed that schools should employ crime prevention through environmental design, but that care should be taken to maintain schools as a welcoming and comfortable environment. Bumbarger said there are ways to secure schools that don’t involve creating fear and anxiety in students. One way is through intelligent choices about design and infrastructure. However, the greatest resource is in activating bystanders, Bierman said.
“This is where climate is so critical,” she explained.
When the community agrees that getting involved is the right thing to do, school officials can intervene and offer support to struggling individuals before problems escalate, she said.
Other experts on the panel discussed reactive plans and policies for dealing with acts of violence when they do occur.
Rebecca Bywater, manager of threat assessment and community education for Penn State’s University Police and Public Safety Department, was an integral part of the development of Penn State’s Active Shooter Education Program. Bywater said the program is geared toward training students, faculty and staff to respond in an active shooter situation.
Randy Rockey, Centre County Director of Emergency Management, was also present and encouraged everyone to be involved in prevention and response to major incidents.
“It’s important to talk to kids on an everyday basis, not just when extreme events happen,” Bierman advised.
Although the Keyes family suffered a tragic loss during the hostage situation at Platte Canyon High School, John-Michael Keyes said he has found comfort in advancing student and school safety through advocacy.
“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart,” Keyes said.