Story last updated at 3:12 p.m. Thursday, September 26, 2002

'Heroic' student actions may have averted school tragedy
by Chris Bernard
Staff Writer

At least three students knew of their classmates' plans to take over the McNeil Canyon Elementary School using firearms and other weapons, and by alerting authorities they may have stopped a dangerous ball from rolling any further.

"What they did was definitely brave," said McNeil Principal Pete Swanson.

The students overheard fragments of conversations among the three students later charged with terroristic threatening. Swanson said he didn't know how long the plans had been in the works, but they had been overheard on a school bus as early as Tuesday.

"There was also a student who was faced with an implied threat," he said. "In other words, 'If you tell anyone, we'll get you.' That student came forward and talked to me as well."

That student's mother said her daughter was afraid following the incident.

"The three students told my daughter and her friend that they'd better not tell because they knew where they lived," she said. "Pete Swanson said she was brave, and not afraid, but when she came home that night, she was looking to me to see how seriously she should take this, to see how afraid she should be.

"I took it very seriously, and I know that made her realize her fears. I made sure things felt controlled and safe at home."

Unsure whether the students had been removed from the school or whether all the students involved in the plans had even been found out, she decided to keep her daughter home on Friday.

"She didn't know if those kids would be back, or if all the kids involved in it had been suspended," she said. "There was definitely some fear."

She credits her daughter with having the courage and common sense to speak out about what she heard.

"We've definitely talked about hearing stuff like this, and what to do about it. I told her these kids might seem young, and they might seem like jokers, but you never know if they're going to go through with something like this to get someone's attention. I told my daughter to tell me, at least, so that I can decide what to do with it."

With the incident almost a week old, she said she -- and her daughter -- still have lingering fears, and are looking to the school to help alleviate them.

"I found out about this from my daughter and not from the school," she said. "I don't think the school has handled this situation very well, in terms of releasing information to the parents."

She said the schools can be better prepared for this kind of incident by bringing in troopers on a regular basis to talk to students about violence in the schools.

"These kids need to hear this, and not all of them will hear it at home," she said. "I've told my daughter she was very brave, and possibly a hero. I told her that other people in town, and my coworkers, were talking about this, and that they all thought she was a hero. I'm very proud of her."

Swanson said all the students who approached him -- two together, and one individually -- did the right thing, despite fear of retaliation.

"That's absolutely the right thing to do," he said. "There wasn't a kid I talked with who anybody knows about. Their identities are confidential, and they will remain that way. If a student sees or hears something, they should talk to me, or to a teacher or their parents. They should not be afraid to talk."

"They definitely did a good thing," said Alaska State Trooper Tom Dunn, who investigated the incident. "They had pressure from these kids, and they certainly did a good job. Without them, something much worse might have occurred."

In a study looking into school shootings nationwide since 1974, the United States Secret Service found that it is nearly impossible to "profile" students who commit acts of violence in schools. About the only common characteristic that rarely deviated was that attackers were usually males.

Rather than building a profile of an attacker with a set of personality traits, schools and parents should focus on behavior and motives, and encourage students to speak out about other students who are threatening violence, the study said.

In more than two-thirds of the cases studied, the attackers said they felt persecuted, bullied or threatened just before the shootings.

Scott Linner, who is a psychologist for schools in the Homer system, said that students who make threats of violence are often "in the lower pecking order."

"Generally speaking, and not referring to this case specifically, it's kids who fantasize about power and who dream of having more power in their life," he said. "I think it's real common for kids to build themselves up by making plans like this."

Linner visits McNeil school each Wednesday, and has not been at the school since the incident. He said students should be reassured that the school is safe, and that they should be encouraged to tell teachers or parents if they are suspicious or afraid of something.

"They should feel safe talking to the principal, or a teacher, or their own parents," he said.

"Parents need to be aware of what their kids are doing," said Trooper Dunn. "Parents need to remember they have a right to search their kids' rooms and their backpacks. They should talk to their kids so they know to report something like this if they hear about it."

The Secret Service study also found that incidents of school violence are rarely impulsive, and that prior to most attacks the students told somebody. But in the more than 30 cases studied, only twice did a peer who was told about the attack inform someone in authority.

In the McNeil incident, the first students to alert Swanson did so Thursday morning.

"I asked them to keep listening," he said. "During the course of the day, there were a couple more instances where the conversation continued. I couldn't take the risk of not taking it seriously, and I knew that even if it wasn't for real, I had to treat it as if it was."

While Swanson said his gut feeling is that the students likely would not have carried out their plan, no one knows for sure.

"We stopped it before it went to that level," said Dunn, who believes the students would have carried out their plan if they had not been caught. "I think the school did an outstanding job in this matter, and the students who told the principal did an incredibly good thing."

"These kids who went to the principal are heroes," said a McNeil teacher who asked that her name not be used. "What they did was incredibly heroic."

Chris Bernard can be reached at