Ever since the 1999 Columbine massacre, adults have preached that the best way to prevent school violence is to get youths to speak up when they get wind of a plot. So consider what happened to AmyLee Bowman.
Ostracized by her community and branded a criminal by a charge of conspiracy to murder, the 18-year-old is suffering the consequences of revealing an alleged plot to shoot up her high school to New Bedford, Mass., school and police authorities in November.
Her predicament raises questions about how teen whistleblowers should be treated by authorities who depend on them for crucial information rendered in an atmosphere of trust, and by peers who may liken these actions to “snitching.”
“After Sept. 11 everyone was urged by the president on down to come forward and report anything they see as irregular. We can’t punish children for what we’ve told the nation,” Nevada State Sen. Valerie Wiener (D) says about Bowman’s circumstances.
Wiener co-authored a whistleblower bill in her state after a Lancaster, Calif., family was sued for slander when their daughter exposed a plot in her local school shortly after the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado. Though found innocent, her legal costs hit $40,000. Wiener’s bill, which became state law last year, protects school violence whistleblowers from any civil liabilities. Oregon and California are the only other states to have adopted meaningful school violence whistleblower protections, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
“These children who come forward aren’t looking for rewards; they’re looking for safety. Safety for their loved ones, themselves and their careers,” asserts Wiener.
That’s not what Bowman got.
A Ruined Life?
“My life has been ruined,” says Bowman, who turned 18 in December, a month after she was booked for conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to commit assault with a dangerous weapon. Among the costs of coming forward: suspension from New Bedford High School (“I just needed 1.75 credits for my diploma”) and expulsion from a JROTC cadet program. Her Army enlistment was scheduled for two weeks after graduation (“with a guarantee of $40,000 in education scholarships”); she planned to be a military policewoman.
“My ultimate goal after leaving the program,” she says, “was to become a Massachusetts state police officer.
“I have nothing now; my so-called friends have deserted me,” she laments. “I’m living in limbo because I didn’t want the lives of 4,500 people [students, faculty, administrators] resting in my hands.”
Although some of the five students charged reportedly characterized the planned massacre as more of a fantasy than a plot, Bowman and Eric McKeehan, 17, were charged as adults (state law decrees 17 as adult age). Although Bowman was released, McKeehan and two 15-year-olds are being held without bail and a 16-year-old is under house arrest with an electronic bracelet. Ammunition was found, but no weapons.
Hero or Criminal?
“This is setting an extremely dangerous precedent. It will chill future whistleblowers from speaking out,” says Richard Curwin, a noted school violence consultant out of San Francisco and co-author of “As Tough As Necessary: Countering Aggression and Hostility in our Schools.”
From Boston, a strong note of protest was sounded by Ken King, deputy director of Suffolk University Law School’s Juvenile Justice Center: “This is an outrageous way to treat a kid trying to do the right thing.
“The New Bedford police charged her to enhance the commonwealth’s case, to make her a credible witness. I have a strong sense this case will collapse on itself.”
Countering King is Bill Modzeleski, director of the Safe & Drug Free Schools Program (fiscal 2002 budget: $644 million) within the U.S. Department of Education. Of Bowman’s plight, Modzeleski offers: “She has to understand she was arrested for committing a crime.” Asked what crime Bowman had committed, Modzeleski said, “I don’t believe people are arrested merely for coming forward. Time will tell about her culpability.”
“Even if she was part of the plot, she changed her mind. She is a hero,” proclaims Curwin. “Something doesn’t sound right here because proving she was involved in a conspiracy will be a very, very difficult thing to do.”
School safety experts see missed opportunities:
• Curwin: “School authorities were in an excellent position to give students a new self-concept and definition as heroes. Schools must respond to situations like this by making the most alienated feel included, by making them feel they can be heroes instead of shunning them and pushing them out.”
• Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.: “This young lady … should have been praised for her courage.”
• Steven Drizin, author of Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment in our Schools: “The whole idea of a successful post-Columbine strategy as agreed on by education experts was to create a climate where students feel comfortable about coming forth with information like this – not crushed. She should be praised, not buried.”
• Frank Fecser, executive director of Cleveland’s Positive Education Program: “As education professionals we know we must learn what we can from students, build trust, solicit reports. We let them know they will be protected if they come forth. This arrest is counter to everything we’ve been advising. It’s ridiculous.”
Bowman says if she knew what she knows now she “would reconsider” coming forward.
So why did she?
The System Works?
New Bedford, with a population of 94,000 and located some 60 miles south of Boston, was a whaling powerhouse in the 18th century that served as the setting for Moby Dick. It was included in the first round of post-Columbine grants jointly awarded by the U.S. departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services, receiving $1.2 million in fiscal 1999 to place 10 police officers in schools. Two of these officers were in New Bedford High School, which has the oldest JROTC program in the country – the attraction for Bowman. In October the school district received another $2.8 million in federal funds to ensure “a safe school environment.”
Bowman’s former high school has also been outfitted with two-way radios and classroom intercoms. Some 100 video cameras have been installed on the large campus, which has four separate (but linked) buildings containing 3,400 students. Violence prevention workshops have been offered to school officials, crisis management plans have been drawn up, local police have received building blueprints and the police department’s SWAT team has conducted simulations in the school after hours.
It is not clear what effect any of that had on Bowman’s decision to reveal the alleged plot. Early press reports (based on statements by adult authorities) said Bowman came forward to protect a favored teacher – English instructor Rachel Jupin. Bowman disputes this, saying she wanted to save everyone in her school. Contrary to those early reports, Bowman says she told school resource officers, not Jupin, about the plot.
King points out that the plot was uncovered not because of security hardware at the school, but because of Bowman’s concern about and trust in people: “High technology doesn’t make our schools safe. Studies have shown that high-tech videos and surveillance make kids feel uncomfortable and paranoid. It’s the teachers who care, who show the student respect, who are straightforward and who set rules and make clear the consequences who make schools safe.”
Initially, local officials – Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz, Jr. (D), New Bedford High School headmaster Joseph Oliver and Schools Superintendent Joseph S. Silva, Jr. – spoke proudly of how uncovering the plan showed that their security efforts paid off. A December Washington Post article was headlined “Mass. School Says, ‘The System Worked.’” The quote was attributed to Silva and backed by the others.
Since then, officials have been virtually mum on the case. All media inquiries to any officials about the incident are referred to Bernadette Coehlo, a public information officer in the mayor’s office – who after several weeks was unable to clear any interviews with anyone in the government or school system. Thus no New Bedford officials were available to comment for this story.
“All these cameras and metal detectors, policemen, fences and dogs provide is a false sense of security,” comments Wolfgang Halbig, a former teacher and Florida state trooper who heads the National Institute for School and Workplace Safety. “Look at the recent [January] shootings in a New York school at 2 p.m. with policemen, metal detectors and cameras all in place.”
Halbig says the students want to be a part of the solution, “but through hotlines that offer them anonymity.” The kids have to be “sold” on using a “friendly, non-police” hotline, says Halbig, “as successfully as a salesman has sold a school district on cameras.”
"The Best Sources"
Shortly after the New Bedford incident, PAX, a New York City-based nonprofit that orchestrates stop-gun-violence campaigns, commissioned a poll of 500 13- to 18-year-olds. The results: 52 percent knew of someone who brought a weapon to school, but 61 percent of those said they did not report the incident. More than half have heard a student make some kind of weapons-related threat – but again, most (56 percent) did not take action.
A recent U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center study reported that in 37 school shootings since 1974, at least 75 percent of the assailants had told fellow students of their plans.
Robert DeKoven, an educational law professor at California Western School of Law, points out in several articles: “The reality is that fellow students are the best sources to tap for averting tragedies like Columbine.”
As examples, his post-Columbine research reveals:
• Several students informed on a student who brought 18 bombs, a sawed-off shotgun and a loaded pistol to a high school in Elmira, N.Y. The whistleblowers were commended.
• In Ft. Collins, Colo., alarmed students told school officials about classmates who planned to re-enact the Columbine massacre at their high school. The whistleblowers were commended.
• In Hoyt, Kan., a tipster called a hotline set up for warnings about school violence. The call led to the arrest of students who had a cache of weapons.
Ironically, the latest U.S. Department of Education figures show a 23-year-long stabilized, flatlined pattern of school assaults (1976-1998), while the numbers of suspensions skyrocketed – a trend some experts claim continues post-Columbine.
Police have not released details about Bowman’s alleged involvement in the plot she exposed, but the public record so far shows no predilection toward violence. In an article on JROTC cadets that ran in the New Bedford Standard-Times last fall, Bowman (the featured personality in the piece) was quoted on whether Afghanistan should be bombed back to the Stone Age: “They just can’t bomb Afghanistan as the answer. If we do that, we’re no better than the terrorists.”
When apprised recently of the bows taken by public officials in the Washington Post article, Bowman said, “Let me put it this way: A little boy from New Hampshire, who has become a pen pal, wrote me a letter expressing his support and sent me $5. I accepted it. Under normal circumstances, I would never have done that.
“You see,” says the ex-cadet, “I’ve had to hire an attorney.”
State Sen. Valerie Wiener
3540 W. Sahara Ave., #352
Las Vegas, NV 89102
Ronald Stephens, Executive Director
National School Safety Center
4165 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Ste. 290
Westlake Village, CA 91362
Richard L. Curwin
2042 18th Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94116
Wolfgang Halbig, President
National Institute for School and
120 International Pkwy., Ste. 220
Heathrow, FL 32746
133 William St.
New Bedford, MA 02740