A teacher-student bond that may have foiled murder

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The walls of Rachel Jupin's class are covered with homemade posters of grinning Greek gods. Her twelfth-graders read "Hamlet." Her freshmen pore over "The Odyssey."

But somewhere between the Straits of Messina and "To be, or not to be," a plot of intrigue, romance, and alleged murder unfolded in this Massachusetts coastal city. It could have led, police say, to a Columbine-like massacre.

Instead, it was apparently foiled by an unusual bond between Mrs. Jupin and a student - a tie that underscores how vital the student-teacher connection can be in safeguarding America's schools.

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By all accounts, the relationship was an improbable one: Amylee Bowman, a troubled senior, confiding in Mrs. Jupin, the by-the-rules teacher. Yet within a few weeks, they developed a bond that the teenager describes as the most loving she's known, a rapport strong enough to pierce the legendary "code of silence" in one American high school.

Indeed, in a community that responded to Columbine with a $1.2 million federal grant, 10 police officers in schools, and endless conferences on violence, prevention of a possible mass shooting didn't come down to metal detectors and surveillance cameras. It was one student's comfort level with a teacher she adored.

At first, Amy, torn between conflicting loyalties, denied early rumors of a plot. But in conversations first with Jupin, and later with police, the 17-year-old offered a halting story of five friends who planned to sneak into school with weapons under black trenchcoats, run through halls, and kill everyone in sight.

Afterward, Amy told police, they would go to the roof, smoke marijuana, drink alcohol, point guns at one another, and shoot. The Junior-ROTC cadet said they'd planned the massacre "like a military operation," and slated it for next fall, after she got back from basic training.

Eric McKeehan, a fellow defendant and Amy's former fiancé, admits to police that he and his younger brother planned a shooting spree "bigger than Columbine," but called it off.

All five students - two 15-year-olds, one 16-year-old, and two 17-year-olds - have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to commit assault with a dangerous weapon. Four of the suspects have admitted to police that they talked about a massacre, but some characterized it as more of a fantasy than a serious plot.

Tough taskmaster

In the mazelike halls of New Bedford High School, where 3,300 students wind through brick buildings and Boston accents bounce off blank beige walls, Jupin is among the strictest teachers, and students shudder at her name.

"She's known as a disciplinarian," admits Joseph Oliver, headmaster of NBHS.

A staunch enforcer of school rules, Jupin will chase a student from one building to another to make sure he doffs his sweatshirt hood. In her first year of teaching, she was assaulted by two freshmen when she tried to break up a fight. "She takes everything a little too personally," says Elijah Washburn, a senior in Jupin's College Writing seminar and Amy's classmate.

It's a reputation Jupin cherishes. She scoffs at the notion of being a favorite: "Most students call me a very nasty name," she says with a laugh.

But senior Tracy LeBlanc, one of Amy's close friends, says that devotion to rules drew Amy in. "Amy thought it was ridiculous, but she liked it," says Tracy.

Taped to Jupin's wide metal desk are several posters: one with Garfield's grinning face, reading, "Thank you for not whining," and one that insists, "I don't give you grades. You earn them."

"I tell them, 'You can do this,' " Jupin says. "A lot of kids just don't have self-esteem." She describes Amy as a girl beginning to grasp her own self-worth.

A devout Roman Catholic, Jupin brought Amy to church on Sundays, and gave her an angel necklace that Amy still wears. Amy even spent Thanksgiving with Jupin and her family.

Jupin says that over her five years of teaching, students have often approached her with problems. She attributes her rapport to three decades spent mothering four sons and two daughters, and a tough-love, hands-on approach.

Amy sat directly in front of Jupin. Yet their rapport was never obvious to other students in the class.

She attended class sporadically, according to Elijah. His most vivid memory of the two is of Jupin nagging Amy not to chew her necklace. "I didn't see a lot that Ms. Jupin related to in Amy," he says. "Amy thought the class was a joke."

But when Amy seemed preoccupied in late October, Jupin took note. "She was very, very upset," says Jupin. A few weeks later, Amy approached her, overcoming fears, police records show, that she would be killed for divulging the alleged plot and losing her chance at a career in the Marines.

Friends say that Amy, like Jupin, seems tougher than she is.

"I thought she was a rough person at first, very aggressive," recalls Tracy. But the two grew close, spending afternoons at Tracy's home. Amy gave rides freely, and would dedicate songs to friends on a local radio station.

After a turbulent childhood of frequent moves and alleged abuse, Amy was searching for an anchor. In her time at NBHS, says senior Marianne Phillips, Amy moved from a nearby apartment, to Dartmouth, Mass., to her grandparents' trailer in Plymouth, to Tracy's house, and back to Plymouth. Police say she also lived briefly in the home of one of the other suspects.

Driving 50 miles to school

Through it all, Amy was determined to finish the year at New Bedford. Marianne says that after moving to Plymouth, Amy woke at 4:30 each morning for the 50-mile drive. When the school told her she must live in New Bedford to attend NBHS, she moved in with Tracy. But the school still didn't consider her a resident and ordered her to leave in early November.

Her friends say Amy was frustrated and sad at having to transfer. She shaved her long, bleached-blonde hair, and brought a camera to school, taking pictures to remember all her friends. Even after she changed high schools, though, Amy kept in touch with Jupin, who, she told police, is the only person who really loved her.

To Amy's friends, last month's confession that she would be involved in such a plot came as a surprise. Elijah describes her as "happy-go-lucky." Junior Courtney Naylor says Amy's an outgoing girl who "liked to talk about anything under the sun."

Before and after class, says Marianne, the "wicked cool" Amy invited friends to spraypaint her big Oldsmobile. After Sept. 11, she draped a US flag over the trunk and painted "USA is No. 1" on both sides. Her favorite films, says Marianne, are war movies.

The idea of the patriotic would-be marine allegedly plotting to gun down her classmates wasn't the only surprise. When peers learned of Amy's plans to marry Eric, one of the other students charged, they were "speechless," Marianne says.

Amy told police that Eric was spending $7,000 on two platinum rings, and that they would carry out the autumn massacre as a married couple.

Yet when Det. John Ribeiro III asked Eric about Amy's name, he responded, "Amy something, dude ... I don't pay attention to people's last names." Like other relationships in Amy's life, the connection was furtive and veiled.

In the end, it's a story that stops short of epic romance, short of murder, and remains, instead, a tale of foiled plots and forged connections - of rumors taken seriously by one teacher that might have averted tragedy to a school and a city.

"Other adults just blow you off," says freshman Kevin Neill. "But teachers, they take you seriously."

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