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New Mexico school shooting: Were some students warned ahead of time? (+video)

Police in Roswell, N.M., are investigating reports that the alleged 12-year-old shooter at Berrendo Middle School may have told some students to stay away. Experts say this could be a typical bid for social status.

By Staff writer / January 15, 2014

Nine-year-old Raelynn Holloway hugs her mother, Rhiannon Holloway, during a prayer vigil for the victims of the Berrendo Middle School shooting in Roswell, N.M., Tuesday. Officials and witnesses say a 12-year-old boy drew a shotgun from a band-instrument case and shot two classmates before a teacher talked him into dropping the weapon.

Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/ Albuquerque Journal/AP

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Berrendo Middle School in Roswell, N.M., was closed Wednesday as a shaken town came to grips with America’s latest school shooting. A 12-year-old boy is accused of entering the school’s gymnasium Tuesday morning and firing on fellow students with a sawed-off shotgun as they gathered to stay warm before the start of classes.

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New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez says a 12-year-old who shot two classmates in a Roswell middle school was stopped by a teacher who walked up to him and asked him to put down his shotgun.

Social studies teacher John Masterson talked the suspect into putting down his gun. The student was later taken to court and transferred to a psychiatric facility Tuesday, the Albuquerque Journal reported. With one boy and one girl being treated for serious injuries, police continue to investigate possible motives.

Police are also investigating reports that some students may have been warned by the suspect not to come to school or to the gymnasium Tuesday morning.

If that proves to be true, “it’s absolutely typical of high school or young shooters,” says Katherine Newman, author of “Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings” and a dean at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “Their mission is less to kill people and more to change the way their peers define them,” she says, and usually a shooting is the last act after many other attempts to gain social status have failed.

Since the mass shootings at Columbine High School, more efforts have been made to encourage students to report what they hear or, in more recent years, see on social media, if it may indicate a student poses a threat.

Roswell student Blas Mendez told the Los Angeles Times Tuesday that the suspect had warned friends and cousins to stay away from the gym and “go to the cafeteria instead.” He also said that a post under the suspect’s online name on Sunday read, “Tomorrow will be the first Monday that will be fun for me lol never thot I’d say that,” but the school was closed on Monday because of plumbing problems, the L.A. Times reports.

If indeed no Roswell students came forward to adults with such concerns, it may be that “messages are hazy enough and hard enough to interpret that that social cost can tip the balance away from reporting,” Ms. Newman says. “It’s so important for kids to understand that what they say will be taken seriously and dealt with quietly.”

The good news is that students coming forward have foiled some potential attacks, and such reports tend to spike in the wake of high-profile school shootings, as students are more likely to see a potential threat in a classmate’s behavior or statements, Newman says.

While the suspect’s actions weren’t prevented in this case, Mr. Masterson has been hailed as a hero for talking the student into putting down the gun – while it was pointed right at him after the student allegedly fired initial shots. A state police lieutenant who was dropping off his own child at the school then came to the scene and helped take the student into custody.

The incident took only about 10 seconds.

Masterson was not giving many details of what he described as a “harrowing experience” in the Albuquerque Journal, but he was praised by school and law enforcement officials and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R). Officials also said that active-shooter training had helped prepare both staff and students to handle the situation.

In the 13 months since the Newtown, Conn., shootings, schools have renewed attention to lockdown procedures, and in some cases they've begun to train educators to be more active in leading students away from, or even confronting, a shooter if a lockdown isn’t an option.

There have been a number of school shootings prevented by individuals who chose to confront a shooter – including one last year in Georgia in which a school bookkeeper talked down a mentally ill man who entered the school heavily armed.

But some similar attempts have ended in a potential hero being killed, and those “personal split-second decisions” can’t be taught as a matter of policy, says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland.

Some groups, such as the ALICE Training Institute in Medina, Ohio, promote the idea that educators should consider not just lockdown, but also options for escaping, and, as a last resort, confronting a gunman – either to overpower him as a group or to throw objects and otherwise distract him to make it harder to carry out an attack.

Founded by Greg Crane, a law enforcement officer, and his wife, Lisa Crane, a school principal, the institute has trained thousands of people in schools and had its methods adopted by about 300 districts.

While the group has gotten pushback from some administrators worried about the proper role of educators during an attack, as well as the liabilities of training people to counter a gunman, Ms. Crane says, “The three groups we get very little pushback from are parents, students, and teachers: They are the ones wondering, ‘If I were in that Columbine library, what would I have done?’ ”

Mr. Trump believes some of the reactions in the past year – such as calls to arm teachers, install bulletproof whiteboards, and increase ALICE-type training – are “emotionally and politically driven” and distract from the fundamentals of school safety that should continue to be implemented.

“Having a culture of reporting ahead of time – we need to reinforce those proven, tested best practices,” he says, and “we’ve got a new generation of students, teachers, and administrators ... who have either forgotten or haven’t been taught” some of those key lessons from Columbine.

Tuesday night, Roswell residents gathered for a prayer vigil, seeking comfort from religious leaders.

The family of the suspect is expected to release a statement Wednesday through attorney Robert Gorence, various news outlets reported.

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