Utah school bomb plot: from inspiration to prevention, Columbine had a part

One suspect in the Utah high school bomb plot interviewed the Columbine principal in December. Police were tipped off by a friend of the suspect who received a suspicious message. 

Jim Urquhart/AP
Students leave Roy High School, Friday, in Roy, Utah. A plan to detonate an explosive at the school was foiled when a student reported a strange text with a school administrator.

An apparent school bombing plot foiled this week in Utah illustrates how much the Columbine massacre still resonates more than 10 years later.

One of the Utah suspects was so fascinated by the 1999 mass shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School that he visited the school in December and interviewed the principal.

But the lessons of Columbine, including the importance of encouraging students to come forward about anything that might indicate a threat of school violence – also appear to have borne fruit in this case.

The 16-year-old suspect’s friend and classmate, Bailey Gerhardt, reported a suspicious text message to an administrator at Roy High School: “If I told you to stay home on a certain day, would you?” the text read, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.

The minor boy, as well as 18-year-old Roy High School student Dallin Morgan, were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of conspiracy to commit mass destruction. Police say months of planning went into their plot to set off a bomb during an assembly at the 1,500-student school and then try to escape by stealing an airplane.

No school assemblies were imminent, but had Bailey not come forward, “it could have been a disaster,” Roy police spokeswoman Anna Bond said Thursday. The minor had previously made a pipe bomb, and both students had information about school security cameras and had been using flight simulator software, police said.

The Columbine connection in this case is the most extreme example seen by several school safety experts interviewed by the Monitor. It’s not uncommon for students to joke about Columbine or to refer to it when making real threats, they say.

But “to go as far as to interview the principal and physically go there … sends a message that they were extremely committed to doing something,” says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland.

Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis told the Associated Press that the student in question, who is not being named because he is a minor, asked to interview him for a story for his school newspaper. Mr. DeAngelis often fields such requests, he said, but in light of the arrests in Utah, he won’t do such interviews without first clearing it with security officials, the AP reports.

Wanting to emulate, or outdo, an incident like Columbine doesn’t happen in a vacuum, triggered by the Columbine massacre alone, notes William Pollack, a Harvard psychiatry professor and school-violence expert. It’s more like a “gating phenomenon,” he says, where people might study it to do harm and feel encouraged by it to go through that gate, “but they won’t do that if they’re not already there” – motivated and committed for other reasons, he says.

While more information is likely to emerge about possible motives for the alleged plot, Bailey commented to investigators that the suspect had been angry after a former girlfriend broke up with him. Both teens wanted “revenge on the world,” according to quotes in court documents as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune.

Bailey’s willingness to come forward “says something for the school environment,” says Dr. Pollack, who was involved in post-Columbine studies on school shooters and the reasons why bystanders do or don’t report suspicious information.

More and more school administrators have taken the lessons of such reports to heart and “see safe school climates as essential,” Pollack says. And whether it’s about bullying or a bomb plot, “kids are more willing to come forward in general to talk about difficulties, or fears they have that someone may be hurt.”

In too many schools, safety training for staff is on the decline because of budget cuts, Mr. Trump cautions. He says calls for consulting are increasing from lawyers who are suing because of negligence and lack of safety in schools, and decreasing from from schools trying to be proactive.

But some of the most important steps aren’t very dependent on school budgets, says William Modzeleski, a school-safety consultant to the US Department of Education. It’s about being willing to put in the time to open up lines of communication between kids and adults, he says. “Kids want to be talked with and feel they can go to someone.”

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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