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Tales Out of School 

click to enlarge John Sawchuk and Michael Bennett of Columbia High School. - AMBER S. CLARK
  • Amber S. Clark
  • John Sawchuk and Michael Bennett of Columbia High School.

 



Most recently, it was Virginia Tech on April 16 and the all-too-familiar images: the wounded, the rescuers, the traumatized survivors, the dead, the grieving, and, finally, the troubling presence of the shooter addressing us on our television screens. We barely recover from one school shooting before another invades our attention. The horrific attacks at Columbine in 1999 were not the first killings in our public schools, but they ushered in a shocking wave of violence that seems only to intensify. In the past four years alone, we have witnessed scores of violent episodes at American high schools and colleges; during that time, attacks in Red Lake, Minnesota; Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania; Bailey, Colorado; and, of course, on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Virginia, have claimed 51 lives.

For John Sawchuk and Michael Bennett, the unabated school violence leaves them nowhere to hide. Sawchuk is now principal of Columbia High School in East Greenbush, New York, and Michael Bennett is the assistant principal of the same sprawling complex. The two men have worked together in the mixed rural and suburban East Greenbush Central School District for many years, but their fates became inexorably linked on February 9, 2004, when 16-year-old Jon Romano brought a shotgun into Columbia High and opened fire in a classroom corridor. No one, thankfully, was killed in the incident, but both Sawchuk and Bennett were involved in the shooting. It was Sawchuk who eventually subdued Romano, but only after the teenager had turned his weapon on Bennett and wounded him. The events of that day continue to haunt both men.

“When I heard about Virginia Tech,” Sawchuk said, “my heart kind of dropped. You immediately start thinking about what happened here in East Greenbush. It puts you in touch with what folks are going through down there.”

Bennett agreed. “Whenever you hear these stories,” he said, “your heart just automatically goes out to the survivors for what they’re about to go through.”

Sawchuk, Bennett, and I met at the high school three weeks after the Virginia Tech killings. I was curious about their response to the massacre, and we talked about how every new attack brings back memories of their own brush with violence at the hands of Romano. For the past two years, I have been writing a book about the Romano incident. I have read all 86 witness statements generated by the different agencies that investigated the crime, and interviewed almost everyone directly involved in the case, including Romano’s mother, his defense attorney, the Rensselaer County district attorney, the East Greenbush police chief, and many of the administrators, teachers, and students who were at Columbia when the shooting occurred. I have corresponded with Romano, who is serving a 20-year sentence at the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, in an inmate population that includes axe murderer Christopher Porco and cop killer Ralph “Bucky” Phillips. I have been given access to some of Romano’s letters, and to the suicide note he left in his bedroom before he drove to school the morning of the attack.

On that gray February day, Romano smuggled a loaded 12-gauge shotgun into Columbia High. There, he hid for 20 minutes in a bathroom stall on the second floor of the building’s South Tower, and sent a text message to several friends: I’M IN SCHOOL WITH SHOTGUN. GET OUT. When a student came into the restroom, Romano stepped out and pointed the shotgun at him. “Don’t do this, man,” the student begged, backing out and running into an empty classroom next door.

Romano emerged from the bathroom. Two students were in the otherwise empty hallway; one, Jeff Kinary, made eye contact with Romano, who raised the gun to waist level and pulled the trigger. Kinary saw a flash of fire erupt from the barrel and threw himself forward. The shot slammed into the wall behind him. Kinary’s ears were ringing and he could hear Romano racking another round into the chamber. He frantically crawled past the social studies office and fled toward the stairwell. The other student was just ahead of him, and another shot exploded into the wall beside him. “A kid has a gun,” the boy screamed as he leapt down some nearby stairs, with Kinary shouting, “He shot at us!” They ran, afraid to look back, but Romano wasn’t following them. He was moving toward a classroom.

Sawchuk, Columbia’s assistant principal at the time, was observing a math class that morning in a classroom on the same floor, around a corner from the attack. When he heard the first gunshot, he was afraid something might have blown up in the metal shop downstairs. Bennett, then a special education teacher, was meeting with students two doors down from Sawchuck. He wondered if some metal beams had fallen off a construction truck. They stepped out of their classrooms at the same instant and heard the second shot, unmistakable this time, much closer. “Keep this door locked!” Sawchuk yelled to the math teacher, and ran toward the sound.

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