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When Parents Report a Child to Avert a Shooting | Troubling behavior leads to difficult decision

Published by Courtney Hall

SPENCER, Okla. — Even on the day Alania Vasquez reported her 14-year-old son to police, the enormity of the decision hadn’t fully hit her.

She told an officer who came to her apartment that she believed her son would hurt people, likely at a school. He had a growing obsession with guns and violence, and she had discovered him watching videos of school shootings. He’d been in trouble for making threats at school and bringing in a pocketknife. A teacher had overheard him telling his classmates how to construct pipe bombs. He’d had an angry outburst earlier that day, which was in September 2019.

Officers searched her son’s bedroom, where they found his journal, later detailed in an arrest warrant. He wrote of committing a massacre, calling it “destiny.” He made threats about killing his mother, her boyfriend and students and staff at an Oklahoma City school where he once attended classes. He listed who would live or die. He wrote that he would then kill himself.

Police took her son to a hospital for a mental-health evaluation after Ms. Vasquez, a 42-year-old call center manager, signed an emergency order deeming him a danger. She drove away from the hospital after filling out admittance forms, tears ready to spill. It was a decision no parent expects to make, and one that some of her own family members criticized.

“I had to save all of us from what could happen in the future,” Ms. Vasquez said. “I will do anything to make sure that my kid’s safe, and I’m safe, and that the public is safe, and I won’t apologize for that.”

As mass shootings by young people have become more common, so have the questions asked afterward: Were there signs of potential violence? Could someone have done something? The questions have grown more urgent in the wake of attacks such as the one at a July Fourth parade in Highland Park, Ill., in which seven people were killed, and at a school in Uvalde, Texas, in May, where a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers.

For parents faced with troubling behavior, reporting their child to police for an act they might commit is a wrenching decision. These parents fear the consequences — emotional, social and legal. Even after making the decision, they often question whether police can steer their children to the help they need.

Ms. Vasquez shivers at the thought of missing something in her son’s case. Her son, she said, has spent much of his life in counseling since he started showing signs of emotional problems at age 3. She said he was hospitalized at 7 after trying to jump out of a moving car.

He wanted a gun, Ms. Vasquez told police, but she refused to buy him one. Although he didn’t have weapons to carry out an attack when she notified the police, she said, she worried he might meet others who could help.

Her son, now back with his mother, said in an interview that at the time his journal was found, he was angry with his life, including poor progress in therapy, a tough childhood in poverty, a sense of being abandoned by his mother and being bullied in school. He wasn’t consistently taking medication for his mental health at the time, he said, and his “paranoia was through the roof.”

As for focusing on mass shooters, he called it a passing interest.

He said he doesn’t believe his mother needed to involve the police and is still unhappy that she did so. Some of Ms. Vasquez’s relatives also questioned whether she had gone overboard in involving police.

“Some people thought that maybe she turned him over to just get him out of the house,” said Susan Tate, Ms. Vasquez’s mother. Ms. Tate said she had also observed her grandson’s behavioral problems and fixation on violence.

The journal found by police, detailed in the arrest warrant, contained depictions of violent scenes, such as people hiding under tables in a school room to escape a shooter and an entry calling the anniversary of the Columbine school massacre a day of celebration.

“I wanna kill and get vengeance on humanity the govt. administration and the other kids,” he wrote. “I have few equals. I hate ’em all! I’ve been betrayed this world doesn’t deserve me they’ll see they’ll all see.”

Ms. Vasquez had hoped that contacting the police would help get her son long-term residential mental-health care, something she had difficulty doing. Her son has a separate medical issue, she said, and facilities told her that they didn’t have the staff to address his needs. Instead, she said, he received short-term inpatient care. He also received a felony charge for planning an act of violence.

Trouble finding mental-health services is a frequent problem for families trying to intervene before a child turns violent, said Frank Straub, a licensed therapist and the director of the Center for Targeted Violence Prevention, which maintains a database of incidents in which school violence plots were caught before they could be carried out.

Community services often have long wait lists, he said, and a dearth of adolescent-focused psychiatrists means families often turn to pediatricians or family practitioners who aren’t always equipped to look for warning signs.

In a study funded by the Justice Department, released by Dr. Straub’s center last year, researchers looked at 171 averted school violence incidents since April 1999 — defined as a shooting, bombing, stabbing or other violent plot that was planned to be carried out on school property. Most of the cases involved lone actors with plans to use firearms.

Peers, who are well-placed to hear classmates talk about plots or see posts on social media, reported violent plans in about 51% of the thwarted incidents, the analysis found. School staff, including resource officers, discovered the plot 18% of the time. Parents of the suspects reported about 4% of cases.

Blake Johnson, a 10-year-old in Hudson, Fla., remembered his mother’s lesson to speak out about things he considered important when a classmate revealed in a school restroom in 2019 that he had a gun in his backpack. Blake, then 8 years old, thought it was fake at first, but the classmate pulled out the gun to prove it and threatened to hurt him if he told anyone.

“He said he’d shoot me in the head,” Blake said, adding that a friend who was also there told him not to tell anyone. When the boys in the restroom dispersed to go to class, Blake told a school security guard what happened. A search of the backpack found a loaded handgun, according to police.

Laynie Johnson, Blake’s mother, said that her son has had some anxiety since the incident and moved to another school last year after the student who had the gun returned to the campus.

Those working in violence prevention say training peers, parents and community members to speak out if they see something troubling is key.

A study after the 2018 Parkland, Fla., high school shooting, in which 17 students and staff were killed, found 69 documented instances of violent or concerning behavior from the shooter, including killing small animals, posting about weapons on social media and physically harming family members.

In Centennial, Colo., at least 10 high-school students had concerns about a classmate’s gun ownership and anger problems, another study found. One spoke to a counselor about it before the classmate shot and killed a student and himself in 2013.

Failing to act has led to consequences for some parents, though it’s rare. In December, two parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter after their 15-year-old son was accused of killing four students with a handgun at his high school in Oxford, Mich. Prosecutors contended they bought him a gun even though they knew he was troubled. The shooter and his parents had met with school officials to discuss his behavior hours before the incident. The parents pleaded not guilty, as did their son, who faces charges of murdering the four students.

Nichole Schubert struggled with what to do after she found her son’s journal on a cluttered dining-room shelf in September 2019. In it, her then-17-year-old detailed a plan for an attack on April 20, 2020, the anniversary of the Columbine school massacre, according to a police report. He would start his rampage at 5 a.m. by killing his mom and her boyfriend, the journal said. He’d end it at school, arriving at 12:20 p.m. to start shooting.

“Kill everyone possible, fight to the death or kill self after maximum damage has occurred,” he wrote in the journal, according to the police report.

Her son, who is now 20 and who doesn’t live with her, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Ms. Schubert had found what she believed to be bomb-making materials in her son’s bedroom several months earlier. At the time, she said, her son was on probation for marijuana use and violating curfew, so she reported the incident to his probation officer. She said her son was obsessed with mass killers.

She debated what to do about the journal and carried it with her that day. She thought about students at the school. Heartbroken, she called police.

“I felt like he was safer in jail, in juvie, than if he was out amongst the community and the public,” said Ms. Schubert, a 41-year-old bartender and cocktail waitress who recently moved to Michigan. “I would never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t make that call and something happened.”

Police arrested the 17-year-old after he got home from school and retrieved a knife with about a six-inch blade from one of his pockets.

When asked by an officer if he understood his rights, he told the officer to “f— off,” the police report said. The teen pleaded guilty to a felony threat to bomb or injure property and two gross misdemeanors for harassment-domestic violence. He was banned from returning to the high school he had allegedly planned to attack. He received 18 months of community supervision, 20 hours of community service work and was credited with serving 30 days confinement.

“As hard as it was to turn him in, I don’t have any regrets,” said Ms. Schubert. She said her son, now a high-school graduate, still needs care for depression but is doing well and working. She said he still resents her for reporting him to the police.

In Oklahoma, Ms. Vasquez said the charge against her son, now 17, was dropped after he performed community service and received counseling. He is now enrolled in a new school district and attends a specialized school that accommodates students behind in credits or with behavioral issues, she said.

The Oklahoma City Public Schools district, where he was previously enrolled, declined to comment on his case. A district spokeswoman said it has a robust reporting system to track and monitor potentially violent incidents from students, and that it trains staff and encourages students, families and the community to report suspicious behavior to a 24/7 hotline.

Ms. Vasquez said the sudden death in February of her son’s stepfather, her ex-husband, has been difficult on him. Her son had been living with him.

Ms. Vasquez said that she loves her son and wants to repair their relationship, but she’s braced for more turmoil. He has said he wants to own a gun when he turns 18. She told him he would have to leave her home.

Her son said he believes he will do better once he’s away from his mother, because they “are just toxic together.” He hopes to graduate next year and wants to be a truck driver, after family members discouraged him from his interest in being a gunsmith. He said he’s changed a lot since the time he kept his journal.

“I was in a bad state of mind,” he said. “I’m much better than I was.”

Credit: By Tawnell D. Hobbs and Sara Randazzo

Subject: Violence; Students; School violence; Shootings; Arrests; Mass murders; Manslaughter; Massacres; Firearms; Stabbings; Social networks; Parents & parenting

Business indexing term: Subject: Social networks
Publication title: Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition; New York, N.Y.
First page: A.1
Publication year: 2022
Publication date: Jul 12, 2022
Publisher: Dow J ones & Company Inc
Place of publication: New York, N.Y.
Country of publication: United States, New York, N.Y.
Publication subject: Business And Economics–Banking And Finance
ISSN: 00999660
Source type: Newspaper
Language of publication: English
Document type: News
ProQuest document ID: 2687985697

Document URL:

Copyright: Copyright 2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Last updated: 2022-07-12
Database: U.S. Newsstream

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