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These student whistleblowers spoke up to prevent a shooting

One year ago, two students in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, began sharing plans to gun down their classmates. They may have gotten away with it had it not been for a group of students who alerted school authorities. Young journalists from NewsHour’s Student Reporting Labs look at the actions of the whistleblowers that led to the arrest of the potential shooters.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    This month we have been bring you stories from high school students around the country reporting on how the concept of school safety is evolving.

    Tonight, we travel to the town of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where a potential attack by students was foiled one year ago.

    As part of our ongoing Student Reporting Labs series called The New Safe, Student Television Network correspondent Nick Weiss investigates what inspired a handful of brave students to take action.

  • NICOLE MALINOSKI, Principal, Cedar Crest High School:

    You know, the first thing I do when I wake up every morning is think about the safety and security of all students here. It's actually even before education, just because of school safety, how it's been in the media and, unfortunately, you know, things that have happened over the last number of years.

    I was actually out of the building the day that this occurred and I received a text message from Ms. May, who's an assistant principal here. She asked me if I could call ASAP. She had something very important to discuss with me.

  • NICK WEISS, Correspondent, Student Reporting Labs:

    What Ms. May was calling about was a threat made by two students in March of 2014 to walk through these halls gunning down students.

  • NICOLE MALINOSKI:

    I have to thank and applaud the students who came forward and shared that information with Ms. May, because, if it wasn't for them, who knows what would've happened here.

    MATTHEW GARRETT, Cedar Crest High School student: I mean, I knew it was a threat, and I knew that if I didn't do something and if like my fellow students didn't do something, it could've been a pretty big tragedy.

    I sat at the one kid's lunch table. At first, it was kind of like –he would kind of like bring it up every now and again, but like it wasn't a recurring thing. Then it escalated pretty quickly, and things were said and items were shown, that just I knew it was a serious threat.

    A couple weeks later, he started bring this, like, school shooting thing up and he would joke about it a little bit, and I was like, oh, whatever. I mean, I just let him go. And then, like a month or two, it kind of like disappeared and, like, it didn't come up. Then, he came with a map and was like, yo, guys, look at this, this is what I'm going to do. And I was like, dude, that's — that's too far.

  • NICOLE MALINOSKI:

    A lot of students looked at that as just a joke. The weekend prior to us receiving this information, there was an incident that happened outside of school that prompted some students to put two and two together, and made them think that this might really happen. That incident made it real for a lot of individuals that, yes, it could happen here.

  • NICK WEISS:

    After Matt and a few other students reported the threat to Ms. May, an investigation took place that led to the arrest of the two potential shooters. It was after this incident that the seriousness of the situation was revealed to the public, causing the spread of various rumors.

  • MATTHEW GARRETT:

    I heard everything from, like, they had guns already in the school, to he actually shot somebody, and just some really wacky ones.

  • NICK WEISS:

    The students and parents of Cedar Crest put the responsibility of safety on district police officers Kristen Houck and Justin Schlottman, but, as Matt has shown, a gun and a badge aren't always the first lines of defense.

  • JUSTIN SCHLOTTMAN, Police Officer, Cornwall-Lebanon School District:

    I feel they did the right thing. They took some concern for the lives of their fellow students. There's no perfect scenario. If nothing was said, what — you know, you can sit there and go through your mind what could've happened, what would've happened.

    We reacted accordingly and made sure all the students were safe. You do your best to prepare for it. Having a proactive approach, rather than a reactive approach is more beneficial. It's almost like the school's your community, and I'm only one person. I only have one set of eyes, and we can't be everywhere all the time.

    But you — the students, they're all over the place. Those are extra sets of eyes. Those are extra people in your community that are able to see what's happening. You know, some people might be afraid to say stuff. And it happens out on the street. It's not a bother. I would rather investigate something and find out it's false, rather than it be, you know, somebody not say something, something terrible happen here, and that person has the guilt of, oh, I could've said something, but I chose not to.

    It's a form of community policing, and it's not snitching. It's doing the right thing.

  • MATTHEW GARRETT:

    Everyone needs to pitch in to keep everyone else safe. It just goes to show that, like, one comment can just ruin your life. And I feel like it wasn't blown out of proportion, because a lot of people make threats. You got to address them, because sometimes they will actually turn out to be a real incident. And then you're the one that just shrugged off a threat, and let it happen, and you have to live with that then for the rest of your life.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Because Matt Garrett stepped forward and blew the whistle, the students that planned the attack were later tried and convicted of criminal attempt and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault and terroristic threats.

    For more reports like this, please visit PBSNewsHour.org/thenewsafe.

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