Column: Post-Columbine Library Bombing Joke Turns Serious
My friend and I thought we were joking. School leaders took it seriously.
This sounds unbelievable, but it’s true.
My life was almost completely changed, because days before my high school graduation, some school staff members had reason to worry that I was part of a plot to bomb the library.
This was 13 years ago this May, and I still remember it like it was yesterday.
And, it’s also one of the more difficult stories for me to tell, and it usually comes out after a few beers or with a very trusted friend.
But writing Wednesday about senior pranks gone awry, resulting in arrests with student mugshots splashed across news websites, I got a cold pit in my stomach, remembering.
It could have been me.
I was a straight-A student in a senior class of about 70 or so at a small high school in Iowa, Dike-New Hartford.
I had never been suspended, and I don’t recall getting detention either. I was on the speech team, the homecoming court and had been voted by my classmates to have the most school spirit.
Today, I am an editor and reporter for several Patch.com sites and I reside in Columbia, MD. I am happily married, with a toddler son. For fun, I’m reading a biography of John Adams.
I don’t fantasize about blowing things up.
But somehow, in 1999, amid the confusion of the emergence of the Internet and the fresh, bloody memory of the Columbine shooting, which occurred almost exactly one month before my graduation, I was briefly suspected to be part of a library bombing plot.
Here’s how it happened:
In the spring of 1999, my high school classmates and I weren’t widely using email. But we were participating in a file sharing system on school computers, which sort of functioned the same way.
I shared my file passwords with my best friends and we used it to pass notes to each other.
Some of the notes were inappropriate. I recall making jokes about one of my gal pals behind her back that she was flirtatious with a teacher. Today, this might be called cyber-bullying.
And one friend and I made jokes back and forth about the school library – its silly rules. We weren’t allowed to have backpacks on tables, for example, as I recall.
One day, she left an unsigned note in my computer file joking about bombing the library because of those silly rules.
The librarian saw the note.
She didn’t take it as a joke.
She took it very, very seriously.
Principal Mike Williams did not immediately call the cops, the bomb squad or the county attorney.
He called my parents.
The town was in a “fervor”
Later at home, my parents sat me down in our living room in our home, sandwiched between two farm fields in a county in Iowa known for having some of the richest soil on earth.
They started asking me questions they probably never thought they would have to confront. The situation was dire. This needed to be explained.
Columbine, with its sudden violence and raw media images, had thrust us all into a global word. Williams and I attended the same tiny church on an Iowa main street with no stop light, and yet he was forced to take action on my behavior.
“That's where it changed,” said Williams, referring to Columbine. He is still the principal at Dike-New Hartford High School and he spoke to me this week about his recollections of the incident. “It wasn’t like we thought it was an imminent threat. Still, you don’t know.”
In fact, Williams told me something I didn’t remember. The day after Columbine, a student at my high school showed up wearing a similar trenchcoat to the one Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, was wearing.
Williams was hearing from parents about the trenchcoat. The town was in a “fervor,” he recalled.
It’s no wonder what I thought was a harmless joke between friends sparked such serious conversations.
At home, I adamantly denied to my parents that I was part of any plot to bomb the library. My friend, now the director of human resources at a consulting firm in Minneapolis, explained the incident to her mother as well.
And for those of you who have never had to explain to your parents that you weren’t part of a school bombing plot, I’ll say this much: These aren't easy conversations.
After the talks at home, I went to school and told Williams the story of what happened. No, I repeated, I had no ambitions to bomb the library.
And my friend and I both apologized to the librarian.
We were thoughtless teens wrongly experimenting with pushing boundaries while no one was watching. We learned quickly at the historical moment the country's norms were changing that that was a mistake and would never be an acceptable form of behavior again.
“I will never ever forget it,” said my friend, whom I contacted this week. She asked that her name not be used. “I also think about how little I knew about security as how it relates to company property. … I didn’t know enough about computers to remotely consider it wasn’t private, that people could misconstrue it as a threat or very violent information we were putting on paper.”
‘You were fortunate’
I can’t help but to think about the incident as I cover community news in suburban Washington, D.C., and Baltimore and watch the unfolding of the post-Columbine, post 9/11, Internet age that teens live in today.
A fight on school grounds can go viral in minutes. News of a student suicide can generate its own hashtag on Twitter. And, a student recently trying to smuggle a blow up doll on school grounds in Indiana triggered the calling of the Indiana bomb squad.
I graduated and so did my friend.
It was a quiet and uneventful day.
For years after the incident, I felt indignant, and even angry at times, that anyone would believe that someone like me would want to bomb the library.
I realize now I got off blessedly easy. The flap followed me nowhere and I was able to grow into the person I thought I would be, not one written into a media narrative and carved into Google.
“Today you would--it would’ve-- been turned over right to law enforcement,” Williams said. “There would’ve been no questions asked.”
But he also said that over the years, in his time as principal, he’s encountered gray areas with students, similar to the one he encountered with me -- times he had to delay making judgments before making a phone call that would change a student’s life.
“You were fortunate,” he said. “Common sense prevailed in that case as far as making more of out of it than it needs to be."
At the same time, he’s encountered real-world problems at his small high school in Dike, Iowa, population 1,209, as cultural changes have roiled in the last 26 years.
Two students committed suicide, he said. There was a sexual abuse case by a teacher, and one teacher died during a school year, he recalled. There was a stabbing near the high school and an elite state football athlete got busted once for selling LSD in the school parking lot, he said.
But still, Williams said he couldn’t go through life thinking the worst of people, including my friend and me.
“Part of it when I was a kid, I was no angel, I’m sure I was ADHD and everything else," he said. "People will always change. They will mature and grow up.
“And some, quite frankly won’t change,” he added.
For the record, Williams, who is retiring from his post as principal at Dike-New Hartford High School this year after 39 years in education, was happy to hear I was doing well.
“People always say the younger generation is going to hell,” he said. “I say, ‘No they’re not.'
“I still believe in them.”