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A School Principal On A Foiled Shooting

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The day before the shooting in Florida, police in Everett, Wash., just north of Seattle, got a chilling call.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What I'm reporting is I'm finding journal entries from my grandson. And he's planning to have a mass shooting at one of the high schools.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A woman had opened her 18-year-old grandson's journal and read this. (Reading) I've been reviewing many mass shootings, bombings and attempted bombings, he wrote. (Reading) I'm learning from past shooters' and bombers' mistakes, so I don't make the same ones. The grandmother said she found a semiautomatic gun in her grandson's guitar case. Police later said they found detailed plans to attack ACES High School. And they arrested Joshua Alexander O'Connor there. He was a student. Amy Montanye-Johnson is the principal of the school, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

AMY MONTANYE-JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I imagine it's been very busy days for you. Can you tell us how you were made aware of the police's interest and what happened at the school during the arrest?

MONTANYE-JOHNSON: Sure. Initially, I was in a classroom. And our school counselor came to get me and told me she'd received a phone call from the Everett Police Department - that they were currently searching the home of one of our students. She and I made the decision to go into his class and pull him out. At this point, we were kind of just stalling, waiting to hear from the Everett Police Department on what we should do next.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What happened then?

MONTANYE-JOHNSON: We probably had him in the office just talking with him about how he was doing and if he liked our school - and was there something we could do to help him? - for 45 to 50 minutes before the first officer arrived. He did turn around and allow himself to be handcuffed. And it was at that point that the police officer discovered the knife that he had in his pants in a place where I would never have found it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you read what he was writing in his journal, did that match up with the student that you knew?

MONTANYE-JOHNSON: Not in the least little bit - no - quiet - never sent to the office for any discipline issues whatsoever. There is no reason for us to be concerned about this kid at all, which is what has made the last week, I think, even extra difficult for students and staff.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Has it changed the way that you and the school approaches the possibility of mass violence? Is there anything more that you could have done or can do?

MONTANYE-JOHNSON: You know, we are required by law, and we always drill for active shooters. And we do lockdowns. And I don't feel like there's anything that we as the school could have done differently in this case. I'm a firm believer that, most of the time, our students know more than we do as adults. And as much as we can encourage them to talk with us and share any concerns that they may have, I think that's the important part.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What have the kids said, though? I mean, did they see any signs that you may have missed?

MONTANYE-JOHNSON: No. I mean, there was - no. I feel very badly for his friends because they are now questioning themselves as far as, why didn't I see this coming? Or why didn't I - you know, this is not something I would've thought Josh would've thought about or done or know. And you know, we've spent some time with them just saying, this isn't your fault. There's nothing you could've done. This is - this was him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I read that your school has under 200 students. It's a small school. Your mission is to help kids in danger of dropping out of school. You have teachers that work closely with the students. It's a tight-knit community. So I have to ask, if you can't spot the warning signs, you know, who could?

MONTANYE-JOHNSON: That's a great question. I cannot even imagine how a school full of 2,000 or more can even attempt to build those meaningful relationships with all of those students and then create a space where people feel safe, you know, sharing things that they're concerned about. So that's a great question, and I don't have a good answer to that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amy Montanye-Johnson is the principal of ACES High School in Everett, Wash. Thank you very much.

MONTANYE-JOHNSON: Thank you again for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.