PHILIPPI, W.Va. — A local pastor who peacefully disarmed a troubled 14-year-old Tuesday at Philip Barbour High School said the student had been the victim of bullying the day before, but the county’s superintendent of schools said bullying at school may not have been the primary issue.
Pastor Howard Swick of Haven Hope Worship Center was able to convince the freshman to put down his weapon and surrender after the youth took a classroom full of hostages shortly after 1 p.m. Philippi Police Chief Jeff Walters confirmed Swick’s involvement in the incident on Wednesday, as did Lt. Michael Baylous, public information officer for the West Virginia State Police.
“He started taking it into the spiritual realm at one point, and the suspect wanted to talk to his own pastor,” Baylous told media outlets. “His own pastor came in, and that is when he decided to surrender.”
Swick knew the boy from his church’s teen ministry.
“That’s why I knew if I could get to him, I could disarm him,” Swick said. “I also knew in my heart if I couldn’t get to him, he might do something really stupid.”
When Swick heard what was happening Tuesday afternoon, his first instinct was to make sure his two daughters were safe. Once he found out they were fine, he went to the school to see if he could offer assistance.
“I sent my wife a message that the kids were OK and that I was going up to see if I could help. I told the people in charge that I was a pastor, and he was part of our teen ministry. I told them I could help, if they let me,” he said.
As it turned out, law enforcement officials already were looking for Swick.
“The officers at the door found out he (the suspect) was part of our outreach program, and they were trying to track me down,” Swick said.
After negotiating with law enforcement, the student already had released the students and the teacher he initially held hostage at gunpoint. Swick was led to the door of the second-floor classroom, where he made contact with the young man. The pastor could tell the student was confused and felt there was still the possibility of a tragedy.
“My biggest concern was that he was going to end his own life if I couldn’t get to him,” Swick said. “He was really debating on what to do.”
Once he began talking to the boy, Swick was able to diffuse the situation fairly quickly.
“I think he realized he was safe and that I was there to keep him from being harmed. I told him, ‘You’re not going to end it like this on my watch.’ I told him if he put down the gun, we would walk out together and we did,” he said.
Swick believes a higher power was involved with the boy’s decision to surrender.
“I believe it was the Holy Spirit, not me. I was just being used as a tool at that point,” Swick said.
Law enforcement officials honored Swick’s bargain with the youth and allowed the two to walk out of the school to an ambulance. Swick and his wife were able to minister to the youth for 15 to 20 minutes after the incident.
On Monday, Swick’s oldest daughter, a senior at Philip Barbour, placed herself between the boy and a group of bullies in order to defend him, Swick said.
“I didn’t realize there was an issue until the day before the incident, when my daughter came home and said he was being bullied and that she intervened. She basically told them to stop acting like a bunch of trash and to get back to class,” Swick said. “I didn’t dream it was this bad. No one really knew what the boy was going through, which was the underlying problem.”
Barbour County Schools Superintendent Jeffrey Woofter said Wednesday bullying at school may not have been the motivating factor behind the hostage incident. However, he declined to comment further.
“I can’t comment to you about the reasons why this young man did what he did. But I have a lot of information that it’s not school-based bullying that’s an issue,” Woofter said. “Bullying doesn’t just happen at school.”
Whatever caused the young man to snap, it wasn’t something he had talked about to Swick or school administrators.
While there is no specific anti-bullying program at Philip Barbour, faculty and staff members at PBHS are trained to recognize bullying, Woofter said. However, incidents can go unseen and unreported.
“We as educators can’t address bullying if we don’t see it or if it’s not reported to us,” Woofter said. “One of those two things have to happen for us to be able to engage it.”
The problem is victims of bullying often feel they have no one to turn to and no one they can trust, Swick said. And sometimes they don’t want to risk further retribution for speaking out.
“Here you have a young man who is being picked on, who maybe feels like he would be less of a man for speaking up. Instead, he felt the need to bring a weapon to school. It’s a problem when someone brings a weapon, but it’s a bigger problem when kids feel the need to do that. As a parent who has two children at that school, it’s something that needs to be addressed as soon as possible,” he said.
Bullying will always be an issue, Swick said, and treating the problem at the surface is not sufficient.
“Bullies are always going to be picking on someone. The underlying problem is, why do these children feel they have no one to go to? We need to give them a safe outlet, maybe someone who’s not part of the administration,” he said.
“When we grew up, there was bullying but we’d have a fist fight in bathroom, we’d all be suspended and it was done. The reality is the world is a different place than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Things can escalate out of control very quickly,” Swick added.
So what can school administrators do to make it easier for victims of bullying to speak out? Woofter said there is no easy answer.
“That’s a tough question. That’s why I think it’s important that if friends of those kids witness something like that, they should speak up. It takes the onus off the actual victim of bullying,” he said.
Woofter said there are currently no plans for a specific anti-bullying program at the school. He said teachers work with students on a daily basis on conflict resolution issues.
“I think the work our teachers do in the classroom reinforces what kids need to do if they’re being bullied,” he said.
Teachers also are trained to pay attention to students’ behavior, particularly when they notice drastic changes, Woofter said. According to Barbour County Schools policy, teachers receive bullying mitigation training on an annual basis.
“If there’s a change in behavior, a drastic change in behavior – like a student goes from getting As and Bs to Ds and Fs – we would absolutely refer them to a counselor,” Woofter said.
Swick believes Barbour County Schools officials want to address the deeper issue.
“The real issue, and I think the administration is doing a good job of focusing on it, is not that someone brought a gun. It’s why did he feel he needed to bring a gun to school,” he said.
Swick hopes this incident will not forever tarnish the youth’s life. Any consequences the boy faces should be geared toward helping him.
“This should not be the end of this 14-year-old’s life. My hope is he can get the help he needs and get back on his feet to become a productive member of society,” Swick said.
The manner in which the community came together during the incident was impressive, Swick said.
“The beauty of this was seeing the school administration, the law enforcement community and the faith community working together. Even today (Wednesday) at the school, there were about a dozen ministers from the ministerial association, as well as law enforcement officials and board of education members at the school so kids could see a united front standing with them,” he said. “This could have been a horrible, horrible situation. We’re going to see this flipped around to empower kids and the education community at large.”
“As a parent, I think the school administration and the police community did a wonderful job of protecting our children yesterday. We could be planning 20 or more funerals today instead of being able to say it’s a good day,” Swick said.