Former classmates of the man accused of Ohio’s largest mass shooting this week said his behavior in high school raised red flags that, if properly addressed, might have prevented the tragedy.
The Dayton Daily News and WHIO TV and Radio on Friday filed suit to compel the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek school district to release the records of Connor Betts, the 24-year-old who opened fire early last Sunday morning, killing nine people in the Oregon District before Dayton police shot and killed him.
CNN, WCPO-TV, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the New York Times Co. and others have joined the legal action against Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local Schools and Douglas Cozad, superintendent of the school district.
“We are seeking these records to help our community understand to the highest extent possible what preceded this awful event,” said Daily News Editor Jim Bebbington. “Classmates have indicated Connor Betts exhibited some violent tendencies in middle and high school through things he said and threats he made. We are seeking these records so we can better understand what was done in response to these behaviors. This is all in hopes that this information can help inform a discussion for our community as we all seek to prevent anything like this from happening again.”
The district released a statement Friday afternoon confirming it would not release records related to Betts, a 2013 Bellbrook High School graduate.
“The mandate to Ohio schools is that we must not divulge confidential student records without clear consent from the student or parents, and we have not received such consent,” Liz Betz, president of the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Board of Education, said in a statement. “We know everyone is trying to make sense of the devastation that occurred, but we cannot bypass the law, plain and simple.”
The district said it is cooperating with the FBI and local law enforcement investigations.
Classmates said that Betts was removed from a Bellbrook High School bus by police because he created a list of people he said he wanted to kill.
One classmate told the Dayton Daily News Betts described to her fantasies he had of tying her up and slitting her throat. The woman, now 24, said she and her parents reported it to police but they did not take it seriously.
“In the days following that senseless attack, the public has learned that Betts displayed troubling warning signs (or ‘red flags’) that, perhaps if acted upon sooner, may have avoided this tragedy,” says the complaint for writ of mandamus that Cox Media Group Ohio, including WHIO-TV and the Dayton Daily News, and other news organizations have filed.
“Relators seek records about these events, as well as any other incident reports, disciplinary actions and other related records,” states the filing in the Second Appellate District Court of Appeals.
“The records are potentially a significant contribution to this local and national conversation,” the filing said. “Respondents’ failure to comply with their legal obligations under Ohio law should not be tolerated. The community and the country at large deserve to know why this tragedy happened, what might have led to it and what may be done to prevent future tragedies.”
To protect privacy
The district denied the release of any records, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
“News organizations have contended that the federal and state protections afforded in regards to student records expire upon the death of the student, which would mean that the families and estates of all students who pass away, regardless of the manner of death, would be entirely without recourse with respect to those records,” Tabitha Justice, an attorney for the school district, said in the district’s statement Friday.
“The fact of the matter is that this interpretation is not consistent with the plain language or intent of those laws,” Justice said. “Those laws are in place to protect the privacy of students and families, and that is what the district intends to do.”
Phone and email messages were left for Cozad on Friday afternoon.
Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, outlined a few of the important questions that need answered to determine “if school officials took the appropriate action with this shooter.”
“If the shooter actually was expelled from school for an extended period of time due to threats, was he referred for professional mental health evaluations and services? If he returned to school following an expulsion, under what conditions, monitoring, and support was he allowed to return?” Trump said.
One former classmate, Mathew Terry, said Betts once pulled a knife out of his pocket and held it inches away from Terry’s throat the summer before their freshman year.
Terry did not tell police about the incident until months later when Betts’ hit list became known.
Terry nearly testified in court, but Betts took a plea agreement, Terry said.
The Dayton Daily News has not been able to access Betts’ juvenile court records, with the Greene County Juvenile Court clerk only providing the newspaper with the section of state law dealing with records expungement.
Schools, meanwhile, are increasingly creating threat assessment teams, training and protocols, according to Trump.
Trump said best practices were identified 20 years ago after the Columbine shooting.
“As time passed and new generations of school leaders have emerged, we have found less formalized approaches to threat assessment in schools,” he said. “Attention to this area has been resurrected in recent years following the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings.”
Charlie Russo, University of Dayton Panzer Chair in Education and research professor of law, sees sees an opportunity for policy makers to put money toward mental health services in K-12 education, possibly incorporating mental health professionals in the classroom.
“If we don’t put some money into it where we know there’s a need we may save a little in the short run, but what happens when one of these tragedies explodes in our faces like this? We have to decide where we’re going to spend the money,” he said.
‘A lot has changed’
Betz said the safety of student “is and always has been our highest priority.”
“The truth is, Connor graduated from Bellbrook High School over six years ago; I’m sure a lot has changed in Connor’s life between now and then, just as a lot has changed in the way that schools approach safety, wellness and mental health awareness,” Betz said.
On Thursday evening, Betz and Cozad read statements to the crowd at Bellbrook Middle School.
“With unity we will face this tragedy together. We have a strong community and at times like this we must band together to stay strong to support one another,” Betz said.
Cozad told the crowd staff will receive crisis training when school resumes Aug. 14.
“We want to make sure our schools are safe and welcoming for all those who enter through our doors,” Cozad said. “This means that we try our best to provide an environment that encourages creativity, compassion and innovation, but this also means that we continuously monitor and improve the safety precautions we implement on our campuses.”