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Teacher shot in 2004 breaks silence on school safety

May 17, 2018 06:34 PM

He's a husband, father, coach, educator and school shooting victim. Breaking his silence 14 years after being shot at Columbia High School, Michael Bennett says the time to talk is now.

Bennett was a special education teacher at the school when a student opened fire. Now an assistant superintendent in the Schodack Central School District, he first spoke to students there about his experiences after the shooting in Parkland, Florida earlier this year.

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NewsChannel 13 sat down with Bennett to find out his thoughts on what needs to be done to keep kids safe in schools.

After speaking to students in Schodack, Bennett visited Columbia High School, where he talked to students there at length.

It's not easy for him, but he says he will keep speaking and pushing for changes, because what has been done in the past simply isn't working.

"I've accepted that it's become who I am. It's part of my life. It's part of my story and I'm okay with that," explained Bennett.

Bennett was shot in the leg when a student opened fire at Columbia High School in 2004. For 14 years, he's kept quiet about that day.

"I found myself struggling more and more, because physically I felt fine, but it was all these other emotions that you really battle with," he admitted. "It does change and affect everything about you, whether you want it to or not -- and it takes time to heal and recover from that," noted Bennett.

He remembers it like it was yesterday.

"There were two shots before I left my classroom," recalled Bennett.

He says it was about two years before the memories didn't haunt him on a regular basis.

"John and I just happened to be in the hallway at the same time and walked out and turned a corner and confronted a gunman," he remembered.

Sadly, his experiences are not unique. Two people killed at an elementary school in San Diego in 1979. Two students died in a shooting at a high school in Washington in 1985. The list is long – and the death toll rises rapidly after Columbine in 1999.

You have Sandy Hook in 2012 and Parkland just this year.

For Bennett, that was the breaking point -- watching students rally across the country in the days and weeks after. 

"I became more aware of, 'You know, I've got a voice and I can lend it to this cause,'" he noted.

A voice in an argument that often deals with two issues -- the shooter's mindset and the gun. Bennett says that focus needs to be geared more towards the mental health side.

"Whether it be suicidal thoughts, suicide, whether it be cutting, whether it be bullying, whether it be any number of mental health things that are causing kids to do some of these things," he pointed out.

Bennett is calling for open communication between different agencies.

In the Parkland shooting, concerns were raised about the shooter by school officials, family, local law enforcement, even the FBI.

"Every institution had their own red flag on that young man, but I don't think there was a lot of sharing going on and things put into place to kind of oversee, 'Okay, we need to keep a closer eye,'" surmised Bennett.

In New York, the state Department of Education monitors more than 2.6 million students across 733 different districts.

New legislation that goes into effect this July requires all schools to include mental health lessons in health education classes.

Renee Rider, the deputy commissioner for the Office of School Operations and Management Services says they're also working on ways to address concerns over school safety.

"We're working with our schools to say, 'Let's look at administering school climate surveys. Let's really get some details and some data and reports,'" noted Rider.

Already in a pilot program, the surveys will be given to students, staff and parents -- and reviewed by a variety of people.

"Teachers, unions, school board members, community faith-based organizations. Bring business partners in and have a community engagement team so that they can look at all the data," explained Rider.

Perhaps people like Bennett, who know all too well the impacts of a shooting weigh heavy on more than just the people inside.

"We are seeing more and more kids suffering and dealing with different anxieties," Bennett asserted. "We are at a crisis with trying to figure out how to support kids and it's the grown-ups who have never lived this who are trying to figure this out."

Bennett says those anxieties come from things like increased pressures in school and sports, social media and repeated exposure to lockdown drills.

Our talk with Bennett focused on the mental health side of the issue. Coming up on WNYT.com and Live at 6 on Friday, we'll take a look at some new technology and training in schools that aims to help cut down on mass shootings as well.

Credits

Jacquie Slater

Copyright 2018 WNYT-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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