Several classmates of the 20-year-old who fatally shot two men and wounded others in the Bend Safeway earlier this week described him as frequently violent at school.
The shooter, Ethan Miller, who graduated from Mountain View in 2020, was a seemingly perfect subject for a threat assessment program that schools across the nation are hoping can reduce school shootings and violent behaviors.
“He was always trying to fight and cause issues and start shit,” said Isaac Thomas, who was a freshman at Mountain View High School in Bend with Miller during the 2016-17 school year.
The Bend-La Pine Schools had a threat assessment program in place when Miller was a student at Mountain View. Such programs are intended to intervene with a student before they harm anyone. Officials in Bend declined to say whether Miller was ever the subject of an assessment.
But if Miller was part of the program, what went wrong? And if he wasn’t, why wasn’t he?
Another classmate, Laurel Ibbs, said, “When we found out who it was that did it (the shooting), we were all like ‘Yeah, that fits.’ It wasn’t really a shocker.”
Not long before the shooting, in an online essay purportedly written by Miller himself full of violent thoughts, he described himself as the “quiet kid with anger issues” throughout school. Miller also expressed an intention to attack his alma mater, something school officials said they weren’t previously aware of.
As mass shootings continue to devastate local communities and wreck families, there is an increasing desperation for something to be done. While some schools across the country have looked to metal detectors or arming teachers as potential solutions, other school officials have put an emphasis on preventing violence through intervention, using threat assessment programs that try to identify students in crisis or with mental health issues early on.
The idea received a lot of attention after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018. The following year the Washington Legislature required that school districts in that state implement a similar program statewide.
In some Oregon schools, including those in the Bend-La Pine Schools, officials said the program has been in existence for years. In fact, the model that many districts across the country follow had its start in the Salem-Keizer Public Schools.
Thomas, who went to school with Miller, said he remembers telling a teacher Miller was harassing him.
“Just ignore him. Just ignore him,” Thomas remembers the teacher telling him. “There will be people in your life like him.”
Miller was a bully, Thomas said, but he was also bullied himself.
“Ethan Miller got messed with,” he said. “...Don’t get me wrong, Ethan Miller brought a lot of this on him. But I’m sure he got messed with.”
Teachers are “taught to look at the warning signs,” Thomas said, and “holy shit, the warning signs are everywhere.”
What schools can do
As the director of safety and risk management at Salem-Keizer, John Van Dreal created a model to help school staff assess those warning signs and figure out what to do about them.
His behavioral threat assessment model is now used in schools across the country, including in Oregon and Washington.
Van Dreal knows the program works. He’s seen it. The Salem-Keizer Cascade model is meant to intervene early and wrap services around kids who need extra support to prevent targeted violence and as an alternative to punishing or expelling a student.
“I like to say that, of course, we want to catch a situation in the 11th hour if someone has a bag packed with guns for the following day, we absolutely want to stop that,” he said. “And that’s a win. But it’s a little bit of a loss too because that student will get arrested … and likely institutionalized. And be a different person when they come out.”
If a classmate, parent, teacher or community member reports concerning behavior from a student, school teachers and administrators start the threat assessment process, which involves parents. First, they answer 11 questions to evaluate a student’s threat level, such as: How aggressive is the threat? Does the student have access to weapons at home? Is there a continuing focus to harm one specific person or target?
The questions allow school leaders to assess the level of threat and create a plan for intervention tailored to the student. If a student is deemed “level zero,” the risk is considered minimal and staff simply keeps their eyes on them. Students who are deemed “level one” are put in touch with people inside the school, such as counselors and other support staff.
“Level two” kicks off a community-wide response, which often includes outside mental health providers and law enforcement officials. Providers look at underlying issues as well: are there housing instability issues? Hunger? Domestic violence?
For the 2021-22 school year, the Bend-La Pine Schools had 37 students deemed level one and nine students categorized as level two, in a district of roughly 17,000.
Misty Groom is the regional threat assessment program manager with the High Desert Education Service District, which provides services to Bend-La Pine. She is also a parent of kids in the school system.
She can’t say anything about Ethan Miller. And she says it’s difficult to publicly point out the times the program has worked. When it works, no one hears about it.
She does measure the program’s success in part on how many suspensions and expulsions there are. A low number is a sign that students are staying connected to school and the resources they need.
“We have a sophisticated threat assessment program that has been in place for a long time,” she said.
She says as a parent herself and an administrator, “I feel confident our schools are a safe place for our kids.”
Pandemic impacts: student need increases
The onset of the pandemic in March 2020 made a lot of threat assessment work hard to do. Teachers couldn’t see concerning behavior in the hallways or between classes. Some students didn’t show up online at all.
Now that schools are back in-person, student needs have increased and school resources have not caught up. School staff has been exhausted and burnt out working through more than two years of a global pandemic. Students have been locked down and isolated. Crime rates are increasing.
Overall, Van Dreal noted, there’s simply less bandwidth to identify students who need help.
“I think we have regressed considerably from where we were in about 2018 or ‘19,” Van Dreal said.
“What we’re now dealing with is a lot of students who need that additional support, but we don’t necessarily have the resources built-in yet to provide that,” said Adam Scattergood, a threat assessment coordinator for Education Service District 112 in Southwest Washington.
ESD 112 had about 300 students designated as “level one” last year, and 60 considered “level two,” out of the roughly 100,000 students in the 30 school districts in its region.
Van Dreal said his referrals have “tripled” in the last several months.
To match that increased need, there has been increased funding available both federally and locally for schools to implement threat assessment programs. Through Oregon’s Student Success Act, schools also have more funding to use for other prevention efforts.
Since the pandemic, Oregon schools have received money they’ve been able to funnel toward mental health resources. The Bend-La Pine Public Schools has put a clinic in every school focusing on mental and behavioral health and added 65 positions dedicated to supporting students.
“I would say if you look at the type of things we’ve been prioritizing and planning for pre-pandemic and post-pandemic, (mental health and wellness) would be our top priority,” said Sean Reinhart, executive director of student services with Bend-La Pine Schools.
New year, new training
As students return to school over the next few weeks, new staff are being trained to complete threat assessments.
Scattergood at ESD 112 in Washington recently led a training for about a dozen staff. He discussed the history of threat assessment, talked through the protocol for a level one threat, and asked attendees how they’d respond to specific scenarios. Scattergood said one of the biggest challenges he faces is making sure staff are adequately trained to respond appropriately to potential threats.
“Every year we have many new administrators, we have administrators that change roles,” he said. " … Finding this block of time that they can take to be trained is imperative.”
But Scattergood stresses that the threat assessment process only starts when someone — a student, a parent, a teacher, a counselor — says something.
“If you’ve got a concern about your friend and you’re not comfortable telling the school, tell your parent ... if you are a student at school and something just doesn’t seem right, let a staff member know,” Scattergood said.
If you have a school safety concern, report a tip via SafeOregon. You can also call or text 844-472-3367.