ROY — A film crew working on a PBS special, tentatively titled “After Newtown,” on Tuesday taped interviews at Roy High School, which was singled out by producers as an example of how a possible tragedy can be averted when a student steps forward to report a potentially deadly threat.
Researchers for the documentary had learned of the January 2012 discovery of two Roy High students’ plot to plant explosive devices in the school. A third RHS student, Megan Wehrman, reported a suspicious text message from one boy, launching an investigation that confirmed an elaborate plot planned for the day of a school assembly.
“They came here because they want to feature students that have come forward and done the right thing in potentially violent situations,” said Nate Taggart, spokesman for Weber School District, which includes Roy High School.
“We thought this is a message we want other kids to know. If they hear something, they should come forward to an administrator or a trusted adult.”
JCM Productions is making the hourlong documentary, one of four related specials to air next month on PBS. Executive producer Jason Williams said that, in the past decade, more than 100 potentially violent plots have been prevented around the world because authorities found out in time.
“We’ve gone to Utah because we felt it was a particularly good example of that kind of success, in this case, a student-led intervention,” Williams said.
The Newtown in “After Newtown” is, of course, a reference to the Dec. 14 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., resulting in the deaths of six school staff members and 20 young students. One of the students lost was Emilie Parker, 6-year-old daughter of Ben Lomond High School graduates Robbie and Alissa Parker. Gunman Adam Lanza also killed his mother before going to the school, Sandy Hook Elementary, then killed himself as police arrived.
“One of the questions is how America can protect its schoolchildren in a world where we can’t incarcerate every mentally ill person out there, which would be a violation of civil rights,” Williams said.
“Where between these two absolute poles (freedom and lockdown) are things which school districts, parents and kids can do to protect their schools and their communities from these rare but terrible events. We are looking at all aspects of school security.”
Director Kathy Slobogin said Wehrman’s willingness to speak up made all the difference at Roy High.
“One of the major findings of the Safe School Initiative was (in cases of deadly plots) there were plenty of kids who knew what was going to happen,” Slobogin said.
“There needs to be a change in school culture, and this school is a perfect example of that. We wanted to alert the world to the fact that there have been a number of successful interventions, and we are exploring how that has happened and how other schools can learn from it.”
Roy High Principal Gina Butters said she believes students feel more free to share concerns in a comfortable environment.
“I genuinely believe our staffwide effort to build rapport with the kids is why she (Gerhardt) felt comfortable coming forward,” Butters said.
“We have a high visibility with teachers and administrators, especially the last few years, who get to know students and call them by name. I feel the young lady felt she had some trusted adults she could confide in when she was worried.
“I’m really proud of the school for that reason, but I’m especially proud of her. It took a courageous young lady to speak up.”
Williams said multiple shoots for the documentary are scheduled around the country, but he knows of no other shoots planned in Utah. PBS last week announced a week of “After Newtown” programming, including the four one-hour specials and related programming on existing PBS news programs.
“After Newtown” programming will debut Feb. 18 through Feb. 22.
Williams said Slobogin, former head of investigative documentaries for CNN, would catch a flight out of Utah today and would begin immediately to edit the new footage.
“She is having to make this television documentary in an incredibly short amount of time,” Williams said.
After school Tuesday, the documentary crew interviewed Butters and some others on staff. Before school was out, crews on Tuesday shot footage in a U.S. history class, after having students’ parents or guardians sign permission slips.
“I know a few kids were excited about it, and everybody else didn’t care so much,” said history student Jaydon Smedley, 16. “It’s a safe school, even with recent events that have happened.”
Jaydon’s classmate, Derek Bair, said the cameras did seem to affect some of his classmates.
“A couple guys wore suits and ties,” said Derek, 16. “When everybody got used to the cameras, it made us answer questions better than if they weren’t there, and some people who don’t normally answer questions started answering them. We might get better class time if we always had cameras.”