She was a sophomore when a classmate asked her to stay home from school the next day and “watch the news.”
Maria Newman said what she did next likely prevented a school shooting.
Now 30, Newman has lived in many cities across the U.S. but has roots on the Mississippi Coast. She attended the University of Southern Mississippi and much of her mother’s family lives in Bay St. Louis and New Orleans.
She said she knew she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she stayed home from the school in Antioch, California, that Wednesday in 2003.
A female classmate confided in her that she planned on shooting up her very large public high school. The girl was a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi, Newman said, and had described a list of students she was targeting. Newman thought her boyfriend at the time, who was Muslim, might be on the list.
She wanted to warn him, but the girl said she’d kill her if she told anyone.
That was a risk Newman was willing to take, especially with the recent Columbine shooting in her mind.
“I was in disbelief when she told me,” Newman said. “I gave her multiple chances to take it back and tell me it was a joke. She never did. I knew I could never live with myself if I just stayed home and watched the news as she suggested.”
Newman confided in her 23-year-old English teacher. She said she knew it was the right thing to do.
“I was both scared of what would happen if it was true or if she was lying.”
Because Newman spoke out, she’ll never know for sure if her classmate was planning on going through with the shooting.
Police got involved and both she and the other student ended up switching schools.
“I was lucky. She was lucky. My school was lucky,” Newman said.
She also said police found letters, signed “Little Hitler,” and weapons in the girl’s home, but charges were never filed.
It’s been 15 years since, and Newman said she felt compelled to share her experience with friends on Facebook in light of a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people, mostly students, dead. Newman said she was devastated and felt it was the right time to share her story.
“I always have flashbacks to that day when this kind of thing happens,” she said. “I always wonder if any kids were in the same position I was in, and if so, if telling anyone would have even made a difference.”
In South Mississippi, educators are asking students to speak up and speak up early when it comes to threats made against them or to campus. Gautier High learned about a threat Thursday, but officials weren’t filled in until hours after school was dismissed.
Biloxi schools also asked students to be vocal about anything they hear that could be a threat to their safety.
Other Coast school districts outlined to the Sun Herald what they would do in an active shooter situation.
Newman, who moved to Hattiesburg for college after high school, said she came to the South for a change of pace. And she also hopes that students will speak up and say something. She said the girl who she reported later thanked her.
“We had a brief exchange online and she thanked me for saving her life. It was only then that the weight of the whole experience set in. I had always second guessed myself for reporting her. I convinced myself she was joking. I was harassed by other kids in school for ‘tattling’ and overreacting. I could only interpret her words of thanks to mean that she was serious about the shooting when we were 15.”
Newman said she believes stricter gun laws could have prevented tragedies like the one in Parkland.
“Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” she said. “I have noticed that the people offering thoughts and prayers are the ones most against policy changes.”
Really personal story time here: During my sophomore year of high school, a girl I went to school with confided in me that she was planning a school shooting. She said I was the only person that had been nice to her all year, so she was asking that I stay at home the following wednesday and “watch the news.” I tried to get her to admit that she was joking when she told me of her plans to bring guns to school, but she reassured me time and time again that she was not. I asked her if I could tell my Muslim boyfriend-at-the-time, and she, a self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi, told me I could not, and if I told anyone she would kill me. Well, I reported her. This was post-Columbine and I remember kids didn’t believe the shooters before they did it. So, we were both picked up by our parents early that day and the police were notified. Turns out the police found the guns at her house, and I surrendered to them note after note of white supremacist talk/talking about planning a massacre/ signed, Little Hitler. They said the notes couldn’t be used and since she hadn’t done anything YET and she was a minor, they couldn’t do a thing. My mom made me switch schools and our school didn’t even expel her. They suggested she switch schools. She did, and luckily she never went back to do what she had planned, and about 6 years later we briefly connected online only to have her thank me for saving her life, thus proving her intentions were real. The point I am making here is that neither the school nor the police did a thing to prevent her from actually going through with this plan. So, where does the change need to be made to prevent such events? My old school got lucky. That is all.