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When teens threaten violence, a community responds with compassion

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

So the school shooting in Uvalde has, once again, left many people asking, how do we prevent the next one? And while lawmakers debate new gun policies as a solution, many school districts have been working hard to steer young people away from violence.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Youth like Mishka, a young man in Salem, Ore., who had made disturbing threats to his high school on social media. We're not going to use his full name to protect his privacy.

KELLY: As NPR Rhitu Chatterjee reports, the intervention that turned Mishka around offers hope for other troubled kids.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Back in 2011, psychologist John Van Dreal got a phone call from Oregon's North Salem High School. It was an assistant principal telling him that a student had written an angry, violent Facebook post.

JOHN VAN DREAL: There were a number of statements about hitting people with pipes, breaking knees, bashing heads with pipes, looking for help in doing so.

CHATERJEE: And then there was this.

VAN DREAL: [Expletive] North Salem High School. Seriously, it's asking for a [expletive] shooting or something.

CHATERJEE: Van Dreal's job is to keep schools safe. He directs the safety and risk management program for Salem-Keizer Public Schools. He says he knew of this kid.

VAN DREAL: Mishka was known to be pretty aggressive and combative. There was enough history here to suggest that if we didn't intervene very quickly that we would have a pretty bad situation on our hands at North High.

CHATERJEE: By the time Van Dreal arrived at the school that day, police officers had already pulled Mishka out of class.

MISHKA: I'm in handcuffs.

CHATERJEE: Surrounded by police.

MISHKA: I got searched several times.

CHATERJEE: And they asked the 17-year-old lots of questions.

MISHKA: The police started asking him questions like, hey, so what's going on? What's happening? They asked me, like, was I actually intending to do something? And I was like, nope, just blowing off steam.

CHATERJEE: Mishka was angry - really angry. That's because he says two of his friends had been jumped by some jocks.

MISHKA: My buddies got beat up - quite literally, they got beat up. My buddies got suspended for that.

CHATERJEE: He thought this was unfair. He says his friends didn't start the fight. And in his Facebook post, he was trying to avenge them. Van Dreal knew that to calm Mishka down, he had to see the world through his eyes.

VAN DREAL: He's the one justifying the violence, and I have to get behind that and see why.

CHATERJEE: He learned that Mishka's struggles started way back in middle school. One day, Mishka says, a kid tried to pick a fight.

MISHKA: As I was turning around and saying, dude, I don't want to fight, he takes a swing and hits me directly in my eye, where everything just went black for a moment, like, and I got mad, and it turned into a physical fight. That was probably the first time I actually punched a person.

CHATERJEE: His right eye was severely damaged. He says the next two years, he was in and out of surgery.

MISHKA: I started failing majority of my classes. I wasn't able to follow along. I was - I literally had to stand up, like, a foot away from the - what's on the board because everything was just a haze. Like, I couldn't see anything.

CHATERJEE: Eventually, he says, he lost all sight in that eye. And the attacks on him - they continued. In seventh grade, Mishka says, a group of boys jumped him. He says he told the school which students did it, and they were suspended.

MISHKA: But when they came back, they got even more of their buddies. And on the way home, I literally just got bluntly attacked and just - I was literally just laying there in the dirt, in the mud, and I was getting kicked like I was a soccer ball.

CHATERJEE: He says he ended up with an abdominal injury and more surgery.

MISHKA: That is actually, like, the point when I was, like, I'm done with everything and everyone. And I'm like, none of you could protect me, so I don't care about what you guys see. I don't care about your rules, whether you're wearing a police uniform, military, or whether you're the president or God himself. And that's where I became, like, a loose cannon.

CHATERJEE: Mishka spent his high school years getting in one fight after another.

VAN DREAL: He saw himself as a victim who was going to pay some people back so that this injustice didn't continue. And that's that righteous indignation that can drive these kinds of assaults.

CHATERJEE: Then came senior year and that Facebook post.

VAN DREAL: [Expletive] North Salem High School. Seriously, it's asking for...

CHATERJEE: It sounded like a serious threat, but Van Dreal and his team realized that Mishka had no intentions of shooting anyone. Still, he was angry and volatile. Van Dreal listened to Mishka when he explained why.

VAN DREAL: Teachers weren't reaching out to kids who needed the help. There weren't the connections. There was the pecking order and the injustice.

CHATERJEE: They decided to give Mishka another chance and moved him to a smaller school, Roberts High, where teachers gave him the attention and help he wanted and where he found his first real mentor, Stanley Roberts, a behavioral analyst at the school. Roberts says he remembers Mishka in those early days.

STANLEY ROBERTS: A kid shy in hiding. Didn't say much. He just walked through the hall with his head down, didn't want to be noticed - maybe hurting. And it's like, well, hey, let's talk.

CHATERJEE: Roberts invited him to stop by his office any time, and Mishka did. At first, he was hesitant.

ROBERTS: Started out a young boy, a young man trying to prove himself. And I think it was just more of a, you know - where do I fit in? - always having to fight and just being angry at, you know, at the world. It's not fair. And I just listened.

CHATERJEE: Then, after a while, Roberts started pushing back. Did Mishka want to be that guy who's angry and fighting all the time?

ROBERTS: Is this what you want? No. Well, what do you want? Well, I can't just walk away from it. I'm like, but as you get older, you can. You don't have to stay in that.

CHATERJEE: Roberts helped Mishka find other ways to solve his problems. It was like having his own personal coach.

MISHKA: Somebody to be there for, like, if I do need to turn - like, hey, what do I do now? - knowing that there is going to be somebody there saying, hey, this is what you do now.

CHATERJEE: Mishka graduated from high school on time. Today he has a full-time job and enjoys baking when he isn't working. He's far from the angry kid he used to be. John Van Dreal has worked with over a thousand at-risk kids, collaborating with families, police, schools, mental health professionals. He says this is how you move kids away from violence - through safe environments, connections, role models.

VAN DREAL: Moving kids from despair to hope - that's the bumper sticker for what we do.

CHATERJEE: Is that all it takes? It sounds, like, almost too simplistic to be true.

VAN DREAL: Well, it is not. It really works.

CHATERJEE: After the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, Congress designated money to set up more programs like this in schools around the country. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ED SHEERAN SONG, "THE JOKER AND THE QUEEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.