A WARNING, THEN GUNFIRE STUDENT, 16, CHARGED IN SHOOTING THAT WOUNDED HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER BY DANIELLE T. FURFARO AND BRENDAN LYONS STAFF WRITERS

Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Tuesday, February 10, 2004

East Greenbush Just before shots were fired Monday at Columbia High School, 16-year-old Jon William Romano apparently ducked into a second-floor restroom and used a cellphone to send a chilling text message to a friend: ``I have a gun in school, get out.''


The tall and lanky loner, who students said never showed signs of aggression or anger, then emerged from the restroom with a 12-gauge pump shotgun and allegedly fired at the head of another student, narrowly missing him, witnesses said.


As students in the crowded hallway screamed in panic, he fired again -- the birdshot hitting only a wall. Assistant Principal John Sawchuk then tackled Romano, whose finger was still on the trigger. As they tumbled to the floor, the shotgun fired again, striking Michael Bennett, a coach and special education teacher, in the lower leg.


Students raced for cover and administrators ordered a lockdown and later closed the school.


It's not clear what triggered the brief incident at about 10:30 a.m. or whether the shooter had targeted any individual students or faculty.


At a special meeting at Genet Elementary School on Monday night, Town Police Chief Christopher Lavin said, ``We don't know what his underlying motives are.'' Lavin added that, based on physical evidence, ``We know this was very much an isolated young man. His intent was to act alone, and he did act alone.''


Yet he took the time to warn at least one classmate.


``A kid in my class received the text message on his cellphone and that was Jon who did it,'' said Kevin Rector, a sophomore who said he knows Romano from the Petalas Drive neighborhood where they both live.


The name of the student who allegedly received the message could not be verified by authorities. But Rector said the boy immediately stood up in class and warned a teacher.


``We didn't actually think it was true until we heard the gunshot,'' Rector said. ``The shots started, so she (the teacher) couldn't do anything about it.''


The second shot was fired as more than two dozen students watched from nearby classrooms.


``It blew a hole in my classroom wall and the wall shook,'' said Phillip Keegan, a senior and another of Romano's neighbors. ``My whole class ran to the back of the room.''


Kristal Allen, 14, a ninth-grade student, said she saw Romano in the hallway.


``A guy came out with an 8-foot shotgun, and we all ran to the other side of the room and hid under the desks,'' said a teary Allen, adding that she doesn't want to return to the school.


Students were herded in classrooms and ordered to stay down. Many used cellphones to call their parents until teachers and administrators ordered the phones turned off.


Sawchuk held Romano until police swarmed the school and arrested the student. A second youth was escorted into the police station to be interviewed as ``a key witness,'' Lavin said.


An ambulance whisked Bennett to Albany Medical Center Hospital, where he was treated for a minor wound to the calf and released.


Some parents raced to the district's headquarters on Route 4 after hearing news reports of the incident or receiving frantic calls from their children in the school.


Joe Bove, a truck driver, said he abandoned his company vehicle in the middle of a street and raced to the district offices with his wife, Thea.


``She called my wife in tears,'' Bove said of his 14-year-old daughter, Myranda. ``She witnessed it. We have no idea what's going on.''


Just after 12:30 p.m., after a room-by-room police search of the high school, the students were bused to Goff middle school. After a brief statement from district Superintendent Terrance Brewer, they were reunited with their parents.


Freshman Rachel Bennett, who is not related to Michael Bennett, was home sick Monday but went to Goff to look for her brother after she heard about the shooting. She said tensions were rising in the school over the past few weeks, but she did not know if the shooting was related.


``In the past couple of weeks, it has gotten really rough.'' said Bennett. ``When I first started here, it seemed like the school was safe, but lately it has gotten a lot more hostile.''


Tony Velardi, an 18-year-old senior who lives four houses away from Romano, said he had ``hung out a few times'' with Romano but that he never saw any signs of aggression or anger in his neighbor.


``He actually stopped going to school,'' Velardi said.


Romano was still enrolled at the high school but also is registered at Hudson Valley Community College. Authorities could not explain the dual enrollment, though the community college does have a program that allows high school students to get a head start on college coursework.


Bennett coaches several sports, including girls varsity basketball, junior varsity football and freshman baseball. He grew up in the same neighborhood off Hays Road where Romano now lives, and played basketball at Columbia, where he graduated in 1985.


``He's a great guy,'' said Shay Harrison, who has worked as Bennett's assistant coach. ``He's got a wife, two kids, had a little girl three months ago.''


Student Jessica Romey, 17, who said she knows Romano, was not surprised that he is a suspect.


Romey said Romano was one of several students who were kicked out of a Sno-Ball dance on Saturday night for drinking alcohol. School administrators would not confirm that Romano attended the dance.


Late Monday afternoon, police led Romano into East Greenbush Town Court, already outfitted in a Rensselaer County Jail suit. Romano's hands were shackled behind his back and he said nothing as his attorney, George LaMarche, who is with the E. Stewart Jones firm, entered a mandatory plea of not guilty.


Town Justice Diane Lufkin Schilling arraigned Romano on a single count of attempted second-degree murder and ordered him held at Rensselaer County Jail without bail. Rensselaer County District Attorney Patricia DeAngelis said a grand jury would hear the case Wednesday.


Police said Romano made a statement about the shooting, court records show, but no details were filed at his arraignment.


During the Monday night meeting, Lavin said Romano has refused to tell police how he smuggled the shotgun into the school, which does not have metal detectors.


Superintendent Brewer said there is one entrance to the school and all other doors are locked, at which point there was a general murmur from the crowd and calls, ``No they're not!''


Several students said people can come and go freely without being checked by adults. Some said there is almost unlimited access to the school before and after hours.


``Anybody can bring anything in here anytime,'' one freshman said.


School board member Ray Werking Jr. said renovations completed in September included limiting access to the high school to one entrance -- a clear response to the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999. School officials made the change after comparing Columbia to Columbine and finding similar demographics.


``In the wake of this, they need to increase security even more,'' he said, suggesting metal detectors or a security camera could be added at the entrance.


Commenting on those added security ideas, Brewer noted that video cameras ``can record an incident, but ... cannot prevent one.''


He said the district has a safety committee and asked for more volunteers to recommend changes to the school board. Staff writers Bruce A. Scruton, Tim O'Brien, Carol DeMare and Rhea Davis contributed to this report.


FACTS:SCHOOL SCHEDULE Columbia High School will be on a shortened schedule today with classes beginning three hours late, at 10 a.m. Staff and teachers will gather for meetings at 8 a.m., and crisis counselors will be at the school during the day. Other schools in the district will operate on a regular schedule. Events unfoldAccording to news reports and witnesses, the shooting occurred as follows:1- Jon Romano exits boys' room and fires at a male student. The shot misses the student's head and strikes a wall.2- Romano runs down a hallway as teacher Michael Bennett gives chase. A second shot misses another male student and hits a wall.3- Romano is tackled by Asst. Principal John Sawchuk. The gun fires; Bennett is struck in the leg. To view a photogallery of images from Monday's developments, go to: