The student who took his own life at Bend High School last week was known to family as “sweet and gentle.” He loved working with his hands and worked part time for a cabinetmaker. And he was a teaching assistant who was a “super asset” and loved helping beginning woodworking students.
New details have emerged about 17-year-old Zachary Leyes, who entered a modular classroom where an American Sign Language class was just getting started a little after noon Feb. 7 and fatally shot himself.
Police say they believe Zack never intended to hurt others that day, and his family hopes the tragedy will help raise awareness about teen suicide; now the school district is working to make sure this doesn’t happen again and that other students considering suicide get counseling.
After the shooting, the school immediately went on lockdown as students with cellphones contacted their parents with frantic phone calls and texts to tell them what was happening.
A public memorial service for Zack is planned for 6:30 p.m. Sunday in the Bend High Auditorium.
Zack’s parents, Daniel and Leanna, have also created a scholarship through the Central Oregon Community College Foundation for Bend High students interested in technical and trade pathways.
“We are heartbroken by the tragic loss of our son Zack. He was a funny and loving young man, and we love and miss him very much,” his parents wrote in an email. “We are humbled and blessed by the love and support we have received from the community. With God’s help, we hope that this horrible situation will raise awareness and prevent more teen suicides in the future.”
Bend Interim Police Chief Jim Porter said he is limited on the amount and nature of information he can release because the investigation is ongoing. He did confirm that Zack used his own hunting rifle to end his life.
“The initial investigation indicates he was no threat to anyone else and had no intent on harming anyone other than himself,” Porter said. “We don’t know when he entered the campus with the gun and it’s still too early to know the true motivation.”
Porter said school staff followed protocol to ensure the children were safe.
“Some of the parents outside were upset we wouldn’t release their kids, but really the only absolutely safe place for those kids to be was inside that school where they are protected by police,” he said. “We needed to determine he was acting alone and there were no other accomplices or threats before we let anyone go.”
The staff and students are constantly drilled on what to do when a lockdown is in effect, said Bend-La Pine Communication Director Julianne Repman. She said the fact that the suicide occurred in a modular building highlights a safety concern about the buildings, which are scheduled for removal.
“We are always thinking of ways to improve safety,” Repman said. “The last school bond we went out for was to fund taking out the modular buildings and put in a brick-and-mortar structure.”
Zack’s woodworking teacher, Don Carter, said Zack was a teaching assistant in his Woodworking I class. Carter said Zack was skilled at woodworking and often completed projects for other departments in the school, but what he really enjoyed was helping other students.
“I asked him how a project was going and he said it was going well but that he’d put it on hold because he’d really rather help people,” Carter said. “He made that statement last week and it will stick with me because it really sums him up. That’s what I’ll take away from this and is something his folks should be proud of.”
Carter is a newcomer to Bend High and said Zack made him feel welcome.
“He helped me understand the equipment and the protocol,” Carter said. “He was super conscientious about helping people.”
Bend-La Pine Schools Superintendent Ron Wilkinson wrote in an email to district staff last Sunday that “the team at BSHS did an amazing job responding to a horrific situation.”
Teen suicide is a nationwide problem, according to data from the National Institutes of Health. Suicide rates for children age 10 to 14 in 2007 were just under 1 per 100,000 kids, while rates for 15- to 19-year-olds were 6.9 per 100,000.
In Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties combined there have been six or fewer suicides for 10- to 19-year-olds per year since 2003, according to Jonathan Modie, communications officer for the Oregon Health Authority.
“We take any threat by a student seriously and investigate,” Repman said. “We want students to know that if they hear anything threatening, at all, we want them to let us know immediately.”
The school was on lockdown for two hours following the shooting while police investigated the incident and crisis counselors attended to students. Wilkinson said administrators continue to work with law enforcement to evaluate current protocols and ensure safety at campuses across the district.
“Be sure you require all your classroom and building visitors and volunteers to check in and out at the main office and to wear their visitor badges,” he wrote in Sunday’s email. “Empower your fellow staff and students to question anyone in your schools who is not wearing a badge.”
Repman said there are several programs in the works to empower students and staff to watch for and report any signs of safety threats. She said the district has been developing those programs since last fall, but said it’s even more important in the wake of last week’s shooting.
“We’re working on adding another regional safety officer, which should happen in fall 2014,” Repman said. “We’re also talking with law enforcement about adding another school resource officer, but that’s not a done deal.”
The district is also working on a two-way texting communication system that allows students to report possible threats without having to speak directly to someone.
“Reporting possible threats is a thing that kids might not want to do in a face-to-face situation, and this will allow it,” Repman said. “The system will be set up to look for keywords, like bullying or suicide, and send auto-responses, such as instructing the student to call 911 immediately.”
She also said the district plans to find a consultant to do a site visit to all district schools to assess safely levels and make recommendations on improvements.
— Reporter: 541-383-0376, email@example.com