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Alone At The Desk - 25: Rallying around Newaygo High School

On March 8, 2021, Newaygo High School experienced one of its darkest days. What followed were some of its brightest.
Credit: WZZM

NEWAYGO, Mich. — When I think back to school bomb scares or school bomb threats when I was kid in the 80s and early 90s, they ranged from mild entertainment to an unexpected-but-fun day off. None of the students ever took it seriously. Generally, we assumed it was someone looking to get attention or out of test - of which there are documented cases. 

I remember a time or two in high school when I arrived in the morning and they were shuffling everyone into the gym, and it wasn't for a school rally. It's because that was the first place the dogs always sniffed and cleared so they had a place to put us kids. Never, not once, can I remember one of those threats resulting in anything other than a delayed start to the day, or canceled classes altogether. 

That started to change when I was in college. 

Northern Michigan University is literally down the street from my old high school. So, when I was a journalism student and started hearing about a rash of bomb threats at the high school, I got interested. It turned into one of my first full stories, and wound up on my resume reel that helped get me my first job. 

The story was basically that school was canceled completely something like three to five times in a month because of continued threats. I wasn't aware of a lot of the implications. Like, schools are required by the state to have students in class for so many hours in a given year or lose funding. That may mean adding days in June to make up those hours. And some parents in the community were genuinely starting to worry. What if something actually happened? What if a bomb really went off? So, this was the first time these incidents carried any weight with me. Thankfully, nothing ever happened.

But, something DID happen this year at a small school in a small town in West Michigan. And people were hurt. The community was hurt. And there was a lot of anger afterwards. 

But in today's episode - while we will talk a little about the explosion - we're not going to focus on it. That was one of the school's darkest days. But we'll be focusing the days that followed, which were some of its brightest.

This is Alone At The Desk with Nick LaFave. A podcast by an average, middle aged guy who just happens to be a TV news anchor. We talk exciting and the boring parts of life, the industry and life in the industry. And we cover some important stories along the way. Brought to you by 13 On Your Side News in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The morning of March 8 was a typical one in Newaygo, Mich. It was a Monday. People were going back to work after the weekend. March Madness was back. Nothing unusual. It was typical. Until it wasn't.

"We begin at five with breaking news regarding an explosion inside a classroom at Newaygo High School."

It happened right around 9 a.m. A student brought in some kind of homemade device. And -- it blew.

"Six people were injured, including the 16-year-old who set off the device."

Police, the school district and a child welfare investigator all say it wasn't malicious or intentional. Just bad judgment. Bad judgment that hurt four other students, a teacher and cost him both his thumbs.

"We embraced each other. We didn't have fear."

That's English teacher, Donna Grodus.

"Newaygo for some reason, we stick together. The days after, we kept going. We've moved forward. Our students...we're always in the hallways. We're always very approachable. So we continued to be that way. There might have been a few more side hugs or smile or nods to gesture to the kids that it's OK. But, we moved forward. We wanted to keep normalcy. So we maintained that."

Despite the unified front in the school, some were seeing a different reaction in the community. There was a lot of anger. Anger directed at the student, his father - who we'll get to in a little while - and the district. Especially on social media.

"You kind of have that when you see the Facebook public school page deleting posts because there are so many negative posts on it. You kind of have that, 'What kind of community am I a part of?'"

Stacie Berenbrock is a mother of four boys. Her oldest son just started at Newaygo High School this year. She and her family were - by her admission - still kind of newish to the area, having moved from nearby Sparta a few years ago.

"When everything happened at the high school, there were a lot of voices that were really angry and hateful and I just saw this as an opportunity to be the opposite of that."

Stacie says her go-to move is a gift basket. She's been doing it for years. So even though she wasn't really well connected, she started with the connections that she did have.

"That's how it started. And just knowing a few moms that knew a lot of moms, we were able to pull this Facebook group together, get a list of the staff. I gave them a list of guidelines like keep it under 30 so the baskets are equal, and let's show the staff that we see them, we hear them, we love them and support them."

Each teacher would be "adopted" by a student's parent or member of the community. They were responsible for getting the basket together and getting it to that teacher.

"And the nice thing about the baskets, or the surprising thing, the parents delivered them with the child. It wasn't something that just landed on our desk. They wanted to share it, they wanted to talk about the basket."

Donna was especially impressed with how individualized the baskets wound up being.

"And each basket is designed with each person in mind. Color schemes, their likes, they did their research. They knew us and they wanted to make it really personal."

According to Stacie, that wasn't by accident.

"I think a lot of the community members and parents that adopted a staff member knew them fairly personally. So they were able to curate baskets directly to them."

Gifts from parents of your students is special. But, it didn't stop there. In fact, it seemed as though it was just getting started.

"Newaygo has always been a really tightknit community. But the amazing thing that came out of it is the actions. The local churches, restaurants, even neighboring school districts treated us to lunch. Treated the kids - parents that brought in food for classes. It was just an outpouring of love. Our kids here at Newaygo are - they show that Lion Pride every day. And the community embraces and supports them. It was overwhelming. For weeks on end, we were going to the workroom and finding food and snacks and little notes and the outpouring was amazing. We've always felt supported, but the love we felt in that period of time after that event was amazing. A lot of us broke down in tears a lot of just joy...It was amazing to see the support."

While those gifts were being brought to the school, something else was building inside of it. They call it the Positivity Wall. It looks to be about 20 feet wide and stretches all the way to the ceiling. It's filled with all kinds of notes with encouraging messages and pictures. They were put there by students and staff from other schools throughout the district.

"The positivity wall - that was a big surprise as well. The best part of that was, we had elementary, middle school kids, make signs. But to see a little elementary school kid to hold up a sign that says 'We're in this fight with you,' or 'You're amazing' or 'You're awesome.' Just to see the smile on their faces, it brought us so much comfort and joy. We came together as a district. Middle school and elementary kids and staff, they showed us love. It was amazing."

Things could have basically ended right there. Something scary happened. People were hurt. Then people got angry. But, as you often see - thankfully - people start to rally around those who were affected. The entire community and neighboring communities got involved. It genuinely seems to have helped in the healing process. And we need that togetherness. Especially during COVID which has literally kept us physically apart. This - in the end - wound up drawing people closer. 

But it wasn't the end. Newaygo High School and its students wanted to do something to say "thank you" to the people and businesses for picking them up when they were down. They came up with what they called "Lion Pride Day." They're the Newaygo Lions, by the way. The 9th and 12th graders literally went out and took a full day to pay it back.

"Cleaning mulch, painting fire hydrants, cleaning veterans yards, going to the cemetery and Marshall Park and giving back to the community and trying to make it beautiful. They showed us so much love and kindness that we want to give back and continue to show that we have that Lion Pride."

I want to close by giving you an update and a few numbers. First, the 16-year-old accused in this Newaygo High School incident has been charged, as had his father, David Saylor. The boy has been charged with manufacture and/or possession of a Molotov cocktail or similar device, and possession of a weapon in a weapon-free school zone. His father faces several federal charges. 

According to the federal government, explosion incidents in the United States went from 630 in 2015 to 715 in 2019. That's a 13% increase. They consider an explosion incident to be one where explosive materials, chemical or ignitable mixtures were determined to be the primary cause of an explosion. Coinciding injuries and deaths have all gone up too. 

On the plus side, the number of general bomb threats (not just to schools) went down 53% during that same time. But high schools were by far the most popular target.

When something like this happens, there's no guarantee of how it will play out. In this instance, thankfully no one was killed. And just as thankfully, people decided to use it as an opportunity to pull together, rather than to push apart.

"With COVID I haven't really been able to even meet any of my son's teachers. So this is his first year in the high school. So I didn't know a lot of teachers at all. For me, the last year has been filled with an opportunity to show my kids how we can respond when certain things are thrown at us. And because I had a kid directly affected by this, it was a strong conviction to kind of drown out the noise of all the loud people on social media and to show my son who's in high school we can be good in this situation. We don't have to fall into that crowd that's angry and criticizing of everything."

"So, as a teacher, I always feel supported. My husband is a teacher. My FIL was a principal. I've been at this for 36 years. The passion is there. I love it. Never have I felt that amount and from so many people. Even from people from outside our community. Just stepped up and embraced us."

"It was incredibly inspiring to be a part of. For me it was huge reassurance that I was a part of an incredible community that does stand behind its public school staff."

This has been Alone At The Desk with Nick LaFave. If you'd like to hear more of our episodes, just go to 13OnYourSide.com/podcasts. You can also find us on iTunes, Soundcloud and Spotify. And you can find me at Twitter.com/nicklafave or Facebook.com/nicknews. And you can email me directly at NickLaFave@13OnYourSide.com. Thanks for listening.