×

Teachers, parents, the public still want answers

It has been six months since a 17-year-old Perry High School student walked out of a school bathroom and began shooting toward students who were having breakfast before heading to their classes on the morning of January 4, 2024.

The first details about the tragedy had barely started trickling out when the first questions began. And six months later, most of those questions remain.

Where did Dylan Butler get the guns he used that day?

Who owned the guns?

Did his parents know he had access to the weapons?

Were there any signs before that morning Butler might be thinking about violence?

Had he been the target of bullying by other students?

These questions, and many others, have been asked and asked again and again by people in and around Perry. That includes parents, grandparents, teachers, other school employees, and countless residents who all are horrified by what occurred in their community.

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council has received phone calls from journalists who have been wrapped up in the shootings since they learned of the events within minutes of the first 911 calls. I have heard concerns of community members — and from a Perry High School teacher who called my office last week.

He was at the school that awful day. He knew the young people and the adults who were shot. He is hungering for information about the findings gathered by detectives from six months of interviews, analysis of social media postings and mobile phone data. And he is exasperated by the refusal of state and local law enforcement officials to share the facts they have gathered and the conclusions they have reached.

Most of all, he wants to know what the investigation has found to ensure everyone learns from this tragedy.

This was the worst mass killings at an Iowa school since 1991. A sixth-grade student and Perry High School Principal Dan Marburger were fatally wounded by Dylan Butler. Four other students and two other school employees were wounded in the barrage of bullets.

Butler had taken his own life by the time law officers located him inside the school.

Before that January morning, Iowa’s worst school shooting occurred in 1991 when Gang Lu, an angry University of Iowa physics student, killed three physics department faculty members, a physics graduate student, an associate vice president of the university and a student working outside the official’s office.

School shootings were much less common in the United States in 1991, and scores of questions were asked of university officials and law enforcement investigators by the public and journalists from around the globe.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that parents, teachers, and lots of other Iowans want to know what investigators have learned since January 4 about the events leading to the Perry High School shootings. People want to know what takeaways school administrators and law enforcement officials have gleaned from the investigation, knowledge that might help reduce the likelihood of future tragedies.

Understandably, parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbors, want to know the details that will help them analyze the events that unfolded at a place occupying such a central role in the community.

Without officials sharing their findings with the public, it is difficult, if not impossible, for people to judge how effectively prepared law enforcement and school officials are to protect students during this era of nearly unfettered access to firearms. Without access to authoritative, accurate information from investigators, people do not know whether the rumors that naturally surface after a tragedy of this magnitude deserve credibility.

Without accurate, authoritative information, people do not know whether officials missed signals that Dylan Butler was a danger to himself or his school. People do not know whether he needed closer attention from school officials and law enforcement than he received. And the public also does not know whether reports are accurate that Butler had been the victim of bullying by fellow students.

All of this is important not for purposes of pointing fingers. It is important so communities know when and how they might be able to prevent similar tragedies in their schools.

The Perry High School teacher who called me last week was looking for guidance after the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation turned down his request for information from its six-month-long investigation. His questions were greeted with a, “Sorry, I can’t tell you that” response. The DCI official told him sharing the findings could inform future potential shooters how they might circumvent safety protocols in place to protect students and school employees.

Often, details about what a criminal investigation found are kept from the public to protect the accused shooter’s right to a fair trial. It is at trial that many questions about a crime get answered publicly for the first time.

But because Butler took his own life, there will be no criminal charges and no trial. There will be no opportunity for the public to get answers to their questions in that forum.

DCI officials have declined to provide updates on their investigation. The Perry teacher said the DCI official was noncommittal on whether even a summary of the agency’s investigation will be shared with the public.

No one wants to jeopardize the future safety of students and school employees. No one wants to provide a blueprint for a future school shooting to someone who might be contemplating such horrific action.

But there must be some middle ground between releasing every detail from an investigation and releasing no information. That is not how government should treat the public and worried parents and relatives of Iowa school kids.

——

Randy Evans is the executive director

of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.

Newsletter

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *
   

Starting at $4.38/week.

Subscribe Today