Saratoga Springs

‘Part of the solution’ 18 years later: Convicted school shooter speaks at officers’ conference

Convicted school shooter Jon Romano, right, speaks, as Kenneth Cooper Jr. of the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department listens, at the inaugural School Safety Training Conference at the Saratoga Casino Hotel on Tuesday in Saratoga Springs.

Convicted school shooter Jon Romano, right, speaks, as Kenneth Cooper Jr. of the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department listens, at the inaugural School Safety Training Conference at the Saratoga Casino Hotel on Tuesday in Saratoga Springs.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — A now bearded and 34-year-old Jon Romano looked into scores of law enforcement officers’ faces Tuesday as he explained why he brought a 12-gauge shotgun to school in 2004, intent on killing people.

At times fighting back tears, during the emotional hourlong talk, the ex-convict told the officers he wanted to be “part of the solution” 18 years later.

Romano revisiting his attempted murder conviction as a former student at Columbia High School in East Greenbush was a segment of the three-day Committee on Policing and Safeguarding Schools’ inaugural School Safety Training Conference.

The educational and networking event being held at the Saratoga Casino Hotel on Jefferson Street began Monday and ends today.

The first-of-its-kind conversation with Romano, titled “Anatomy of A Lockdown,” was facilitated by the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department’s Acting Director of Community Outreach, Kenneth Cooper Jr.

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As they asked question after question, officers thanked Romano for sharing his story. Cooper stood near the speaker, helping Romano open up to the captive audience.

Cooper tried to get Romano to speak in depth about the moments before the shooting, but Romano said he was more comfortable speaking about his advocacy for mental health education for youth.

Romano, who was 16 when he committed his crime, was released from the Auburn State Correctional Facility in December 2020, after more than 15 years.

During the shooting, Romano had been subdued by the school’s then-assistant principal, John Sawchuk. But a special education teacher, Michael Bennett, was shot in the right leg when the gun went off.

Romano told the audience he had been in pain for a long time prior to the shooting. He explained that he was just 4 when his father left the family, and he said he was sexually abused when he was 5 and 6.

That difficult upbringing caused Romano to become more withdrawn, insecure and awkward, he told the audience.

“I had friends — but I always felt different,” he said. “I always felt alone, even when I was in a room full of people who cared about me.”

Romano said he sought therapy but held back during sessions.

The speaker said he wasn’t blaming his actions on mental health, and he acknowledged that most people who suffer from mental health concerns don’t harm others. In fact, they’re more likely to become victims themselves, he said.

But mental health education is a key factor to discuss and explore that would allow youth access to environments, opportunities and tools in which they would be able to explore their emotions, thoughts and feelings — rather than let them build up and become toxic, leading to lashing out at others, Romano said.

Romano said he would tell his 16-year-old self — and others who are struggling — to be open to being honest and vulnerable with people with whom you are closest and who can help.  

Romano, who now counsels youth (he wouldn’t say in what capacity, but said it’s outside of a school environment), said that he spoke to a young man earlier this week who told him he was having family issues. The individual is starting to act out by smoking and is considering drinking alcohol.

Romano said he told him that those vices won’t take away his pain. 

You’ll continue running from your demons,” he said. “You’ll continue running the rest of your life. Sooner or later, you have to face these things.” 

Romano said the country now has an opportunity to address mental health in a more meaningful way, particularly with the added stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

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When Cooper asked Romano to put himself back into the bathroom just before the shooting, Romano instead shared that he’s aware of the pain he caused students, staff and the entire school community.

“I realize that my actions are still ongoing today and how it hurts people every time there’s another shooting,” he said. “So many people think of me and what I did that day. So many of my victims are still reliving what I did.” 

To that end, Romano said he also recognizes his 2020 release — while a “glorious day” for him and his family — caused pain for others.

An SRO in attendance asked Romano if the school’s resource officer, counselor or anyone else could have helped him in the days leading up to the shooting.

Romano said that he hadn’t made up his mind — “it was not set in stone,” he said.

“And that’s why I encourage all of you who are teachers, who are working with us in any shape, that you can prevent so much. You can help out in so many ways. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to help everybody. You won’t be able to stop every tragedy… But you can make a difference. Whatever your position is, whatever your role is. The best way to do it is to engage and to do so with an open heart.”

Another officer asked about his access to the weapon, to which Romano said “firearms are very easily accessible in America.”

He said his family went about getting the shotgun “100% the legal right way.” It was also locked away, but Romano said he knew where the key was.

Romano also noted that his mother had asked his psychologist if it was safe for the family to have a gun in the house, given Romano was in therapy. Romano said the psychologist gave clearance in part because he hadn’t opened up “all the way” during session. He said he led people to believe he was “doing a lot better” regarding his mental state.

Cooper of the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department thanked Romano for speaking to the officers. Cooper said he thought it was a great idea to sit with Romano and find out where he was during his bad time as a teen. Cooper said he thought Romano’s story could help other SROs prevent another student from doing this.

Leading up to the talk, Cooper said he wasn’t sure what to expect and was nervous for Romano.

Romano said facing the officers was “overwhelming — but in a good way.”

Romano said he had been wanting to do something like this for years, and he said he’s open to more speaking engagement to spread the message of early detection of mental health concerns.

Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.

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