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What Happens When A High School Student Repeatedly Says Extremist Things At School

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in August, authorities across the country began arresting people they suspected of planning more violence. At least a dozen of those arrested were known to have extremist views. For the Embedded podcast, Kelly McEvers looks at one of these arrests and at what happens when a high school student repeatedly says extremist, even violent, things at school. A warning - this story contains reporting on racist, bigoted language and ideas.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Back in February, FBI agents in Alaska got a tip that a user by the name Army of Christ was posting violent comments and memes on this website called iFunny - comments about shooting federal agents, plans to buy an AR-15, a picture of a man firing machine guns with the caption, me walking into the nearest Planned Parenthood. Then the shooting in El Paso happened.

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JERICKA DUNCAN: Witnesses say the gunman shot randomly and repeatedly.

MCEVERS: Right after that, a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Leaves nine people dead and dozens more injured.

MCEVERS: The FBI had learned that this user, Army of Christ, was a white 18-year-old named Justin Olsen who had just graduated high school and that he lived in Boardman, Ohio, just outside of Youngstown. A local prosecutor said, in light of the recent shootings, they, quote, "could not wait to act." And a warrant was issued for Justin Olsen's arrest. Police found him at his father's house, where they also found 26 guns and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Justin Olsen was arrested after he wrote online he would, quote, "shoot every federal agent in sight."

FRANCES RIVERA: Officials say Olsen was under investigation since February, but they decided to act now because of the recent mass shootings.

MCEVERS: After the arrest, authorities released more of Justin Olsen's online posts from that site iFunny and others, including a shopping cart of bomb-making materials and a detailed drawing of how to modify an AR-15 so it will shoot faster.

We talked to several people who went to high school with Justin Olsen. Jack Pendleton says he was surprised.

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JACK PENDLETON: He sat next to me at lunch doing these iFunny things. So, like, I don't know if some of this stuff got posted while he was sitting next to me or, like, in my house and stuff, you know?

MCEVERS: Jack used to be friends with Justin, but one day senior year, in an AP class called human geography, Jack says Justin took it too far. Students had to do a presentation about a religion. Some chose Christianity. Jack chose Shintoism. Justin chose Islam.

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PENDLETON: Like, opening slide - it was black with white font. It was centered in the middle, and it said, Islam. And then under it, a 6,000-year death cult.

MCEVERS: A 6,000-year death cult, a phrase used by Internet conspiracy theorists.

Jack and others say Justin then put up a slide that was a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad - dark-skinned, drawn as a scrawny, dejected-looking loser - and Jesus Christ drawn as a white jock with a strong chin and a big, bolting crotch. Jack showed us the meme - virgin Muhammad versus Chad Jesus.

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PENDLETON: And again, like, he thinks this is funny. He thinks it's funny to make all of us, like, squirm while watching this.

MCEVERS: Jack did not think it was funny.

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PENDLETON: I got mad when he put up the depiction of Muhammad. I was like, you can't do that. Like, you cannot. Like, that's just bad.

SOPHIA MCGEE: I was covering my mouth because it was just - it was disgusting.

MCEVERS: That's Sophia McGee. She was also in the class. And she says she was surprised the teacher didn't stop Justin.

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MCGEE: I think that that should not have been allowed to have been presented to a class. I like this teacher, but I feel like the teacher just let it go. The teacher just sat there.

MCEVERS: We reached out to the teacher, Kyle Sheehan. He's now the assistant principal at Boardman High School. He declined to talk to us.

In an email, the school's spokeswoman said, quote, "At no point did any student ever report any racist or discriminatory jokes to the teacher or the administration. No student alerted staff or administration they were ever uncomfortable." Still, several students who knew Justin from high school said his rhetoric at times had an air of violence, like saying he wanted a white ethno-state or to start a war against people who weren't Christian.

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PRANAV PADMANABHAN: He kept saying he wanted to, like, bring back the Crusades. And you know, if they were happening today, he'd, like, go to war against the infidels or whatever.

MCEVERS: That's Pranav Padmanabhan. He was Justin's captain on the quiz bowl team. Pranav says he and other students tried to push back. Like, one time at lunch...

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PADMANABHAN: He was talking about joining the military because he wanted to, quote, kill as many goat-[expletive] as I can.

MCEVERS: He meant Muslims. That's according to several students we talked to.

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PADMANABHAN: I think that was one where we were like, Justin, you can't say that.

MCEVERS: Pranav said these things to Justin, but he didn't take it up with teachers or administrators. That's something he says he regrets now.

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JASMINE GARSD GARCIA: I mean, when you think about it now, do you think he was dangerous?

PADMANABHAN: I think he was, yeah - I think especially with all the weaponry and everything he had.

MCEVERS: When Justin got arrested, Pranav was already in college, but he couldn't stop thinking about what had happened in high school.

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PADMANABHAN: I kind of went back and thought about, like, what was the pathway? Like, how did he get here?

MCEVERS: So Pranav wrote a letter to school administrators.

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PADMANABHAN: (Reading) I've been thinking a lot recently about what happened with Justin Olsen. And in hindsight, there were a lot of warning signs that seemed minor at the time, but could have helped prevent this, including him making offensive comments and troubling memes.

MCEVERS: He went on, I've also been thinking about how the school district can help prevent this. I strongly believe schools should take the lead on this issue.

The principal wrote back to Pranav and said the school safety officer would work harder to detect threats in the future. I asked the school why no action was taken by the teacher in class when Justin Olsen did the presentation on Islam. I read the spokeswoman's response to Pranav and to Sophia McGee, who, remember, was in the class.

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MCEVERS: (Reading) Many class discussions covered controversial topics, and both ends of the political spectrum were represented. There were students who were as far-left in their political and social views as one can be, labeled by more moderate students as socialists. Conversely, there were students as far-right as one can be.

MCGEE: Oh, boy. I don't think that a valid political stance is wanting to hurt people or saying that people are less than you because of who they are or what they believe.

PADMANABHAN: I think it's frankly irresponsible equating what they declare to be the far-left to what Justin's views were, and I think this is the kind of thing that validates people like Justin.

MCEVERS: I ran the school's response by two other people - Megan Nevels, who does training in schools for the Anti-Defamation League, and Nora Flanagan, a teacher who has written a guide for confronting white nationalism in schools.

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MEGAN NEVELS: I think a lot of folks get scared to address things because they're, quote, "political." And I don't think that illustrating the throughline of racism and white supremacy in our country's history is political. It is an issue of life or death.

NORA FLANAGAN: I'm not here to Monday morning quarterback a situation in a class that I wasn't sitting in. But there have to be those moments in class where teachers are willing to plant their feet and say, this is not OK - not OK at all.

MCEVERS: Sophia McGee is in college now, too. And she says these days, if someone says something extreme and she's in the room, she'll say something.

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MCGEE: Because this could've been bad. This could've been another mass shooting. Maybe not this summer, but eventually, there could've been a possibility of many more people losing their lives or being injured.

MCEVERS: We tried to contact Justin Olsen through his lawyer, but the lawyer did not respond to several calls and emails. He has a pretrial hearing in federal court in January.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.