TYLER – Todd Henry’s phone call was chilling, Mitch Shamburger would later recall. His friend had an instinct for trouble.
A bear of a man, Henry had worked in prisons and now taught kids with behavioral issues at John Tyler High School. He was seldom rattled. Yet Shamburger, a Smith County justice of the peace, could hear the worry in his friend’s voice.
Henry described a student in his special-education class with a menacing vibe. The student was a “Katrina kid” – shorthand for New Orleans transplants blown into Tyler by Hurricane Katrina.
“This kid – he’s got serious problems,” Henry told Shamburger. “If somebody doesn’t do something, soon, this kid is going to kill somebody.”
The JP recalls advising his friend to document his concerns and alert his bosses. Henry said he already had.
Days later, on the morning of Sept. 23, Todd Henry, who was 50, lay bleeding to death in classroom A23 of John Tyler High. In the hallway outside, a wraith of a boy named Byron was hustled away to face charges of stabbing his teacher in the heart with a butcher knife. A Texas Education Agency spokesman says it is the first teacher slaying in a Texas classroom that anyone in the agency can recall.
Smith County prosecutors are considering whether to ask to try the 16-year-old as an adult. He’s being held as a juvenile, so his court files are sealed. The Dallas Morning News is not using Byron’s family name because the newspaper generally does not publish names of juvenile defendants.
Records and information from Byron’s family and others familiar with him, from public sources and from people close to the ongoing murder investigation, offer a portrait of a long spiral into mental illness and violence. Byron’s lawyer and others say the case spotlights deficiencies in how Texas handles its most disturbed and violent juvenile offenders.
Byron’s mother says her youngest son was first diagnosed with problems in kindergarten. By 12, she says, Byron had been in mental hospitals in Texas and Louisiana. At 14, he was in a Smith County juvenile lockup and then in a Texas juvenile prison for stabbing his sister with a steak knife.
TYC often held him in isolation and at one point sent him to a state mental hospital. He was diagnosed schizophrenic and psychotic and transferred to the state’s most acute mental health facility for juvenile offenders. Last July, the agency declared Byron too disturbed for reform school. TYC sent Byron home to his mother without parole or treatment plans, according to records the family released to The News.
In mid-August, Byron was arrested again for marijuana possession and Tyler police tried to return him to jail. He was released to his mother because Smith County’s juvenile detention center refused to take him back, according to a police report.
Even Byron’s mother says he shouldn’t have been in Henry’s classroom. He sees and hears things other people don’t, she says, and he needs help. Henry was a caring teacher, she says, and Byron regrets “what all he did. He said, ‘Mom, just tell everybody that I’m sorry.’ ”
If you will read the complete story, you will see that the boy was deemed too disturbed for reform school, a place that can handle violent offenders a lot better than the public school system. The youth correction center refused to take him back when he was rearrested because he was too violent. His mother tried to get help through a mental health center, to no avail. Then he was sent to public school to a teacher that could get no information on his past record, but who feared that this was a very dangerous kid. One day he walked up to his teacher, who was speaking to another student, pulled out a concealed knife, and stabbed him in the heart in a completely unprovoked attack.
*sigh* A training class I attended last week pointed out that if a disturbed child pulls out a knife or gun, we try to get the other kids to safety and do not try to disarm the child. (I work with the same type of children, albeit smaller; this information was for the junior high and high school teachers.) The children will be happy, happy children who will suddenly head butt, bite, kick, strangle, hit with fists or with a chair or desk, and otherwise commit mayhem upon anybody that happens to be near them, whether adults or other students. Sometimes they will calmly traverse a room in order to engage in an unprovoked attack. Personnel in the room always have to be alert and on guard because dropping that situational awareness for just a few seconds will get themselves or others hurt. Since nobody can be on high alert all the time, we all have scars. Unfortunately, we don’t get combat pay. As you might expect, there’s a pretty big turnover in personnel.
We are going to have to return to placing very dangerous, disburbed individuals in mental hospitals for life for their own and public safety. Putting this very disturbed kid on trial as an adult with a possible death row appointment because the system put him into a place that he shouldn’t have been in to begin with doesn’t seem like a good solution to me. Putting the teacher in harm’s way like that was also completely wrong, and I hope his wife is able to sue the crap out of the state of Texas for killing her husband because that is exactly what they did. That student tried to kill his own sister. He was a walking bomb waiting to detonate.
Perhaps special education teachers should be given a stipend to buy body armor. It would have saved this teacher’s life.