A teacher at Russell County High School can be credited for diffusing a potentially deadly situation after she turned in the journal of 17-year-old student, Derek Shrout, which detailed a bombing he allegedly planned to carry out against a number of his fellow students and a teacher. A search of his home turned up dozens of homemade grenades made from tobacco cans and two large cans filled with pellets to be used as shrapnel. A “self-proclaimed white supremacist” according to authorities, Shrout named five African-American classmates, another student he thought was gay, and an African-American teacher, for whom he wished to use the weapons on.
Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor told a local newspaper that Shrout has “a lot of pent up anger towards blacks,” but he has not been able to link him to any one particular white supremacist or hate group. While it is currently unknown how the young man developed his potentially racist beliefs, we do know disgruntled young white teens and young adults like Derek Shrout are prime targets for white supremacist and neo-Nazi recruitment.
Recruitment leaders of hate groups often approach high school students, sometimes boldly on school grounds, with racist literature that capitalizes on white youth’s feelings of angst or disenfranchisement. Often teachers, school administrators, and fellow students turn a blind eye to such activity, which can sometimes spark deadly consequences. Understandably, students and teachers alike do not always know how to address white supremacist activity or what activity is worth addressing. Center for New Community has developed resources and tips for challenging hate speech and activity in schools.
Interviews with some of Shrout’s peers reveal that many students saw him and others “go around doing the whole white power crazy stuff,” often “giving Nazi salutes while at school” prior to the incident. If Shrout and others in his group were engaging in such activity openly, it is likely that teachers noticed as well.
Shrout was a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) member. A fellow officer told reporters that he came into the program “confident, well-rounded, but as time went by, he was doing the whole white power thing.” The teen moved from Kansas to Alabama a year ago after his father was transferred to Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia.
Though nothing has been revealed yet about Shrout’s trajectory to extremism, it is important to note the history of extremists in the military. Oklahoma City Bomber, Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran, and Sikh Temple Shooter, Wade Michael Page, also in the military before being discharged both had ties to National Alliance. It was the leading hate group in the country when headed by William Pierce. McVeigh had pages from Pierce’s book, The Turner Diaries in his car at the time of the bombing and Page was a member of a white power band on the Resistance Records label owned by National Alliance.
The organization, which struggled with infighting and internal politics after Pierce’s sudden death, can still consider some of the most violent neo-Nazis in the country as part of its membership base. The group also has a history of infiltrating the military and recruiting soldiers directly, and going so far as to advertise on a billboard directly across from a military base.
While we wait for more details to emerge about Derek Shrout’s affiliation and who influenced his thoughts and actions, an important takeaway from this incident is that these acts of violence are never random. It is dangerous to think that they are. When it comes to racialized violence, there are typically noticeable signs leading up to the (attempted) act.
Students shared specific examples of Shrout and others displaying troublesome behavior that suggested they had some sort of relationship to white supremacy and neo-Nazism. What results from a desire to always look at young people as perpetually innocent or “going through a phase” are excuses for behavior that should otherwise raise a red flag.
Racist violence is not something that only exists in history books, and thus demands diligence – on the part of parents, school employees, and students – when signs of it are staring them in the face. White supremacist and neo-Nazi activity is not known to foster, or even tolerate, peaceful coexistence. Therefore, witnesses of potential violence must speak up and their concerns must be heard. Schools and law enforcement have to work together to address threatening behavior, and must act swiftly. As we see in the case of Russell County High School, the lives of at least seven people were saved, and another national tragedy was avoided, thanks to a teacher’s concern and law enforcement’s quick action.