BRISTOL, R.I. (WPRI) -- 15-year-old Steve Bernard stared down the barrel of a .22-caliber handgun but still didn't believe he was in danger.
"It looked like a squirt gun," he tells us, 25 years later from the yard of his Bristol apartment. "I remember looking down that barrel and moments later being on the floor."
Bernard had become one of the nation's first school shooting victims, years before the words Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook became synonymous with school violence. Now, he hopes to continue talking with students about how violence can escalate from shoving to shooting.
The roots of the February 22, 1988 assault at what was then known as Bristol High School, grew from a seemingly typical pushing match in a school hallway. Bernard remembers the dispute going on for a couple of weeks with a barrage of shoving and name calling.
"He would make fun of my weight," Bernard says. "I was an athlete and I didn't think I should take that, even though I was heavy set."
In the days following the initial confrontation, Bernard admits he got the best of the "smaller kid" who he says spent a lot of time alone in the lunchroom and was often picked on by other students. Bernard says he played a role in that too.
"It was called teasing then but I bullied him. And I got away with it most of the time," he says. "And I kind of got a rush out of other kids saying, oh, go beat him up today."
On the day before the shooting, the other juvenile challenged the bigger Bernard to a fight in the school courtyard. The three-sport athlete remembers thinking very little of the challenge. He got on the bus, went to class, went to lunch and waited for his much smaller challenger.
"He walked up to me and I started to take off my coat. I watched him reach into his pocket and there it was," Bernard says, referring to the weapon. "I remember him pointing it and I said, 'Hey, you're bluffing. And I'm going to kick your butt so bad, you can't even throw the first shot.' "
Then, from point blank range, the bullet hit Bernard in the head and left him with what doctors said was a one percent chance to survive.
"But I beat all the odds. I was told I wouldn't drive, I wouldn't walk again, never do anything, they told me."
The shooter went to the Rhode Island Training School until he was 18. Bernard survived after 14 hours of surgery and almost a year in the hospital.
Over the years, he's spoken to thousands of students around the country about bullying. He was motivated to do that even more after last month's shooting of Aynis Vargas. The 12 year old was shot to death at a graduation party in Providence.
"I had a tear in my eye," he says. "This little girl was at a party and she got shot and her life is over. And how many others have we seen, just in Providence alone?"
He's turned his experience and perspective into a presentation he calls Silence Hurts. One common question he gets is about revenge.
"I ask this to the kids as I walk down the aisles in the auditoriums," he says pointing to his limp left leg and left arm. "Would that change my leg? Would my arm come back if I got revenge?"
The answer, he says, is a resounding no.
"It would make it worse."
One of his goals is to point out his belief that the students who stand by and watch bullying are almost as responsible as the bullies. He thinks that happened in his case. He also found out during the trial that students and teachers missed an obvious warning sign. Testimony revealed the gun was spotted several times on the day the single shot changed his life.
Bernard is positive that warning signs are always there before violence erupts.
"You can't predict it. But there are signs that lead up to the tragedy that are ignored or not noticed."
If you are interested in learning more about Bernard's Silence Hurts program, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright WPRI 12
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