On a routine September day in 2015, high school principal Kevin Lein had scheduled at the top of his to-do list a meeting with student Mason Buhl.
The 16-year-old boy who had just transferred schools was struggling, Lein suspected, and as a veteran educator he had come to learn that empathy was often a better deterrent than shame.
Buhl would talk, Lein figured, and the principal would listen.
What he never imagined the boy might do was try to kill him.
Before Lein ever called him down for their planned meeting at Harrisburg High School in South Dakota, Buhl asked a teacher’s permission to visit the principal’s office. The teen walked in unannounced, then pointed a pistol at Lein’s head. When he tried to shoot, the gun first malfunctioned, then fired with a loud crack.
One of the 50 bullets Buhl carried grazed Lein’s arm and chest.
Lein fell out of his chair, Buhl fled, and the assistant principal and athletic director tackled the boy to the ground. Buhl was arrested and Lein, who was treated at a hospital for flesh wounds, returned to school the next day in a sling.
Now two years and a few healed gunshot wounds later, Lein wants one thing from the boy who shot him — not an explanation or even an apology. Just an opportunity to help.
This week, after many months of sitting behind bars, Buhl pleaded guilty to attempted murder, a crime that earned him a sentence of 25 years in prison. But Judge Brad Zell suspended the sentence and instead gave him 15 years probation, reported the Argus Leader.
Rather than sending him away for decades, the judge instead committed him to a mental health rehabilitation program — a decision based, in part, on Lein’s advocacy for the approach he was attempting two years ago: treatment over punishment.
A recent psychiatric evaluation at a state hospital concluded that mental illness played a role in the shooting, and attorneys representing Buhl and the state believed the teen could be rehabilitated.
Buhl had never before been violent and apologized in court for his decision that day.
“I intend to show with my actions that I wish that never happened, that I’m not my mistakes,” Buhl said in a South Dakota courtroom on Wednesday, “that I’m sorry to the community, Lincoln County and everyone involved.”
“The undisputed expert testimony, and testimony of those involved in Buhl’s treatment supports Judge Zell’s decision,” Buhl’s attorney, Michael Butler, told the Argus Leader. “Dr. Mark Lien’s compassion and understanding is no small factor as well in giving Buhl a second chance.
“Dr Lien is an extraordinary man by any measure,” Butler said.
Lien told The Washington Post that he had spoken in public and private, as well as with Buhl’s lawyer and the state attorney, about his desire for the teen to get help, not prison time.
“Forgiveness is really the only thing we control,” Lein, a Catholic, told The Washington Post.
He was bothered by how long Buhl was incarcerated while he waited for the justice system to determine his fate — all the while not receiving the mental health help Lein believes he deserves.
“That’s the real crime,” the principal said.
He doesn’t think mental illness should be a “scarlet letter,” and in the days, weeks and months after the shooting, Lein said he tried to challenge his students and staff to keep their eyes and minds open to people who may be hurting or struggling.
“I don’t think it was me,” Lein said of the shooting. “I think it was some kind of shout out for help.”
Lein, 58, left Harrisburg High School at the end of the 2017 school year for a new job as an administrator in central Iowa. Because Buhl’s adjudication hearing was scheduled with little time to plan for travel, Lein said he wasn’t able to appear in person.
But, he said, the judge’s ruling was “the very best decision.”
He knows not everyone agrees. Others in the community, including some former colleagues in Harrisburg, see Buhl’s actions in more black and white terms. He committed a crime, they say, and should face the punishment.
Lein’s viewpoint is more gray.
“I don’t believe there are evil kids,” he said. “I think that are good kids that get in bad situations.”
And now that Buhl no longer in prison, Lein plans to visit him at the South Dakota rehabilitation facility with a proposal he has been rehearsing in his mind for two years.
Maybe they could build something positive out the pain.
“Hey, glad to you see you,” Lein imagines he’ll say. “What can we do together?”
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