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The revisionist history of a school shooter

Graphic courtesy of Horseshoe Magazine/Asher Duke.
Graphic courtesy of Horseshoe Magazine/Asher Duke.

If you are a regular user of TikTok, you have likely seen a video from Jon Romano who was made popular by his videos about his time in prison and recovery from a vicious sword attack. The incident–in which Romano’s hands and legs were severed–left him with recognizable and brutal scarring.

While these are arguably the two things Romano is best known for, he is also a vocal advocate for mental health treatment and school violence. This advocacy is due mainly to his past, as Jon Romano is a school shooter.

The story—as told by Romano himself—is that he “…went into [his] high school with a shotgun. [His] intentions that day were not to kill but to be killed; and when [he] went in there [he] fired two rounds into the ceiling above student’s heads and [he] walked around, waiting for the police to show up and hopefully end [his] life.”

Romano recalls this story to his audience of more than 1.1 million people with tears in his eyes and a quiver in his voice. Speaking about a teacher he shot, Romano said, “Thankfully he wasn’t seriously injured physically, but I know that mentally he and countless others were traumatized and still suffer to this day almost 20 years later because of me.”

To most viewers of Romano’s dozens of videos on the shooting, he appears remorseful and truthful about his actions. He consistently replies to various comments left on his videos in order to elaborate and clarify his motivations for the shooting, mainly mental health issues. 

TikTok is not the only place Romano can be found recounting his story. On Aug. 29, 2023, Romano visited the school where he committed the shooting to speak candidly as to why he brought a gun to those very halls. Romano explained once again that he did not want to hurt anyone; he only wanted to get himself killed. The crowd of about 60 people “received him warmly and listened in gripped silence.

At a glance, Romano indeed seems to have repented for his actions and is trying to be better. Even members of the community Romano had harmed could listen to his story and empathize with him.

On TikTok, Romano is quick to inform his audience that “[His] goal is not redemption for the school shooting [he] committed. [His] goal is prevention of other school shootings.”

However, despite the TikTok videos and public speaking seminars, Jon Romano has not been truthful in his recounting of the events of that day. As court documents show, Romano is lying.

It’s Feb. 9, 2004. Students at Columbia High School in East Greenbush, NY, are going about their day blissfully unaware of the horrors that are about to befall them. At 10:30 am, the beginning of fifth period, the first shot rang out. 

Romano—just 16 at the time—had brought a loaded shotgun into the school, quickly ducking into the bathroom. Romano sent his friends a text message that read, “I’M IN SCHOOL WITH A SHOTGUN. GET OUT.” Romano exited the bathroom he was in, shotgun raised.

Student Eric Farrell had been walking past the bathroom when Romano burst through the restroom door. Romano pointed the shotgun at Farrell, who quickly ducked into a nearby classroom, saving his life.

Romano, seeing two other students in the hallway—Jeffrey Kinary and Kristopher Steponik—quickly changed targets. Pointing the firearm at Kinary, Romano fired. Kinary reacted quickly and dropped to the ground. The shot missed him. 

As Romano chambered another round, the two terrified students tried to crawl and run away. Romano finished loading his shotgun and shot at Steponik, hitting him in the leg. Romano quickly loaded another round and entered a classroom to continue his rampage. As he entered, he was grabbed by Assistant Principal John Sawchuck.  

As the two battled for control over the weapon, teacher Michael Bennet came to assist Sawchuck. When Romano saw this, he swung around, shooting Bennet in the leg. Realizing there were few options left, Sawchuck tried to convince Romano to give up the shotgun.  

It worked, and Romano was arrested and transported to Rensselaer County Jail, where guards observed him laughing at a television report of his shooting. 

Romano was sentenced to 20 years in prison, followed by a five-year post-release supervision. He was released from prison in 2020, having only served 17 years of his 20-year sentence. 

For audience members of his TikTok videos, the highly revised and embellished story that Romano repeatedly tells is the only one they know. For over 1 million people, Romano was a sympathetic and misguided teenager who only wanted to get himself killed.  

Romano did not aim for the ceiling when firing at his peers and teachers; he aimed for his peers. While it is possible, and even likely, that Romano was trying to get himself killed by police, his claim that he never intended to harm anyone is a bald-faced lie disproven by court documents and survivors’ accounts of the incident.  

Kristopher Steponik—the student shot by Romano—stated, “I feel that Jon Romano was trying to kill me and Jeff in the hallway. I feared for my life.” 

The other student shot at by Romano, Jeffrey Kinary, recounted,

“…I made brief eye contact with him and he pointed the gun at me and pulled the trigger. I saw a flash of fire come from the barrel of the gun and I dropped to the ground. My ears began ringing immediately and I heard what I think was the next round being chambered. I immediately began half-running and half-crawling towards the stairwell and I heard a second shot at that time.”

Later on, Kinary recalled, “While we were in that office Casey [Kristopher] and I realized that there was a BB from the shotgun shell in his baseball hat’s brim…”

Clearly, these accounts are in stark contrast to the story that Romano would like the world to believe about his shooting. It is made more evident from the BB in the brim of Kristopher’s hat that Romano was not aiming for the ceiling. He was aiming to kill. 

This fact is made more apparent when looking at Romano’s statements after the shooting, in which he readily states:

“There were two other kids at the end of the hall. They saw me. I had the gun at waist level, pointing it down at them. They ran. I then said, ‘Oh shit,’ and that’s when I fired two quick shots at them.”

While the shooting was the culmination of years of Romano’s mental health disorders, it was not the first time he had been violent at the school. Ericka Cotugno, a fellow student, told police in a witness statement that,

“[Romano] sat behind me for a short time and then he grabbed me by the neck, using his arm and started choking me. This caught me completely by surprise and I had a hard time breathing. Jon never said a word to me while he was doing this. I would estimate he choked me for at least five  seconds. After he stopped I ran out of the room crying. I remember my neck (throat area) hurting.” 

Romano’s violence on the day of the shooting was unique in its brutality, but it was not an isolated incident and clearly not the first time he hurt his peers. Romano was a violent and unwell teenager—one who should have never had access to firearms in the first place.

After the shooting, Romano offered several voluntary statements to the police. In reference to his plans, Romano stated:

“The fantasies were of me shooting random people. I really hate Mr. Crannel and Mr. Koosdale. They are principals at Columbia. They had no respect for me and lied to me. If I saw them I would have shot them.”

While Romano may claim that he never intended to hurt anyone but himself, the facts of the shooting speak volumes. 

If Romano were truly remorseful for the school shooting he committed, he would not lie about the facts of the shooting. Jon Romano might be doing some good with his videos, but the things Romano cares about are damage control and historical revisions of his crimes. Jon Romano entered Columbia High School to kill his peers and teachers, and if not for the brave actions of faculty members, he likely would have been successful.

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Asher Duke, Investigative Editor
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  • A

    A motherDec 22, 2023 at 10:01 am

    I’m very close to the situation & I thank you for writing this . I agree , he’s changing his story to make himself look better . He did a lot of damage that day & his innocent victims are still suffering & will never be the same .

    Reply
    • A

      AsherFeb 7, 2024 at 8:55 pm

      Hi there!

      I’m so sorry that you have to relive that day and see this kind of moral inversion take place. I hope you and the rest of his victims are doing well.

      Reply