Being Red Flagged: An Experience
I need to get something that’s been plaguing me off my chest before it destroys me, the person I am, and the person I want to be. When I was 14 years old, I was let down by a system that stood against bullying, yet somehow felt it was okay to accuse me of being a potential school shooter. I was let down by everyone growing up. My father was physically and emotionally abusive. So much so that I was stepping into school each day, depressed, because he felt that I was useless.
At one point, my dad made me walk up to my teachers and tell them that “I was useless” and “I was not going to come to school anymore”. When I told him I had done this, he claimed I had lied to him, stripped me naked, and summarily beat me. In brief, I was a victim of child abuse.
My parents would separate later on. Between all of this, I had joined the Palm Springs Writers’ Guild at age 12 and had also joined the Desert Screenwriters Guild shortly after I turned 14. I had spent a lot of my time in my local library reading in order to cope with the trauma sustained during my childhood.
Being Asian in a predominantly Hispanic school, I found myself being a victim of racism. I was hassled for having slanted eyes, but I learned to deal with it. I made friends, and did my best to get by. It was difficult, however, the constant bullying and harassment for being Asian. Mix in ADHD, constant bullying, stress from home and school, alongside a system that merely pretends to care about their students, it’s very clearly a problem. The school knew it was happening, as I had not only told them directly, but had addressed multiple written letters to them about it.
A Recipe for Disaster
Near the end of the school year, I had an emotional breakdown. I ended up getting into a fight with one of the kids who had been constantly bullying me. I said some things that I honestly regret, and if I had known it would lead to all of the following, I would have just stayed home or ditched school altogether. But that’s not the kind of story this is.
Being a police explorer, my instructor essentially had all of my personal contact information. That night, I got a call from the instructor and the first thing he asked was, “Are you going to shoot up your local high school?”
I had an anxiety attack. It felt like the walls were closing in. It felt like the world had just compressed and started to slowly crush the life out of me. This is when I passed the phone to my mom, as my fear was so immense that it caused me to stay awake most of the night crying. I could hear my mom in the other room explaining to my instructor that there was a paper trail related to my emotional breakdown.
I don’t remember sleeping that night, but the next day I was instructed to go into the main office, first thing. My instructor wasn’t there; a different officer was there that day. I knew her as she sometimes helped with the explorer program. She explained to my mom and I that my room was to be searched. Apparently I had tripped the “Kids with Guns” protocol and was now red flagged as a “potential school shooter”.
I wasn’t stupid. I knew my Fourth Amendment rights, and I also knew that I was entitled to those. I explained to my mom that the cops would be looking for a reason to classify me as a “potential threat” either through my writing, the games I played, or the fact that I enjoyed reading about World War Two and history in general.
Although I had explained that, she told me she was going to let the police come into the house. When I asked her why, her response was, “Because we have nothing to hide.”
I ended up being suspended and the cops showed up to the house. I begged my mom not to let the cops in. As they came to the door, I still remember the words I let out: “Last chance, do not let them in.” She let them in and sealed my fate
Being “Red Flagged”
Two officers entered my home and I was immediately told to sit on the couch. They both had this same look on their faces. The same one my dad had right before he would come up with an excuse to beat me. The “I’m going to get you, one way or another” look. It’s something you don’t forget and it sticks with you forever. They tried to question me, but I didn’t answer so my mom tried to get me to answer their questions. The officers asked me whether I owned a gun. When I refused to answer, my mom explained that she “doesn’t like guns” and that she “doesn’t own one”.
Behind the officer questioning me, I watched the other officer come in and knock over my lamp. When I stood up and pointed that out, the other officer yelled at me to sit back down on the couch. He then went into another line of questioning, asking me “What’s in your room that’s got you so nervous?”
Meanwhile, the other officer tore apart my room. The officer that was searching my room finally came back out with stacks of papers in his hand. I immediately noticed them as my manuscripts. He threw it in front of me and asked, “What’s this? Is this your kill list?” The title of the first sheet read, “Character sheet”.
“Donovan Paulsen, Jacqueline Conway? Are you out to kill these people?” He asked me.
He pulled out another stack of paper which had a bunch of research about World War Two and modern infantry weapons meant to supplement my work and make my stories more realistic. I’d spent a lot of time reading about the Second World War and the Global War on Terror in order to make the best stories I could, for a 14 year old. He pulled out those notes and asked, “Why do you have so many notes on things like guns and explosives? You know normal kids don’t look into things like that, right?”
I retorted with, “Tell that to everyone playing Call of Duty.”
“You being a smartass with me?” He asks.
“You tell me,” I said, annoyed. He gave me a scornful look.
“You’ve got an attitude problem.”
I didn’t answer at this point. I was too angry, scared, and dejected to do so.
My mom interjected and told them that I was an active member of the Desert Screenwriters Group and the Palm Springs Writers’ Guild.
They didn’t stop there however, as they went on to grill me on my choice of games and reading. In particular, they weren’t very thrilled when they had found the US Army field manuals and books related to World War II infantry tactics in my room. They tried to accuse me of being this dangerous kid, a threat to others, and that locking me up was probably for the best.
They realized (I assumed however) that none of these things were grounds for arrest. So they left, and I breathed a sigh of relief, happy that they hadn’t taken my computer and looked through my browser history full of firearms, and text files related to writing out my frustrations, and memories related to abuse.
You’d think that this is where the nightmare ends. Everyone goes home, and realizes that I’m not actually dangerous, and that I’m not out to hurt people, of course.
The Nightmare Continues
I had a school disciplinary hearing the next day to deem whether I was sane enough, according to the vice principal that had flagged me, and included the presence of a district disciplinarian in charge of this sort of thing.
The build-up to the disciplinary meeting was tense. I felt nothing short of anxious and my mom had to coach me and tell me not to be honest about my answers. I was nothing short of an anxious and fearful mess leading up to all of this. I’d go in resigning myself to whatever happened next, and it would all take place in front of the vice principal of my high school and the school disciplinarian. In my mind, I’d just given up. If I was going to lie, it was because it was something that had to be done. What were they going to do, arrest me for it?
We took seats at a round table. They summarized what I had done, why the disciplinary hearing was necessary, and that I had been flagged under the “Kids with Guns” protocol, a red flag system that the school district had enacted to “stop potential school shooters”. I felt nothing short of shame come over me, as I was thinking about the type of person I was.
Was I crazy? Was I a bad person? It rocked me, the writer, the guy who was struggling not just in school, but who was also trying to attend therapy and recover from the things his dad did to him.
The Blaming of Video Games
“So, what kind of games do you play?” Asked my vice principal.
I thought over my responses, realizing that they wanted me to slip up and answer with the truth. Like every other kid my age, I playing action games like Call of Duty, Uncharted, and The Last of Us.
Of course, I didn’t play these games because I liked killing. I played them because I genuinely enjoyed their stories. I enjoyed being Nathan Drake, Joel, or playing as a soldier on the frontlines of the Second World War. I liked feeling their struggles in these worlds. It was an escape from the constant nightmares in reality, and (in the case of Uncharted) made me want to travel the world.
I half-lied. I told them I’d played tabletop and role-playing games like Fallout, Warhammer 40K tabletop, and that I had friends I played these games with.
“So you like getting away from the real world? Is the real world too hard for you to handle?” asked the vice principal.
I didn’t answer. I realized in that moment that no matter what I said, they were going to find a way to use my words against me. I was genuinely disgusted by this line of questioning at this point after having been through everything else.
“So, how many friends do you have?” asked the disciplinarian.
I didn’t have to lie about this question, though I had to give up the names of my friends who would end up being interviewed.
“What do you do in your free time?” asked the vice principal.
“I spend a lot of time in the library,” I answered.
“Oh, so you’re alone and introverted, I see,” he said, and wrote down.
My eyes widened, realizing I’d slipped.
The American School System At Work
After this, they noted the lies I had told them and revealed that the cops had taken notes on what they found in my room and passed it onto the school. They tried to pin me as a “compulsive liar” for everything I had told them about.
At this point, my mom and I started to pull out the various instances of bullying that were in writing that started all of this. We pointed out that they had known about all of this in advance and had done nothing. They had done nothing for us in the face of all of this. In the face of their zero tolerance policy, their accusations of me being a “potential school shooter”, and “being a threat to others” flew in the face of direct evidence in their own wrongdoing.
The disciplinarian gave the vice principal a look of confusion. He glanced at the paper trail in front of him, then back over at the vice principal. He massaged his eyes and told the vice principal to step out. The disciplinarian realized what had happened and explained to me that I was only going to be expelled from this school, and that I would have to go to a new school closer to where I lived.
The transfer went through, and honestly I wished that it had ended there, but it didn’t. The students at the new school I ended up going to knew me as the “future school shooter kid”. I rolled with the punches, getting into a bit of trouble as people tried picking fights with me for the same reasons I’d been kicked from the other school.
A year later, I would transfer into an independent studies program, and do surprisingly well. It was a minor adjustment period. One where I realized I had a week to do a large amount of work, but had the freedom to do just about anything else. I would work my first job during all of this, and did well at it.
After that, I went to college to be an auto mechanic and worked a job as a technician at a car dealership. While I enjoyed the course and the people I went to class with, work was difficult. As everyone there had gone to school with me when I was 14, citing me as “the guy most likely to shoot up work”. Between this and people outside class that gave me trouble for being “the guy either most likely to shoot up school or work” I was pretty much done with it all.
The Turning Point
The turning point for me was leaving the gun store with my first gun and hearing behind me, “Be careful, don’t shoot up any schools with that thing!” I decided I had to put my plan of moving out of California into action. I was tired of the abuse, bullying, and harassment. I moved to Phoenix, Arizona and made a new life for myself, but the memories of the past still haunt me to this day.
Being red flagged by my school district was a traumatizing experience. The people I was supposed to trust going through my life with a fine toothed comb caused me to truly question authority, find out that I was on my own, and gave me an understanding that law enforcement’s job was to find criminals even where there may be none. Examples like the Rampart Division in Los Angeles and Ruby Ridge, alongside my own incident, showed me I needed to be wary around law enforcement and careful of who to trust.
In closing, my experience highlights why I am against red flag laws, and my only wish is for what happened to me not happen to anyone else.