Iowa Principal Critically Injured in School Shooting Risked Himself to Protect Students, Police Say

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Perry Police Chief Eric Vaughn, right, speaks during a news conference following a shooting at Perry High School, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024, in Perry, Iowa.

PERRY, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa principal critically injured in a school shooting put himself in harm’s way so students could try to escape from a teenage shooter who opened fire in a cafeteria as students were gathering for breakfast before school, authorities said Friday.

Perry High School Principal Dan Marburger and six others, including two staff members and four teenage students, were injured in the Thursday morning shooting that left one sixth-grader dead. The 17-year-old student who opened fire also died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot.

The state Department of Public Safety said Marburger, who is being treated in a Des Moines hospital, “acted selflessly and placed himself in harm’s way in an apparent effort to protect his students.”

A day after the shooting, the small community of Perry was somber. Yellow crime tape still lined the campus that Perry High School shares with the town’s middle school, flowers and stuffed toys had cropped up in mini memorials, and classes across the district were canceled Friday in favor of counseling.

Perry Superintendent Clark Wicks said the soonest classes will resume in the town will be next Friday.

“This is an extremely painful and difficult time for our entire school community, and in our grief, we will take time to remember,” Wicks said.

The shooting happened just after 7:30 a.m. Thursday, shortly before classes were set to begin on the first day back after winter break. Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation spokesman Mitch Mortvedt said the shooting started in the cafeteria, where students from several grades were eating breakfast, then spilled outside the cafeteria but was contained to the north end of the school.

The student killed was identified as 11-year-old Ahmir Jollif. An autopsy showed he had been shot three times.

The news that seven students and staff suffered “wounds or injuries of varying degree” during the shooting was two more than authorities said Thursday afternoon. Mortvedt said the number of injured increased after investigators later learned about two more wounded faculty members. All seven are believed to have been either wounded or grazed by bullets, and suffered injuries ranging from significant to minor.

On Friday, Marburger and two students remained hospitalized.

In a Facebook post Thursday night, the principal’s daughter said he was in “surgery all day, and is currently stable.”

Claire Marburger called her father a “gentle giant” and it wasn’t surprising that her father tried to protect his students.

“As I heard of a gunman, I instantly had a feeling my Dad would be a victim as he would put himself in harms way for the benefit of the kids and his staff,” his daughter wrote. “That’s just Dad.”

Authorities said the suspect, identified as Dylan Butler, had a pump-action shotgun and a small-caliber handgun. Mortvedt told The Associated Press that authorities also found a “pretty rudimentary” improvised explosive device in Butler’s belongings, and that experts advised “it was something that they needed to disarm.” It was rendered safe.

Mortvedt said Marburger, who has been principal since 1995, did some “pretty significant things” to protect others during the shooting, but didn’t release details. Wicks, the superintendent, said Marburger was a “hero” who intervened with Butler so students could escape. Wicks said other staff also acted heroically, including Middle School Assistant Principal Adam Jessen who “carried a wounded student into a safe area.”

A law enforcement official briefed on the investigation said federal and state investigators were interviewing Butler’s friends and analyzing Butler’s social media profiles, including posts on TikTok and Reddit. However, authorities have provided no information about a possible motive.

Shortly before Thursday’s shooting, Butler posted a photo on TikTok inside the bathroom of Perry High School, the official said. The photo was captioned “now we wait” and the song “Stray Bullet” by the German band KMFDM accompanied it. Investigators also have found photos Butler posted posing with firearms, according to the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the investigation and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Two friends and their mother who spoke with the AP said Butler was a quiet person who had been bullied relentlessly since elementary school. Sisters Yesenia Roeder and Khamya Hall, both 17, said alongside their mother, Alita, that it escalated recently when Butler’s younger sister started getting picked on, too.

“He was hurting. He got tired. He got tired of the bullying. He got tired of the harassment,” Yesenia Roeder Hall said. “Was it a smart idea to shoot up the school? No. God, no.”

Police said Thursday they believe that Butler acted alone. But investigators have not said how Butler obtained the firearms.

Investigators are still working to get a “good grasp of who Dylan was,” and the parents have been cooperating, Mortvedt said. The investigation will include Butler’s background along with the “environment of the school,” he said.

Wicks wouldn’t discuss whether Butler had been bullied but he defended the way his district responds to those situations.

“We take every bullying situation seriously and our goal is to always have that safe and inviting atmosphere, but I’m not going to comment on this individual case as well as any other individual case,” Wicks said.

Butler’s parents have been fixtures of the Perry community. His father is director of the city’s airport after serving as its public works director for years, where he won praise helping clean up Perry after a devastating wind storm in 2020. His mother has also owned a small business and served on a city development board. The parents have not responded to messages seeking comment.

On Thursday night, hundreds gathered for a candlelight prayer vigil at a park where hours earlier, students had been brought to reunite with their families after the shooting. Bundled up against freezing temperatures, they listened to clergy from many faiths and heard a message of hope in both English and Spanish.

Perry has about 8,000 residents and is about 40 miles (65 kilometers) northwest of Des Moines, on the edge of the state capital’s metropolitan area. It is home to a large pork-processing plant and low-slung, single-story homes spread among trees now shorn of their leaves by winter.

The high school is part of the 1,785-student Perry Community School District. Perry is more diverse than Iowa as a whole. Census figures show 31% of its residents are Hispanic, compared with less than 7% statewide. Those figures also show nearly 19% of the town’s residents were born outside the U.S.

Despite the shock of the shooting, Perry Mayor Dirk Cavanaugh expressed confidence the community would get through the painful experience.

“We are a small town, but we will pull together in a big way to get through this.”