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Friends, classmates say man shot dead at Dreyfoos needed mental health support

Romen Phelps2.jpeg
Dreyfoos Alum for Romen Phelps
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Dreyfoos Alum for Romen Phelps
An undated photo of Romen Phelps at Drefoos School of the Arts. Class of 2007. The Dreyfoos Alum for Romen Phelps, a Facebook group, has nearly 400 membes.

Students and staff at Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach experienced a code red when a van crashed against the campus gate Friday. After a confrontation at the main theater hall, where the shooting occurred, the unarmed driver was shot dead by an off-duty city police officer. The driver was later revealed to be Romen Phelps, a 2007 alumnus of the school.

In a statement, the School district of Palm Beach County said that there were no injuries to students or staff, and the District offered an emotional support hotline to speak with a professional.

Hundreds of friends and classmates are paying tribute to the beloved theater major who struggled with his mental health. You can find tributes all across social media for Romen Phelps. Jermaine Williams, who graduated in the same class, has known Phelps since elementary school and became friends at Bak Middle School Of The Arts.

The audio-visual engineer says Phelps was big into stagecraft and lighting, with a personality just as bright.

“It’s hard to find a bad thing to say about him. We wanted to correct the narrative — mental health definitely played a role, it's not his main attribute,” Williams said. “His main attribute is that he was a great person, great artist and thespian.”

Williams believes the mental health system failed Phelps. “You couldn't look at him and say that, or you couldn't interact with him and gather that there was any mental health issues in high school or in middle school,” Williams said. But somewhere down the line, his mental state deteriorated.

“I'm not going to go into the specifics of diagnosis or anything like that, but I offered him help,” Williams said. “He sought after help [but] didn’t think it helped him or been adequate enough to help him. And that was the day before all that occurred at Dreyfoos."

“The only thing I could do is gather that there was a poetic relationship between him and building seven, which is the theater at Dreyfoos, '' Williams said.

Skyler Meany is also a close friend and classmate and collaborated on music and other projects over the years. Meany is the co-organizer of a Facebook group, “Dreyfoos Alum for Romen Phelps,” honoring Phelps.

The group has nearly 440 members calling for better crisis intervention for people strugglingg with mental illness.

“From everyone who knew Romen, it’s a demonstration for how much we loved him,” Meany said. “People are calling in from across the country, all over the country… it’s an outpour for both a tragic event and for honoring the person we knew him as.”

Romen Phelps at Dreyfoos.jpeg
Sarah Blanc
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In 2006, Romen Phelps was a Pathfinder High School Scholarship Awards nominee, an annual ceremony for outstanding seniors in Palm Beach and Martin counties. Former classmate Sarah Blanc shared it in the Dreyfoos Alum for Romen Phelps Facebook group, which has nearly 440 members.

Friends say over the years he had a battle with mental illness, many of whom noticed minor episodes.

Phelps came over to Meany's house in Palm Beach Gardens that day before the incident. Meany said Phelps was “acting strange” and began “drifting,” which ultimately led to the police being called because Meany was concerned for him and his safety. Meany said Phelps was hospitalized and shortly released.

“He got out later that night and came and got his van, and he left his wallet here and he came back the next morning and got his wallet," Meany said. “And that was the last time I saw him. We just wave goodbye to each other. And he was smiling, had his work uniform, and said he was going to work. And that was it.”

According to findings by the Palm Beach Post, Phelps had a history of manic-depressive bipolar disorder.

Meany says people in the Facebook group “feel horrible for the trauma that the kids went through and the students and staff and everybody that was there,” and that the tribute to Phelps is about “who he is as a human being.”

Lauren Wiles-Berlin, co-organizer of the Facebook group, was class of ‘08. In that year, the dance major remembers Phelps leading the charge backstage and “he would wear these hats. He was tall, lanky at the time, always moving quickly.”

“People love him and we want the community to know that he was not a monster. He had a mental illness. But in his periods of wellness, he was this beautiful, gregarious personality who loved the performing arts, who loved that stage,” Wiles-Berlin said. “And it's like this dark irony. He literally got shot and killed in the place that he loved more than anything. A place that was a place of safety, refuge, acceptance.”

Rebecca Baker is from Dreyfoos class of 2006, and she attended Middle School of the Arts (now known as Bak Middle School Of The Arts) with Phelps. And, like Romen, she specialized in technical theater and “worked on countless productions and projects together.”

She echoed the same sentiments, saying she “found him to be kind and caring and one of the hardest workers I've ever known.”

Lynn McKeel, who currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, says she has known Phelps for 22 years and kept in touch regularly, seeing him at least once a year before the pandemic. She’s reminded by his “deep, resonating baritone [singing] voice” and his poetry.

“People would beg him to act and perform in shows, but he loved the technical side of it,” McKeel said. “He liked rigging and electrical work and carpentry. And that's where he chose to focus.”

Organizers are in the beginning phase of planning a Dreyfoos alumni gathering in West Palm Beach on Saturday.