BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan Central High School Principal Melanie Riden (now Riden-Bacon) and three sheriff's deputies faced an armed gunman at the school seven years ago today, and all of them lived to tell the tale.
Riden-Bacon gives presentations at safety conferences to help other schools prepare for intruder possibilities, and she believes this helps her heal from the trauma of that day.
“My healing has come from being able to help other schools,” Riden-Bacon said in a recent interview about her presentations at safety conferences in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. This July she made a presentation at a conference in Nashville, one of a series of talks she has given since being invited to a Tennessee Emergency Management Agency conference in 2012 to explain “why our school safety plan worked.”
The short answer she gives law enforcement, school leaders and 911 officials is this: The school, in cooperation with law enforcement, had a plan and followed it.
Riden-Bacon and Sheriff Wayne Anderson said interest in the incident remains high seven years later because it is one of the few school incidents involving a gun-wielding person where no one died except the intruder.
“You respond to situations with your highest level of training. It’s autopilot,” Riden-Bacon said. “If this situation had happened the first August I was there, there would have been a totally different outcome.”
“He pulled a gun on me”
Central High School is located off Exit 66 of Interstate 81 in Sullivan County. On the Monday morning of Aug. 30, 2010, School Resource Officer Carolyn Gudger was returning to Central from a call to Holston Middle School when she noticed a man driving around the building and seeking to gain entry. The man, later identified as Cowan, told her he was there to see his brother, a “caretaker” at the school, but Gudger told him he needed to leave.
Cowan did leave — but only briefly.
By the time Gudger got back into the school, Cowan had returned and was in the foyer saying he wanted to see the principal.
It was a little past 9:17 a.m.
“He couldn’t get past the safety door,” Riden-Bacon said. She and Gudger went into the foyer about 9:18 a.m., where a student was checking in late after a medical appointment.
Riden-Bacon asked Cowan if she could help him. He said to take care of the student first, but when Riden-Bacon found out the student was just checking in, she asked Cowan again what he wanted.
“As soon as I said that, he pulled a gun on me to my face,” Riden-Bacon said. Gudger then drew her service weapon and aimed it at Cowan.
“It happened before you knew it,” Riden-Bacon said. “(Gudger) came with me. If she hadn’t, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Riden-Bacon told the student to leave, called a code red and put the school on hard lockdown. It was 9:19 a.m.
Riden-Bacon soon left the foyer so Gudger could do her job. This was part of the school’s emergency plan.
The principal’s first attempt to swipe her card to open the door failed, but the second one succeeded. The magnetic lock stayed open 30 seconds, to allow for handicapped accessibility. Gudger then left the foyer but was followed by Cowan. The secretary who could have overridden the magnetic lock and relocked the door was under her desk with her phone. It was almost 9:20 a.m.
A school video security camera picks up what happened next. It shows Gudger and Cowan — holding guns on each other — going back and forth in the hallway and in and out of a bathroom and another room. The video ends after about 10 minutes, but then an audio recording picks up six shots. It was about 9:30 a.m.
Two sheriff's deputies had responded to assist Gudger, and all three fired at Cowan.
Authorities said Cowan, taken to a nearby hospital by helicopter, died about 10:10 a.m.
The school remained in lockdown until 10:30 a.m.
No motive has ever been formally pinpointed for Cowan’s actions, although his brother, Rodney Cowan, served as a custodian at Central, and Riden-Bacon said that not long before the incident she had changed his schedule, which she said better accommodated him.
Gudger said Rodney Cowan eventually approached her after the shooting and told her he didn’t blame her. He was reassigned to another custodial job in the school system.
Rodney and Thomas Cowan’s sister, Sandra Cowan Jennings, wrote a guest column for the Kingsport Times-News saying the mental health system failed not only Thomas, who she said was diagnosed as paranoid delusional by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Richmond, but society at large.
Monday morning quarterbacks
Carolyn Gudger says Monday morning quarterbacks over the past seven years have said she should have shot Thomas Cowan immediately.
However, Riden-Bacon said she feared Gudger’s bullets would ricochet in the foyer, and Cowan had a bullet in the chamber and the safety off. “If she had shot, he could have gotten a shot out and killed me,” Riden-Bacon said.
One other thing: The school had practiced for intruders earlier that year and followed that training.
“One of the scenarios was actually very close to what happened,” Riden-Bacon said. “We did intruder drills before the state enacted them.”
The school’s video of the incident shows Gudger and Cowan, guns pointed at one another, in a hallway near the library and administrative offices. The two disappear from camera view from time to time, which Riden-Bacon and Gudger said was when Gudger tried to lure him into a bathroom and another room. Cowan would not enter the bathroom, where Gudger and Riden-Bacon said the plan was possibly to shoot him.
“I was wanting to use that counter (in a room) to get behind,” Gudger said. “I just kept kept thinking he was going to give it up, but he didn’t.”
She tried to negotiate with him and successfully kept Cowan away from a fire alarm that would have confused the staff, faculty and students had he been able to pull it. “He was looking for the alarm, and I was trying to show him it’s not here,” Gudger said. At one point, he asked about an alarm he could see but was told it had been disabled. “I made that up,” Gudger said.
She said he also talked about concerns of “government” activities and wanted some way to get all students out of the building.
As the video shows, Cowan kept his gun pointed at Gudger from then until two other deputies off camera came to confront the intruder, who, after refusing to put down his weapon, was shot.
Ironically, the backup officers were delayed.
“They couldn’t get into the school because it was so locked down,” Riden-Bacon said.
Lockboxes later were added to give emergency officials access to the school.
“Officer Gudger did not take it lightly,” Riden-Bacon said of shooting at someone.
Authorities never released whose bullets killed Cowan. The other two deputies were Patrol Officer Sam Matney, now a Washington County, Va., deputy, and Lt. Steve Williams, now a Sullivan County detective.
“If she could save someone, she would,” Riden-Bacon said of Gudger. “She did the right thing.”
Four days after the shooting, Cowan was buried at Gunnings Cemetery near Central High School. Students were dismissed early that day, so they weren’t at school to hear an American Legion gun salute given to Cowan, a six-year Navy veteran who served on the USS Enterprise from 1968 to 1974 and was honorably discharged, according to his obituary. His parents sold the land on which Central was built to the county school system.