JONESVILLE - A crumpled up note found in the hallway at Lee High School just before lunch on Wednesday prompted administrators to lock down the school while the building was searched, even though officials believed the note was most likely written as a joke.
Principal Ron Earley said he believes the note may have been an attempt at "copycatting" an incident from the day before at Northwood High School in Saltville, as the Northwood incident had been in the news earlier that day.
According to Earley, a female student found the note just before lunch on the fourth floor, wadded up and lying in a corner. After reading the note, the student brought it to Earley, and after a short deliberation he decided to lock the school down and conduct an extensive search for weapons.
"When I got it, my gut feeling was that it was a hoax. But I locked the school down and searched every locker, every classroom, the band room, the auditorium, book bags and even purses," he said.
The principal said while he did notify the sheriff's department of the note, the search was conducted in house by school personnel.
Because the search forced the cancellation of Standards of Learning exams, Earley said he is now concerned that it could spawn other such efforts to hinder classes before school is out for the summer.
Superintendent Fred Marion said after the student reported the note, the information was shared with a number of other students, "and that got the whole school stirred up."
Once school officials became aware of the note, he said, "Mr. (Alan) Ingle and Mr. (Ron) Earley did an excellent job on following procedure to be sure the school remained safe."
Sheriff Gary Parsons said as soon as School Resource Officer Richard Crabtree became aware of the note, which stated "I'm going to shoot everybody that's hurt me," he agreed with and assisted in initiating the lockdown and search.
"Everybody thought it was a gag, but we searched anyway," said Parsons. "In the wake of what's happened in the last couple of weeks, we've got to take every threat seriously, and that's what we did."
The sheriff said some students contacted their parents during the scare, and when the parents arrived at the school they were allowed to take their children home.
"There was nothing found, and there was no reason to believe any weapons were ever on the school campus," he said.
Earley said while seven or eight parents checked out their students before the lockdown was in full force, he was aware of only one parent taking their child home due to the scare. Several other parents who were in the parking lot during the lockdown left without coming in for their children once they heard the all clear given and students were instructed to proceed to their sixth period classes.
Parsons also speculated the note may have been spawned by the news report on Northwood Wednesday morning.
"I suppose some kid wanted to break the routine and get out of school for a while," he said.
The sheriff said his office and the school is jointly investigating in an effort to determine who may have written the note, and if that is learned, "it will be treated seriously, because this certainly is no time to be playing pranks about something like that."
He encourages anyone with information about the writing of the note to contact his office, school officials or Crabtree.
Marion said the situation could have also been triggered by a recent security assessment he requested last week after the shootings at Virginia Tech.
"I asked the sheriff's department to evaluate all the schools. At least four schools have been completed, and I think Lee High is one of them. I wanted someone to walk in unannounced that wouldn't be recognized and see what happens. I think sometimes that gives kids ideas, and this may have been the case in this situation," said the superintendent.
"We will continue these surprise visits just to keep everybody on their toes. We want to involve everybody, not just the administration, but students, teachers and staff. Everybody needs to do their part and report anything that goes on out of the ordinary," Marion said.
One positive note did come from the search, said Earley, as he was fully expecting to find drugs during the locker search, but none were turned up.
"I was surprised at that," he said, but added that over 200 cell phones were found although they are not permitted on campus.