Church Hill Detective Dustin Dean, left, tries to calm a parent concerned over the welfare of her child. David Grace photo.
CHURCH HILL -
A 16-year-old runaway Hawkins County foster child whose alleged threats against Volunteer High School caused a countywide school lockdown Thursday morning told police he was sorry.
Church Hill Police Chief Mark Johnson said the boy's show of remorse won't prevent him from facing a slew of juvenile charges, however, including evading arrest, resisting arrest, making a false report, making a terrorist threat, and for being a runaway.
The boy was in the Johnson City Regional Detention Center after his arrest Thursday afternoon.
Wednesday night the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office received a missing person report on the 16-year-old student.
The boy had been attending VHS but recently was assigned to the alternative school as part of the district’s “zero tolerance” policy for alleged marijuana possession on school grounds.
Thursday morning rumors began circulating around VHS that the boy had threatened to return to the school with a gun.
Johnson said there was an increased police presence on campus Thursday morning after the rumors were reported to him. Church Hill Police Department Officer Danny Depew and HCSO Deputy Tony Allen reportedly spotted the boy among a group of several other students around 8:30 a.m. near some ball fields at the north end of campus.
The boy fled on foot, prompting the school system to initiate a lockdown inside VHS. All classrooms doors were locked, and no one was permitted to enter or exit the school except for police and school officials.
Meanwhile police from several jurisdictions searched for the boy, setting up a dragnet to the north of campus surrounding a wooded area in the Cedar Hill neighborhood of Church Hill.
A Kingsport Police Department K-9 unit was brought to the scene to assist police from Church Hill, the HCSO, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency in their search.
Shortly before 3 p.m. police received a tip that the boy was at the water tower north of the VHS campus, and police found him there hiding alone. The boy had no gun.
In his initial press release, Johnson said claims of the boy threatening to bring a gun to school were unsubstantiated, and actual witnesses to the threats had come forward. Following the boy’s arrest Johnson said there was enough evidence to substantiate the charges, but he would not go into specific details.
News of the VHS lockdown spread quickly through the community, and police estimated that by 9:30 a.m. there were 200 parents near the front entrance of the school wanting to take their children home.
While Hawkins County school officials insisted that students were in no danger, as a precaution the lockdown was expanded beyond VHS and throughout the entire school system.
There was a large police presence maintained at Volunteer High School throughout the day, as well as Church Hill’s elementary and middle schools.
VHS ninth-grader Zachary Crawford, of Church Hill, said he spent the morning sitting in his classroom “watching TV and listening to music” during the lockdown. He said the student gossip was that someone had brought a gun to school.
His teacher told the class, “You probably know as much about what’s going on as I do, if not more.”
It was late in the morning before students had official word on what was going on.
The classroom door was locked, and no one could enter or leave. Eventually Principal Jim Dykes arrived to take Crawford’s class to the restroom. Crawford still wasn’t clear on what had happened after he was released to his father shortly before noon.
As for his first school “lockdown” situation, Crawford said the event was unremarkable.
“Nothing really happened,” Crawford said. “You just kind of go with it.”
Crawford’s father D.K. Crawford arrived at the school shortly after news of the lockdown became widespread and waited with the large crowd of other parents for about two hours until the school began releasing students to their parents.
“There were some (parents) very worried, but I think the school handled it well,” D.K. Crawford said. “They did everything they were supposed to with the school lockdown, and the rumor mill was that the kid (who’d allegedly made threats) didn’t even make it in the school. Crowd control was a different story.
“There was some parents who were very worried and some who were calm. And then there was a couple who acted a little hysterical. People handle stress differently, and you can’t blame them, but I trust the school and I trust the police, and they did what they were supposed to do.”
Not all parents at the scene were as confident as D.K. Crawford.
Prior to 11 a.m. parents weren’t given much information about what was going on. All they knew was that there had been a gun threat and the school was under lockdown.
The rumor mill was running rampant until Johnson and Sheriff Roger Christian came out of the school to address the crowd at 11 a.m.
“No witnesses have seen a gun, there’s been no injury, there’s been no anything,” Johnson told the crowd. “Don’t worry about your kids, they’re fine. They’re all inside. They’re in lockdown.”
Parents wanted to know why the students couldn’t be released to their parents. Some parents were on the verge of hysteria and pleaded with the police to let their children come home with them.
Christian said it was the school system’s decision to remain in lockdown.
Christian added, “I can tell you the children are much safer right now than they are out here.”
By 11:30 a.m. Dykes announced that students would be released to parents a few at a time. Parents who were present could sign a sheet, and school staff members retrieved the students and escorted them to their parent.
Director of Schools Charlotte Britton estimated that about 600 of the school’s 1,300 students were signed out of school early before the day was done. The remainder stayed in school all day.
Britton said she believes the lockdown procedure worked well.
“We want the public to know the reason we have a lockdown is to prevent anyone from coming into the school, and that all students were very safe in the school environment today,” Britton said. “Mr. Dykes is having a faculty meeting this (Thursday) afternoon, and I’m sure he’s going to be commending the faculty because the system most certainly worked today. I appreciate the support of the parents throughout the day.”
This was the first full-fledged lockdown in the Hawkins County school system since the emergency plan was enacted two years ago.
Johnson said he expects area law enforcement and the school system to study Thursday’s events to determine what went right and what can be improved.
“In my opinion the school did exactly what they were supposed to do, what they’re trained to do, and had the plan to do,” Johnson said. “They enacted it perfectly. You had a minority of the parents who were irate, but their kids were safe the entire time. We got their kids signed out as quickly as humanly possible, and I think that went really smoothly.”