KINGSPORT — When Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson thinks of school resource officers, he thinks about the late Dutch Coward, an officer of the Kingsport Police Department, and Sullivan County SRO Carolyn Gudger.
Coward, however, wasn’t technically an SRO.
He taught drivers education at Dobyns-Bennett High School when Anderson was a student there in the mid-1960s.
“He was my hero in high school. He was somebody I would go up to talk with about whenever I wanted,” Anderson recalled in an interview earlier this year.
He said Coward would take away driver’s licenses of students drag racing near the old D-B, now Sevier Middle, and give them back when they “acted better.”
Anderson said he found out years later the D-B assignment for Coward came after a run-in with the then-police chief of Kingsport because the drivers education assignment wasn’t a particularly desired one. Still, Anderson said it was a lucky break for the school.
“If you had a fight, he’d always show up. He was an SRO, while what he actually did was teach drivers ed,” Anderson said. “He was an SRO and probably didn’t have a clue (he was).”
He also showed juniors a gory movie called “Signal 30” with real images and footage of deaths at accident scenes, designed to make students drive more safely.
“Everybody kind of built a bond with him,” Anderson said, either a positive bond of communications or one where he kept his eyes and ears open for selected students who tended to get into trouble.
Fast-forwarding to more modern times, Anderson said that he and the SRO at Sullivan Central High began going to the old Carolina Pottery parking lot early this year after reports of doughnuts, burnouts and other erratic driving by students after school. That activity stopped, the sheriff said.
However, by far the most noteworthy recent SRO activity in the county was an armed man at Sullivan Central High School intercepted by county SRO Carolyn Gudger the morning of Aug. 30, 2010.
Anderson admitted he was upset by the characterization of Gudger’s actions during a March 5 meeting of the security task force of the county school system, which among other things is considering the idea of more SROs.
Former deputy Ty Boomershine, a criminal justice teacher at Sullivan East High School and a county commissioner, mentioned the Central incident that is immortalized in a widely viewed YouTube video.
Boomershine, who along with other panel members said SROs were not the only component of school security, pointed out that the 1999 Columbine, Colo., high school massacre occurred with two SROs in the building.
He also pointed out that it took about 13 minutes from when the armed man, Charles Richard Cowan, entered Central for him to be shot after he repeatedly refused to put down his weapon, which he pointed at Gudger, then-Principal Melanie Riden-Bacon, Sheriff’s Capt., (then-Lt.) Steve Williams and Deputy Sam Matney, the latter two who arrived at the school with the incident in progress.
Boomershine could not be reached for further comment Friday.
“It’s a nightmare they relive every day,” Anderson said, adding that even shooting someone who repeatedly refused to drop his weapon is traumatic for any officer. “It’s not television. They relive this nightmare every day.”
Anderson said he still commends Gudger.
“Everybody can be a Monday morning quarterback,” Anderson said. “Nobody knows what they are going to do in a situation like that.”
The bottom line, Anderson said, is that without an SRO at the school when the man arrived with two weapons, he fears Riden-Bacon would have been shot and likely died.
“If she (Gudger) hadn’t been in the school at that particular time, that principal would have died in that foyer,” Anderson said.
Boomershine is a former member of the Sheriff’s Office SWAT team, as was Williams at the time of the incident.
Anderson said Gudger has been trained in hostage negotiations.
“Her training kicked in,” Anderson said. “To me the bottom line is the end result.”
On that day, Cowan came to the school in the morning but was turned back by Gudger outside the building. He left, and she left to check on something at another school. When someone was asking for the principal at the school entrance foyer, Gudger thought it might be him and followed the principal.
Anderson said authorities never figured out conclusively Cowan’s motivation or mind-set but that he suspects Cowan had a beef with the principal to do with Cowan’s brother’s employment at Central as a janitor.
After Cowan pulled a gun on the principal, Gudger got between the man and the principal, talking with him and eventually in effect leading him down a hallway to a series of lockers while he talked about pulling the fire alarm.
Williams and Matney hid behind those lockers, and they and Gudger confronted the man, who still refused to drop his weapon.
Anderson said while he is certain Gudger saved Riden-Bacon, Gudger and the other two officers probably saved other Central staff and students from injury or worse as well.
Gudger now serves East High as an SRO.