ECHS, county officials clear air following Friday chaos

Published 12:25 am Monday, May 7, 2007

By By Adam Prestridge
The massacre at Virginia Tech University three weeks ago still sits heavy on the minds of any parent of a school-aged child throughout America.
Friday, parents in Atmore became alarmed after several rumors began circulating around town that students at Escambia County High School were in harms way. The rumors fueled a frenzy of parents and relatives rushing to check out students, which in turn caused additional confusion for residents and congestion on roadways leading to the school.
"This is a result of hearsay, a rumor that was started and compounded by the use of student cell phones," Escambia County High School principal Kyle Ferguson said Friday afternoon. "We received information this morning that a student had allegedly made the comment that they were going to shoot a few teachers before school started. We immediately located the student, who was at home, who was never on campus."
In fact, the student in question never made the remarks, according to students that claimed at first to hear the threat.
"Evidently it was heard by someone and it spread like wildfire," Ferguson said. "We have interviewed several students and none of the students that allegedly heard the student make the statement heard the student make the statement. It's all rumor, alleged, unfounded."
According to parents checking out students other rumors circulating around town were that a student had brought a gun to school and shot a fellow classmate and that someone had threatened to burn down the school. Again, following an investigation, all were proven to not be true, according to Ferguson.
School officials first learned of the rumor when Atmore Police Department officers arrived at the school after receiving a call from a concerned parent of a student.
"There was never any threat, any danger, any need to lock down the school," Ferguson said. "Unfortunately the rumor was exploited and students with cell phones started calling parents. Of course, we all know how rumors grow into major incidents. All of a sudden we had a stream of parents here to check out their children."
With cell phone use being linked to the source of the rumor mill, Escambia County School System superintendent Billy Hines said the board would have to revisit the current policy in place.
"Our cell phone policy is pretty strict," Hines said. "Will the board review? You bet you we will."
Presently the cell phone policy is: if a student is found in possession of a cell phone, they receive one day of On Campus Suspension (OCS) or if they are caught with a cell phone in their pocket or using it, it results in a day of suspension.
"We're not going to frisk everybody that comes into this school," Hines said. "Everybody's got a book bag. It's real easy for what happened today to happen, but what we're going to have to, and the board was well aware of, is probably revisit our policy. From my view, we'll probably look at a total ban of cell phones on school campuses."
The Baldwin County School System currently has a total ban on cell phones.
As a result of the scare, two thirds of the student body was checked out of school. In light of the situation, Ferguson expected a high volume of check outs Friday.
"We expected this because tomorrow is prom," Ferguson said. "We knew we were going to have several hundred check outs today because of the prom tomorrow; hair and nails and picking up tuxes. That's a thing you go through every year the day before prom, it's just part of it."
The rumor of a threat at the school could have stemmed from yet another rumor pertaining the school's big night.
"Another rumor that had gone out was that students weren't going to be allowed to go to prom if they checked out today, which is not true," Ferguson said. "Now everybody's got a reason to check out. That was very convenient."
Though the scare was a false alarm, Ferguson said his staff handled the incident professionally and he also commended the Atmore Police Department for their work helping with crowd and traffic patrol.
"We had some parents that were a little impatient because the lines were so long, so we opened up a second point of check out, so that sped things up a little more," assistant principal David McKinley said. "Nobody really got out of hand."
The recent threats come on the heels of a recent expulsion of an ECHS student by the Escambia County Board of Education for bringing a gun to school on April 23.
"Two weeks ago, we received information on Tuesday morning that a student had brandished a weapon towards another student after school, not during school hours," Ferguson said. "We investigated that and did determine that a student did possess a handgun in the parking lot on the north end, right on the fringe of campus. The student was very truthful with us and myself and an Atmore police officer went off campus and found the weapon in a vacant lot where we were told it was dumped."
That student was expelled for one calendar year per school board policy and is facing criminal charges, according to APD investigator Chuck Brooks.
"I know parents are concerned, but we're equally or more concerned for their children's safety," Brooks said. "We're going to do everything we can."
Hines added that he understands the concerns of parents following the recent shootings at Virginia Tech.
"Immediately after the shooting at Virginia Tech, probably over half the states in the United States had some type of situation like this happen," Hines said. "The good thing for us is that we kept school going. When we found out it was strictly a rumor everything stayed in place. Virginia Tech brings this to mind and everybody's still on edge about it and will be for a while."

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