An arrest and a gun scare on Monday at Elmore Stoutt High School alarmed parents and students alike, leaving some residents questioning the school’s security measures and ability to respond to an emergency.
Education officials and other leaders, however, downplayed the incident, denying that a real gun was present and accusing community members of spreading misinformation about a situation they claimed was under control within 15 minutes.
Shortly after noon on Monday, police received a report from ESHS asking for immediate assistance because a student had left the premises following an altercation over a stolen bike, according to information that trickled out in various government statements throughout Monday.
The student returned with three additional individuals, one of whom wore a mask, but police were already on the scene and quickly detained the group, the statements said.
Though education officials denied that any weapons were found in the detainees’ possession, the National Security Council reported later in the day that an imitation firearm had been recovered “away from the school’s premises.”
Shortly after the incident, related videos began to circulate online along with images of a shirtless young man being led away by police. One video in wide circulation by 12:46 p.m. showed dozens of screaming students running across the ESHS courtyard as a nearby voice exclaimed, “The man has a gun.”
As such information circulated via social media, dozens of parents rushed to the school to pick up their children, and the roadways around the school and High Court were clogged by around 1 p.m.
The two main entrances of ESHS were also surrounded by crowds of concerned parents, some calling out for their kids and craning their necks over the fence to get a better look. Adults surrounding the Lower Estate Road entrance spilled out into the street, where cars were slowly moving and honking their way through.
While school security attempted to secure entrances, some students simply boosted themselves up and over lower portions of the multi-sectioned concrete wall that borders the campus.
A steady stream of uniformed children left school with their parents, filtering out onto the sidewalks and recounting their experiences.
Most of the adults crowding the gates outside had cell phones in hand, and many were attempting to contact loved ones and trying to make sense of what was happening.
Amid the initial confusion, the Ministry of Education, Youth Affairs and Sports remained mum. The first public communication about the incident came via the Facebook page of the RAMS Media Group, a student-run organisation at ESHS.
As parents swarmed the school’s entrances, a three-sentence statement was posted to the RAMS Facebook page at 1:06 p.m.
“Please be advised that we had a situation on campus,” the statement noted. “There are no masked gunmen or shooting on campus. There is police presence on campus.”
The page followed at 1:19 p.m. with a photo of an empty hallway captioned “Current situation: Campus is secured.”
Several parents and other Facebook users pushed back in comments under the post, asking for more information and insisting that students should be sent home.
Around the same time, some parents received an email from ESHS with a similar message.
“The matter is under control,” it added. “Classes resume as normal.”
ESHS officials didn’t respond to the Beacon’s request for information about when such messages were initially sent, but copies viewed by the Beacon were received by parents at around 1:20 p.m.
After that, more than two hours would pass before the government released information to the general public. When it did, it sought right away to downplay the incident.
“We would like to clarify that upon the police’s arrival and subsequent detainment of these individuals, no firearms or other weapons were found in their possession,” claimed a 3:28 p.m. statement from the EYAS Ministry.
“The situation was swiftly brought under control in less than 15 minutes.”
The ministry also touted officials’ previous communication with parents.
“In an effort to keep our parents fully informed, the details of the incident were promptly communicated via email and social media,” it stated. “Additionally, we allowed parents who wished to collect their children from school early to do so, prioritizing their peace of mind during this time of concern.”
Then the ministry blamed “misinformation” for exacerbating the situation.
“Regrettably, there has been some misinformation circulating regarding this incident, which has led to unnecessary disruption both on and off the campus,” the statement claimed. “We urge all members of our community to rely on official updates and information from the school administration to ensure the accuracy of the details they receive.”
The ministry did not respond to Beacon inquiries.
The next statement came from the National Security Council, which announced at 5:38 p.m. Monday that it had met to address the ESHS incident and a shooting that occurred hours earlier as a prison van attempted to transport an inmate to court (see page six).
“The members of the NSC are keenly aware of the concerns in the community over both events and [are] determined to support the [police force] in its work,” the statement noted. “Following the concerns of the NSC, the police commissioner has ordered increased patrols. Additionally, NSC has requested a review of security at the ESHS to be carried out between the [police] and the Ministry of Education.”
The NSC added that one person had been arrested and that police stayed on campus through the end of the school day.
“The NSC confirmed with the Ministry of Education that no firearms or other weapons were found in the possession of the individuals or on the campus, although an imitation firearm has subsequently been recovered away from the school premises,” the council added. “The NSC shares the concern over misinformation circulated in relation to what occurred at the school.” Governor John Rankin, who chairs the NSC, declined to comment through a representative and referred the Beacon to police.
Later that evening, ESHS provided a few more details in another update, which was signed this time by Principal Vanessa Garraway and “Team Admin.”
“Earlier today, we had a disturbance that took place among some of our students,” began the update, which was posted on the RAMS Media Group Facebook page and sent to parents in another email. “This fight stemmed from an incident that took place in the home community of the persons involved. A fighter left the campus without permission and returned with siblings, who illegally entered the compound.”
The statement reiterated that the school “immediately” called the police, who responded before the group returned “to prevent further disturbances.”
Ms. Garraway also took aim at the press.
“The media erroneously reported active shooters being on campus based on videos that were shared from persons who had no factual evidence,” she wrote in the statement. “As a result, parents, out of concern, came to the school and requested to leave with their children.”
She added that lunch was shortened to ensure the safety of everyone on campus.
“In the future, while we appreciate your concern, we ask that you kindly rely on factual information released by the school’s administration and the Ministry of Education,” she stated.
School was scheduled to continue the next day, she noted, adding that counselors were available for any students who may have experienced anxiety or trauma.
“As a result of this and other incidents, scooters are no longer allowed on our campus,” the principal wrote. “Parents, please make alternate arrangements for your child to come to school or for parking elsewhere.”