Bluffton High School student with loaded gun arrested; no one hurt

tbarton@islandpacket.comMay 1, 2013 

A 17-year-old Bluffton High School student was arrested Wednesday morning after he brought a loaded handgun, knives, gasoline, lighter fluid and a lighter to the school, according to the Bluffton Police Department.

No one was hurt at the high school, although it and other schools in the area were locked down for more than an hour.

The student, senior Austen Almeida, is charged with carrying a weapon onto school property, unlawfully carrying a firearm and disturbing schools. He is being held in the Beaufort County Detention Center, and a bond hearing is expected at 8 a.m. today, according to a press release from the police department.

Police and school officials said they don't know what, if anything, Almeida planned to do with the items he brought to school. The loaded handgun was a Glock 22, and the knives had blades that were at least two inches long, the press release said. It was not immediately known how many rounds of ammunition were in the handgun.

A teacher noticed Almeida acting strangely as the school day began. The teacher approached him, which led to a conversation that raised "red flags," principal Mark Dievendorf said.

"Because of the caring relationship between the teacher and students, the teacher noticed verbal and body language cues that the student was having a difficult day," Dievendorf said. "And a comment caught her off guard and she took note," taking Almeida to the school's guidance office and calling an assistant principal, guidance counselor and social worker.

Almeida later told the teacher he had weapons with him, Dievendorf said. The teacher and guidance counselors then alerted law enforcement and school officials at about 8:45 a.m., Bluffton Police Chief Joey Reynolds said.

Reynolds and Dievendorf said Almeida volunteered information about the weapons he was carrying, but did not say what prompted the student to divulge the information.

Dievendorf also would not say what Almeida said to the teacher that raised suspicions.

"Training pays off ... and it paid off in this instance," Reynolds said of Bluffton police and other area officers who took over Bluffton Middle School early last month to practice tactics for responding to an active shooter. "This could have been a bad situation, but it wasn't because of the quick response of school staff and law enforcement."

SEARCH AREA WIDENED

Students described Almeida as a friendly, bright student and budding actor who was socially awkward and may have been bullied.

"Not someone you would think would do something like this," said senior Leyda Marquez, 19. "He was bright and had just earned an award for acting," winning a Shakespeare recitation contest.

On Wednesday afternoon, Beaufort County sheriff's deputies and Bluffton police searched the school, students' bags and several other location, including Almeida's home in Bluffton's Heritage Lakes neighborhood. They also searched a school bus parked at Hilton Head Island Elementary School that Almeida had ridden to school.

Members of the S.C. Law Enforcement Division and Sheriff's Office bomb squad found a bag on the bus that turned out to be a child's forgotten lunch, according to a news release from the Sheriff's Office. The elementary school was placed on modified lockdown, which restricts student's movement within the building, during the search, and classrooms near the parking lot were evacuated.

Police also searched the Ferebee Court home where the student, his parents and his siblings live to exclude any "immediate threat to public safety," according to the Sheriff's Office.

Area residents were notified of the search by authorities, and deputies restricted access to the neighborhood.

Most neighbors declined to speak with reporters about the family. One who did would not give her name, said "they are good friends, a great family and great kids."

'YOUR CHILD IS SAFE'

Bluffton police, SLED, THE Bluffton Township Fire District and the Sheriff's Office continued to search Bluffton High until the school day ended.

At about 12:20 p.m., the police perimeter around the school was taken down. At that point, students whose parents chose to pick up them did so and classes resumed.

The school remained on modified lockdown until school was out.

At 11 a.m., a modified lockdown was lifted at nearby H.E. McCracken Middle and Bluffton Elementary schools. The schools had been locked down as a precaution. Bluffton Middle, Pritchardville Elementary, Red Cedar Elementary and Michael C. Riley Elementary schools were also briefly placed on modified lockdown at the request of law enforcement, according to the school district.

Bluffton High parents were notified of the lockdown at about 10:45 a.m. via the district's School Messenger system, which sends audio messages via email or a phone call. The message said students were safe, and that law enforcement officials were at the school.

An email was sent to Bluffton Elementary and Bluffton Elementary Early Childhood Center parents just before 10 a.m. about the modified lockdowns at those schools.

"Your child is safe and sound in his/her classroom," it read. "All outside doors are LOCKED and being monitored. Students and staff are NOT allowed outside at this time. We will keep you posted."

'A HORRIBLE FEELING'

One Bluffton High School student said that when the school was on a full lockdown, students were told to stay away from doors, and that lights in the building were turned off.

"They announced over the speakers that law enforcement was in the building and not to worry; they would keep us safe. But how (can you not) worry?" asked junior Allison Reinhardt, sobbing as her parents led her away from the school. "It was very scary."

Junior Madison Lanier, 16, said the first hour of the lockdown was "tense," but students calmed down once they received word that Almeida had been arrested and saw the handcuffed student being led away by officers.

Several worried parents gathered at a church parking lot across the street during the lockdown. A few prayed, and many texted back and forth with their children inside the school to confirm their safety.

"It's a horrible feeling as a parent when you send your kids to school and don't know if you'll see them again," Leslie Wilson said as she waited for the safety perimeter around the school to be lifted. "I want my daughter out, and it's a terrible feeling knowing she's in there and I can't get to her."

Another parent, Karyn Goldberg, questioned why school and police officials waited so long to lift the lockdown and let parents take their children home.

"We thank every student and their parents for their patience today," Reynolds, the Bluffton police chief, said in a news release. "Our job is to ensure a safe environment, and we realize there are moments of concern for everyone involved as we gather information. ... Today's incident also indicates our schools have effective procedures in place that produce safe, successful and positive outcomes."

District spokesman Jim Foster -- whose 18-year-old daughter was inside the school -- said the district will review school security plans, adding "we always look at a full range of options, and metal detectors would be one option to consider."

No one answered a number listed for Almeida's home Wednesday night. The voice mailbox was full and would not accept new messages.

Related content:

Video of fire truck arriving at Bluffton High School:

Check back with The Island Packet for updates on this ongoing situation and follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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