Administrators: What prompted student to bring gun, knives to Bluffton High School?

info@islandpacket.comMay 2, 2013 

The Bluffton High School senior accused of bringing a loaded gun, gasoline and knives -- as well as lighter fluid and fireworks -- to school Wednesday often wore a tuxedo jacket and bow tie and once donned a fake mustache for the day.

But Austen Almeida just seemed quirky -- not disgruntled, aloof or dangerous -- according to students and administrators struggling to understand the behavior that sparked a five-hour lockdown at the school.

"He was comfortable with himself," said one student who sometimes sat at a table near Almeida during lunch in the school cafeteria. "He was really himself -- he wasn't afraid of what other people thought," said the student, who isn't being identified because of her age.

Almeida, 17, has been charged with carrying a weapon onto school property, unlawfully carrying a firearm, possession of a destructive device and disturbing schools. He was denied bond during a hearing Thursday morning and ordered to undergo a mental evaluation at the Beaufort County Detention Center.

Some classmates say they think Almeida was bullied; Bluffton High principal Mark Dievendorf said if that's true, he was unaware of it.

And other students said he interacted with other students, even if he was sometimes teased.

For instance, Almeida accompanied a female student, who was a member of the school's Junior ROTC unit, to Bluffton High's military ball March 23, several students said.

"He acted like he was happy," the student said. "The table he sat at was always full of other people at lunch, and they all talked to each other. ... He hung out with a mix of people. Sometimes there would be kids who would laugh at him. ... It seemed like it was just to make fun of him."

HEIGHTENED SECURITY

Until Wednesday, Almeida never had faced charges as an adult in South Carolina, according to the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division.

He is accused of bringing a loaded Glock 22, 12 knives -- some with blades at least two inches long -- a two-liter bottle of gasoline, lighter fluid, fireworks and a lighter to Bluffton High School.

Bluffton Police Department spokeswoman Capt. Angela McCall-Tanner would not say Thursday what Almeida planned to do with the weapons, and authorities are investigating where he got the loaded handgun and knives.

"We spoke to him but cannot release what he did or did not say," McCall-Tanner said.

At Thursday's bond hearing, Duffie Stone conceded Almeida was not a flight risk. However, he argued that the student posed a danger to the community and should be denied bond.

Beaufort municipal court judge Ned Tupper, who handles the county's bond hearings, agreed.

Almeida appeared at the hearing. He was handcuffed and said nothing.

His mother, father and stepfather also were in the small courtroom inside the Beaufort County Detention Center. An attorneyrepresenting Almeida, Sam Bauer of Hilton Head, said the family would not make a statement.

Meanwhile, students and parents at Bluffton High School were greeted Thursday by two Bluffton police officers and a Beaufort County sheriff's deputy, part of heightened security at the school.

Dievendorf assured students Thursday that the school is safe and sent a letter home for their parents.

"With three daughters, I approach difficult situations such as yesterday first as a father, as though our students are my own daughters and sons, knowing that parents depend on me to keep their children safe," he said Thursday in a phone interview. "We exhaust every avenue to keep them safe, even if it means they're inconvenienced in a lockdown situation for a number of hours."

About 100 students stayed home from school Thursday, a day after the lockdown; 25 to 30 are absent on a typical day.

Dievendorf, in his letter sent home for parents, said Almeida was compliant and cooperative with school and law enforcement officials, but "make no mistake, a viable threat existed and we handled it accordingly."

"Thankfully, the student sought help from a trusted teacher and the potentially dangerous situation was defused by valued, talented, and caring staff," he wrote.

Dievendorf and Bluffton Police Chief Joey Reynolds said Almeida insisted he acted alone and had not taken any other initiative to harm others.

The school, though, "continued to employ our crisis response process that included a review of video camera recordings and a physical search of every classroom, backpack, locker, and physical space," Dievendorf wrote. "As a further precaution, we utilized K-9 units both during school and after school to further assure the safety of all students and staff."

'COMPLIANT, COOPERATIVE'

Authorities said they intend to review Almeida's school records. Authorities got a warrant for, and received, Almeida's records from Hilton Head Christian Academy, where he attended seventh grade, according to headmaster Matt Skinner.

Neither law-enforcement officials nor Skinner would say why those records were requested.

Dievendorf said Almeida had not posed any significant disciplinary problems before Wednesday. Nothing in his school file from Hilton Head Christian or Calvert Hall College High School in Baltimore, Md., which he also attended indicate he had problems elsewhere, either, Dievendorf said.

He said Almeida was an "animated young man," who enjoys theater and "has a gift for acting." He recently won an award in a Shakespeare recitation contest. He was on track to graduate.

"His involvement in something such as this was unexpected," Dievendorf said, "and appears to be a reaching out for help."

The teacher who first noticed that Almeida seemed out of sorts Wednesday reacted quickly after Almeida told her he needed to talk.

The social studies teacher, Maggy Williams, declined in an interview Thursday to say what Almeida told her, but Dievendorf said the student asked for her help because he was thinking about hurting himself.

Williams took Almeida to an assistant principal, social worker and behavior-management specialist, who in turn contacted the school resource officer.

"(Almeida) was compliant, cooperative. He was not agitated or angry, which allowed us to quickly resolve that immediate threat," Dievendorf said.

McCall-Tanner would not say whether police have been called to Almeida's home in the past.

"I'm not familiar with him or calls to his residence, but we would not release that information as we are still investigating and it could be pertinent to the investigation," she said when asked to provide any records of 911 calls to the Heritage Lakes home where Almeida lived with parents and siblings.

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