Authorities: Bluffton High School teacher used keen eyes, ears to detect troubled student

tbarton@islandpacket.comMay 2, 2013 

Maggy Williams, a social studies teacher at Bluffton High School, poses for a portrait in her classroom on Thursday afternoon at the school in Bluffton.

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The tone of the question -- "Can I talk to you?" -- told social studies teacher Maggy Williams something was wrong.

The student who asked it, Bluffton High School senior Austen Almeida, had come to school Wednesday armed with a loaded handgun, 12 knives, fireworks, lighter fluid and gasoline.

"When you see students on a regular basis ... and the way they look at you and say 'Can I talk to you?' ... it's that tone that you just know there's some issue," Williams said. "At no point was I frightened or afraid. There was never any time we should have been fearful."

Almeida, who was ordered by a judge Thursday to undergo a mental evaluation at the Beaufort County Detention Center, faces charges of carrying a weapon onto school property, unlawfully carrying a firearm, disturbing schools and possession of a destructive device.

Williams said that on the morning of the incident, Almeida appeared calm but was anxious to talk.

"He was looking for me in the morning before I got to school," she said. "... He was just very interested in talking. Maybe it's because I'm not scary to him, I don't know. He felt very comfortable talking to me."

Williams declined to discuss the specifics of what Almeida told her, citing the ongoing police investigation.

Principal Mark Dievendorf said Almeida asked for Williams' help because he was thinking about hurting himself.

"Once she heard that, she said, 'Well, you know, you've done the right thing because I can help you, and I can get you to some other individuals who can help you as well. Here, let's do that,' " Dievendorf said.

Williams took the 17-year-old to an assistant principal, a social worker and a behavior-management specialist, who in turn contacted the school resource officer.

Many, including Dievendorf and law enforcement officials, have praised Williams for her attentiveness and quick action, which they say defused what could have become a deadly situation.

"We can't prevent things like this unless someone sees something and reports it," Bluffton Police Chief of Staff Capt. Angela McCall-Tanner said Thursday. " ... As we've seen with news coverage about the Boston Marathon bombing suspects and past school shootings, everyone wants to say after the fact they noticed something strange about the person. What we need is what happened yesterday. Before the fact, we had a teacher react to something she saw as unusual, and we need more of that.

"That's what prevented tragedy yesterday. ... We got lucky that this kid hesitated and didn't act immediately."

It was also fortunate that Williams took the time to stop and listen to a troubled student.

"I think that's the only way we'll be able to prevent incidents like this in the future," McCall-Tanner said. "I think we all need to look after each other."

Williams prefers to think the school was never close to tragedy and is uncomfortable when she's called as a hero.

"I had kids getting our of their cars and running up to me to give me a hug and say, 'Ms. Williams, you saved our lives,'" she said. "I think I did what any teacher would do. ... I can't think of a teacher in this building or Beaufort County who wouldn't have done the same thing."

She praised staff -- particularly school social worker Melissa Lather -- and law enforcement for an effective, nearly seamless intervention.

She also praised the school district for preparing her for the situation.

Key, she said, were district-mandated online tutorials to help teachers identify and address student problems. She also cited frequent discussions at faculty meetings about forming relationships with kids and making all students feel they can accomplish something.

"You stop. You listen to the kid. You identify there is a problem," Williams said. "... You get to know them and build a baseline after a while so ... when you see them, you know what is a good day for them and what is not a good day.

"Noticing something different goes a long way, and there's something about every kid that's worth talking about."

Williams had one more observation.

"There's something about everyone one of them that's good in them and you just look for it. And if it's not there some day and you miss it, you need to do something."

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