Unsettling school day at Northern Vance High

Dec. 13, 2013 @ 07:52 PM

By midday Friday, frightened students were emptying out of Northern Vance High School.

Throughout the day, deputies with the Vance County Sheriff’s Office were trying to pinpoint the source of a threat to an individual named within graffiti painted onto the school building overnight.

And in cyberspace, text messages and social media posts fueled speculation about a planned act of violence. It never happened, and no schools endured a lockdown.

While a school shooting did happen in Colorado on Friday, only the graffiti and threats disrupted activities in Vance County. Students were picked up by parents at several schools, including both Northern Vance and Southern Vance high schools, in reaction to the unsettling sequence of events.

And deputies, who have yet to link the graffiti with the social media explosion, confirmed they know which gang is responsible for the graffiti. Numerous criminal vandalism charges are possible.

“One individual was actually referenced in the gang graffiti,” Maj. Joseph Ferguson said. “His nickname was used in the graffiti. When that happens, it means they have targeted that person. We took care of protecting that person today.”

At press time, no arrests had been announced. There were no injuries reported at any school.

One Northern student said classes of about 20 were reduced to less than a half dozen.

“You want to have a smooth day, and our kids need to have a smooth day, but we got through the disruption,” said Ronald Gregory, the school system superintendent. “We got it taken care of. We beefed up security; detectives came and did their investigation.

“We let parents know exactly what was what. The afternoon was much better than the morning was.”

Morning began with discovery of graffiti on buses and on exterior brick walls and some cafeteria windows at Northern Vance. Gregory said crews immediately went to work cleaning.

At some point during the morning, a Twitter post was addressed to Northern Vance students, indicating they were a “target of a shooting at twelve o’clock today,” noting “Friday the thirteenth.”

Flurries of messages from students with phones and parents and grandparents resulted in mass exits of school children. The school system used its telephone communication system with parents and guardians to deliver facts on what was, and more importantly, what was not transpiring.

Students at Aycock Elementary had practiced all week to execute a lockdown on Friday. That exercise was not conducted.

“From everything we can gather, it was based on rumors through social media,” said Terri Hedrick, public information officer for VCS. “Everything went fine other than the great number of parents who came to get their kids out of school early.”

Gregory and Hedrick said they understood the concern of parents.

“Everybody is in high alert about everything,” Gregory said. “Safety is the first thing to look for, and that’s what we have to do. When kids see all of the increased numbers of law officials, they get inquisitive. If they spent the amount of time on classroom work as we do social media, we’d be the number one school system in the nation.”

Friday’s events marked the fourth major school campus incident in Vance County in 36 days, three of which have been at Northern. A wide-scale fight followed Northern’s Nov. 8 home football game with J.F. Webb High School; Vance-Granville Community College was locked down Nov. 25; and a teen with a gun was arrested in a parking lot following a basketball game between Northern and Southern on Dec. 4. None of the four incidents are believed to be linked.


Morning findings

Gregory said he arrived at Northern about 7:30 Friday morning.

“I saw buses that were unloading,” Gregory said. “Some still had graffiti on them, the doors had them, the back cafeteria window.

“We got about the business of cleaning up the buses and windows, and getting kids back in the framework of doing what we’re supposed to.”

As morning neared noon, frenetic activity increased. Extra security was added at schools.

“Right now, we are dealing with some security issues,” Ferguson said at about 11 a.m., “and we are in the process of tracing the source of the threat.”

By 4 p.m., Ferguson said the probe into social media found there were too many reposts to find who started it.

Rumors circulated into messages between children and parents. They included shootings and killing.

“I’m here picking up my son,” Michael Rush said outside of Northern. “I heard that someone was going to come up here and do something stupid. I had to get off from work to come here and make sure my son was safe.”

According to Tuyet Nguyen, arriving to pick up her son, she spoke with a schoolteacher who let her know about the threat. Others rushed past to get to their loved ones.

“I just need my child,” one mother said.

An older woman there for her grandson didn’t want to comment further than to say, “I gotta get him out.”

“I heard something about a threat,” another parent said.

“Something went viral on the Internet,” said Ricky Hargrove, leaving the school with his son. “My son called and told me, and I came to see what’s going on. Evidently, people are taking it seriously. Everyone is leaving.”

Inside the school, officials referred inquiries to the VCS central office.

By noon, Hedrick said security had been heightened due to rumors, but all schools were safe and operating normally otherwise.

“We have put out a call to parents and staff members,” Hedrick said. “The only thing I can say is there have been rumors in the community of violence happening at our high schools today. There is heightened security at the high schools. The high schools are operating in a normal fashion.”

In a recorded message to parents, accessed through a voicemail link, Hedrick informed them of the threat and graffiti problem. “The graffiti has been removed,” Hedrick said, apparently referring only to defaced busses and windows.

“School personnel are in control of the safety of students,” Hedrick told The Dispatch just before noon. “We have to respond to any threat. There are no problems at the schools, no issues. Whoever is behind it is getting exactly what they want — attention.”


Criminal acts

Friday afternoon, Ferguson said criminal charges are being sought.

“Through the course of the investigation, we interviewed multiple individuals affiliated with the rival gang suspected of doing the graffiti, and those individuals were eliminated as suspects,” Ferguson said.

The ongoing investigation includes identifying other gang members or affiliates who may be suspects or other persons of interest, according to Ferguson.

“Other than the graffiti, there was no other indication of any other violence at any other schools today,” Ferguson said. “About the media postings, we don’t know if it was connected to the graffiti incident. Because it was so viral, we could not pinpoint a source of the original message.”

Hedrick said safety was paramount.

“We cannot ignore even rumors when it comes to something like this,” Hedrick said late in the afternoon. “This is a threat that involves people’s safety. We understand parents’ utmost concern is safety of their children. All we can do is try and reassure them and that their children are indeed safe. That’s why we sent out that call. We were trying to let them know first from the information we had.

“We did discourage parents from coming to get their kids.”

Rush said having to deal with the threat was an unfortunate burden of modern times.

“When I went to school, nothing like this ever happened,” Rush said.

Contact the writers at news@hendersondispatch.com.