Cumberland County law enforcement, school personnel and others believe teamwork led to their success in foiling a plot by two sixth-grade students to carry out a school shooting late in the school year.
“The School Resource Officer’s role in these school’s is vital. It’s someone who bonds and connects and develops relationships,” Sgt. Gary Howard told the Cumberland County Board of Education school safety committee May 16. “And because of their relationships, they’re able to get a lot of information to keep us safe … Because people were doing the things they should be doing, we averted a disaster.”
On April 26, South Cumberland SRO Anthony Loshbaugh received an anonymous tip of a rumor circulating in the school of a “hit list.” He turned the information over to the recently created Cumberland County District Threat Assessment Task Force for investigation.
The investigation led to two students who had carried on discussions to hide weapons at the school and come in near the end of the school year to carry out a mass shooting, committing suicide before law enforcement intervened.
The students were arrested and charged in juvenile court on charges of conspiracy to commit murder.
“On Monday morning, Crossville, TN, didn’t have to plan the first funeral. We didn’t have to notify the first mother — because things did work,” Howard said.
Director of Schools Janet Graham introduced members of the treat assessment team to committee, calling them “heroes.”
The task force only recently formed, she said. In fact, she had planned to present the group to the board in June and sharing data on the school system’s mental health program, as well. Howard and School Safety Coordinator Bo Magnusson were meeting April 26 to discuss protocols and procedures when they received the call from South Cumberland Elementary.
“There are many things that come down the pike that we never thought about in years past. But these people swoop in and help us to look at the situation from the eyes of law enforcement,” she said.
Howard said he dealt with a situation at Homestead Elementary in the wake of the Parkland, FL, school shooting in February 2018.
“I called everybody I knew,” he said. “We were able to get that worked out.”
The same threat arose at The Phoenix School and was then investigated by the Crossville Police Department. Howard realized the departments needed to work together to more quickly access information and share what they knew.
Magnusson, Howard and other members of law enforcement pulled resources from the National Association of School Psychologists, studied protocols in place in Virginia, lessons learned from other mass shootings, and information from the U.S. Secret Service.
They developed a checklist to assess possible threats to determine if threats were credible and if it was a critical threat or a situation that could be managed. The core team — the SRO, principal and school counselor — were to make sure the students were safe.
“If they had any doubt whatsoever … everybody’s coming,” Howard said of the planned response to active threats.
Outside an active threat, Howard said a strategic response team would help assess the threat.
The team assessed seven threats in March and another five in April before the situation at South Cumberland.
“Since South, we have made some changes,” Howard said. “We’re constantly changing. It’s a proactive process.”
He said the process removed jurisdictional barriers between agencies, with coordinated response between city and county officers and deputies.
“Wherever it may be, we’re responding together,” Howard said.
However, every plan can be improved upon, the group said. The one area they believe needs to be evaluated is communication.
Jim Inman, 1st District representative, said the only complaints he’d heard from parents were that they learned of the threat through the media and not from the school system.
“They told me they don’t want details. They just want to know before the news media and everybody in the county knew there was a threat, it was taken care of and everybody’s safe,” Inman said.
Graham said the school system tried to be cautious with communication.
“We have to be extremely cautious,” she said. “We could say or do some things that could impede an investigation. That’s the last thing we want to do.”
They have reviewed the protocols to include drafting a statement for the principal of an affected school to release through the automated calling system when the time is appropriate.
As soon as that call goes out, then media releases would be sent.
“It almost has to happen simultaneously,” she said. “The very minute you release that to parents, it’s all over Facebook, anyway.”
Investigators worked to interview witnesses, gather evidence and question suspects on Friday. Graham said releasing information over the weekend could have compromised witnesses, who might start repeating what they’ve heard others say rather than what they’ve seen or heard personally.
Det. Jon Tollett with the Crossville Police Department, said releasing information on Friday would have fueled a rumor mill over the weekend.
“And we were still working,” he said. “But I think the release and press conference need to be right there to squash all rumors.”
Other school districts have contacted Cumberland County asking for more information on the threat assessment task force and the Tennessee Department of Education has asked Cumberland County to lead a presentation on community partnerships at a meeting in the fall.
Graham said, “I consider the partnerships we have with the Crossville city police and sheriff’s department a gift.”