Topsail schools in Pender County were under a "code red" lockdown for roughly three hours Tuesday morning because of the incident.
PENDER COUNTY, N.C. — Two Topsail High School students were charged with bringing weapons onto campus Tuesday, including one boy who came armed with a semiautomatic rifle and said he planned to stop a rumored school shooter.
Topsail High, as well as nearby Topsail Middle School and Topsail Elementary school, were under a “code red” lockdown for roughly three hours Tuesday morning. The lockdowns started after the Pender County Sheriff’s Office received a tip at 8:33 a.m. about a student possibly en route to school with a firearm.
Deputies responding to Topsail High found student Bryce Matthew Sheehan, 18, of Hampstead, in the school’s parking lot, sitting in his vehicle. Deputies found a large knife strapped to Sheehan’s leg, and he had three other knives but did not have a gun, according to sheriff’s office spokesman Capt. James Rowell.
While authorities were investigating Sheehan, a passing driver alerted them about a man driving erratically near school and acting suspiciously before approaching law enforcement vehicles. Deputies approached the driver, Alan Edwardo Jr., 16, of Hampstead, and found him with a .22 caliber semi-automatic rifle in his car.
“Edwardo indicated he heard there was a Code Red lockdown at the school and was responding to attempt to stop the shooter,” Rowell wrote in the news release.
Sheehan was charged with possession of a weapon on educational property and taken to the Pender County jail on $8,000 bond, according to Rowell. Edwardo was charged with possession of a firearm on educational property but was released from jail after posting $2,000 bail.
No injuries were reported during the incident, and neither of the students ever entered the school with their weapons, according to Rowell and Pender County Schools.
Two other schools, North Topsail Elementary and South Topsail Elementary, were in “a code yellow lockdown” but were later released from lockdown procedures.
Tuesday’s threat comes 11 days after a student gunman killed 10 people at his Santa Fe, Texas, high school, and amid a national conversation about guns and schools reopened by the Feb. 14 massacre in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead.
Parents were not allowed onto campus to pick up their children until noon, when the lockdown was lifted.
Cars queued outside the school Tuesday morning backed up onto U.S. 17. Students were allowed to leave school early Tuesday with parental permission, according to the district.
“During a code red lock down (sic) no one can come on campus or leave the school building. During a code yellow lockdown movement is limited within the school building; however parents can come on campus,” school district spokeswoman Miranda Ferguson said in an email.
Stephanie and Shawn Johnson, of Hampstead, sat in their truck on the side of Jenkins Road, waiting to get their daughter Melissa. The ninth-grader had texted her parents to tell them she was OK, but the parents wanted to get her home as soon as possible.
“My anxiety is through the roof,” Stephanie Johnson said. She was interrupted by an automated call from the North Topsail Elementary School principal, letting parents know the school had gone into code yellow lockdown as a precaution, but that the campus was safe.
Shawn Johnson said he was frustrated that he heard about the school threat from television news and his own daughter before he received an alert from the school district.
“Our kids will be homeschooled next year; we’re not doing this again,” Shawn said. “Every two to three months there’s another school shooting. I’m fed up with it, I’ve had enough. It’s too close to home.”
Susan Bridges, whose daughter attends Topsail High School, said she was pleased with how Pender County Schools communicated with parents regarding the incident.
“The sheriff’s department, Pender County, state troopers — they’ve been very on top of this, and I’m very blessed and thankful that they acted as quick as they did,” she said.
A ‘rare’ incident
Daniel Seamans, spokesman for Brunswick County schools, said that district has two levels for emergency situations: “shelter in place” and “lockdown.” He said a shelter in place can be called for several reasons, including to search for drugs on school grounds or a crime happening off school grounds but nearby, such as a robbery at a gas station.
Lockdowns similar to Tuesday’s incident in Pender County are rarer, he said.
“An actual ‘lockdown’ has not happened in quite some time,” Seamans said in an email. “As soon as any information comes to us we immediately contact (Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office) investigators who in turn ensure our students and staff are in the safest possible scenario. We also, of course, always have at least one dedicated sheriff deputy inside the schools (School Resource Officer) who is already on site should something happen on campus.”
The national climate on gun violence has prompted North Carolina legislators to file a flurry of bills on school safety. But the biggest chunks of funding for new school safety initiatives will likely come from the state budget, currently being battled over by Republicans and Democrats.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed budget would put $130 million toward safety and mental health initiatives, including upgrades to school buildings, hiring more school psychologists, social workers and school resource officers (SROs), and staff training on student mental health needs.
Republicans, who hold a veto-proof majority in both houses, have pitched a $30 million grant program for school safety in their proposed budget. Of that, $12 million would be reserved for SROs in middle and elementary schools; $10 million would go toward school nurses, psychologists, counselors and social workers; $3 million would be available for “safety equipment;” and $5 million would be reserved for community partners to provide mental health services in the schools.
Local governments are considering their own additional funding for school safety and mental health.
With school safety very much on parents’ minds, word spread quickly of the situation that started at Topsail High.
News of the incident began with Pender County school district posting on Facebook shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday that “Topsail Elementary School, Topsail Middle School, and Topsail High School are currently in a code red lockdown due to information received by the Pender County Sheriff’s Office.”
In a span of minutes, the post generated dozens of comments, with some frustrated that more information was not included and saying they were worried about their school children.
“Can we get any information? Parents are panicked!” one person posted.
Others posted that they believed the school was handling the situation appropriately.
“The authorities have your little ones safe. School called me to pick up sick child and there is nobody getting close to these schools,” another person posted.
Cammie Bellamy and Tim Buckland are reporters for the Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News. Eva Ellenburg contributed to this report.