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Looking back at response to Friday's school shooting threat

Calmer times . . .   Assistant Principal Regina Belknap chats with students at the high school just days after a shooting threat prompted a system-wide lockdown.

March 12, 2018 – It was Friday morning, and Police Chief Clint Huth was reading a startling statistic in his email: Since the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., three weeks before, there had been 643 threats against schools across the nation – as of that morning, Friday, March 9.

Little did he realize then that Dunlap would become one of those numbers before the day was out.

A student at Sequatchie County High School read a Snapchat post by a boy that used to go to school there, declaring that he was going to “shoot up the school.” Notified by their student, the parents called local law enforcement.

In short order, School Resource Officers (SROs) were alerted, and they told school officials to put the schools on lockdown.

It was sometime after 12,” SCHS Assistant Principal Regina Belknap said Monday. “Officer Dennis came to me and told me we were going to a hard lockdown, and he needed it done NOW.”

With Principal Tommy Layne out of town, Belknap took charge. She made the announcement – We are in a hard lockdown. We need everyone in your rooms. Secure your rooms. Secure the building. – and then Deputy Dennis gave her what scant information he could, that there was a threat from a shooter, but he didn't know who or where.

All three schools on the Sequatchie County Schools campus went to hard lockdown, with rooms locked, exterior doors locked, nobody in or out of the buildings, and no one allowed to move around inside the buildings. Officers searched all the buildings, and when they found no sign of the suspect, they allowed the schools to go on “soft lockdown” – nobody in or out, but classes could resume their studies.

No information was sent out to parents, although some students with cell phones contacted their family to let them know what was going on.

If any parent had called the school seeking information during that time, office staff would have told them the school was in hard lockdown, “but we can't give any further explanation,” Belknap said. “We would tell them the building is secure, and the students are safe, but we are not allowed to give any further information. It is school system policy.”

Meanwhile, most of the officers on duty with the Dunlap Police Department and the Sequatchie County Sheriff's Department deployed to the schools to thoroughly search the grounds. Emergency Dispatch began calling in off-duty officers.

After determining the suspect – a 19-year-old former student by the name of Zachary Damian Key – was not on school grounds, most of the officers remained on guard while a handful pursued the leads they had to locate the young man.

After we determined that Key was not on the property, and we got the grounds secure and all the kids safe, I made the recommendation that we go to soft lockdown,” Huth said. “That's when I made the decision to put something out on social media. The thing I wanted to stress in that initial post was that everyone was okay. Everyone was safe.”

Huth said he felt posting that information on Facebook gave a measure of peace to families with loved ones in the schools that day, and probably kept a lot of them from running down there in a panic.

About 1:20 p.m. – just an hour-and-a-half after first being alerted to the threat – officers detained Key at the vaping shop near the Dunlap Walmart.

Key was arrested and taken in for questioning, and when officers became convinced the threat was a hoax, they charged him with Filing a False Report. Dunlap Police investigators found sufficient evidence of an unrelated incident to also charge Key with Statutory Rape. A Statutory Rape charge requires that there be an age difference of more than four years, in addition to the victim being under age.

Key now is being held without bond on those two charges at the Sequatchie County Jail, with a bond hearing scheduled for General Sessions Court on Friday, March 16.

And in the wake of the scare, everyone is evaluating their response.

I wasn't here,” SCHS Principal Tommy Layne said, “but everybody I talked to said it went as smooth as it could go.”

I couldn't have asked for a better reaction from staff or students,” Belknap said. “And the Dunlap Police Department, the Sheriff's Department – I couldn't ask for a better group of people. They had a quick response time. They had our whole place from Griffith Elementary up here covered.”

Chief Huth admitted, “I'm not totally, 100 percent satisfied with our response. What I'm focusing on now is how can we improve our response, if anything like this ever happens again. Thank God it wasn't somebody down there with guns in their hands. I'm glad it wasn't real, but it was a good test of our procedures. My question is, 'How can we get something good out of this?'”

It was a good test – for us, for the schools, and for the community.”