BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
DONNELLSON – Central Lee Superintendent Dr. Andy Crozier confirmed Thursday morning that a man slipped into the district high school Wednesday morning posing as a transfer student.
The man, who wasn’t identified, but was said to have been approximately 21 years of age, sneaked into the school alongside a military recruiter.
He wasn’t identified by staff greeting students.
The man slipped through the halls and into a desk in a classroom where a teacher and a counselor realized the man didn’t belong and called the office.
School Resource Officer and Lee County Deputy Tommy Oberman and Principal Nicole Herdrich immediately responded to the classroom and escorted the man to the office and then out of the building until he was taken by ambulance to Fort Madison Community Hospital.
Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber said the man was transported at about 3 a.m. to a mental hospital out of the area.
Weber said the man was unarmed and no one was injured in the incident. The school went on a short soft lockdown and deputies, including Weber, walked the hallways of both buildings to assure students and staff everything was safe.
The man apparently had been in the parking lot in his vehicle prior to school and then changed clothes to fit in with the student body entering the building.
“He looked very young – his actual age was 21, but he appeared to be 16 or so wearing blue jeans, boots and a t-shirt, not unlike many students at our school or other schools in southeast Iowa,” Crozier said. “He did attempt to sit down in a first period class and was recognized by a counselor and a language arts teacher. They contacted the office where our principal and SRO instantly intervened.”
Crozier said the man was escorted under supervision from the building where they realized there were some mental health concerns.
Crozier and Weber both agreed that school staff handled the situation appropriately to minimize the situation.
“Having that school resource officer is a way of deterring these kinds of events and showed its value today. But also I couldn’t be more proud of the way our staff handled the situation. Nicole Herdrich just has the skill set of keeping things calm and controlled and everything worked the way it was supposed to.”
When asked how that type of thing can be prevented in the future, Crozier said there’s no way to prevent 100% of all safety concerns.
“Obviously we’ll have other security measures when construction is complete, but you can’t prevent everything. I look at this as how we responded once someone was identified in our building. I’m proud of our communication, the calmness, and the composure of staff in resolving the situation.
“Never was there a point where it was violent, and there were no weapons on him. This is truly why we employ an SRO at Central Lee — to keep these kids safe when there is a concern for students and our campus. Being able to respond at a moment’s notice is of the highest concern. And we did just that.”
He said staff was greeting students, but most staff don’t see and recognize every student.
“Someone teaching a high level math or science class may only see 40% of the students and doesn’t know the other 60%. If this man had been 62 with a goatee or something, we might have been able to identify him as not belonging, but he looked and acted like he belonged here and was in close proximity to the recruiter,” Crozier said.
Weber said the man was identified on a National Crime Information Center (NCIC) as a missing and endangered person out of the Chicago area. Weber said he was not listed as a dangerous person.
“With all the construction going on, it’s difficult to keep track of everyone coming and going. He came in with a group of kids and what appeared to be a Naval recruiter. Everybody assumed he was with him and he went to the same class,” Weber said.
Weber said the man’s car was towed and he wasn’t wanted back on the property in Illinois so the determination was made to get him into the mental health system in Iowa.
“We certainly didn’t feel like it would be right to let him go,” Weber said.
The man did try to escape from Weber and Oberman at one point and they had to subdue and handcuff him. Weber said his state of mind deteriorated at the hospital and he had to be put under guard.
“I’m extremely proud of how this was carried out. I’ve had people call me and they are upset by this. Yesterday isn’t any different that any other day in any way shape or form,” Weber said, regarding how students enter the high school.
“The new construction will help prevent some of these things. The only difference was that Tommy was in the building. He and Nicole went to where the problem was and dealt with the person quickly. No one was hurt, there was a soft lockdown for a short time, and once he was removed it was business as usual.
“One thing I will remind the students is that if they ever see something, they should always say something.”
In a letter sent to parents, Crozier said the student claimed to be a “transfer student”, and wrote that it was critical for everyone to be aware of their surroundings and report any suspicious activities or individuals to school or district administration, or law enforcement, right away.