WEST NEWBURY — Pentucket Regional High School was locked down and intensively searched by police yesterday after a student was seen with what was initially thought to be a real gun.
The gun turned out to be a replica prop from the drama department, but within minutes the situation escalated. The student, a senior with a developmental disability known as Aspergers Syndrome, was arrested for assaulting a police officer and bringing a pocket knife onto school grounds.
And in accordance with their security protocols, police conducted a thorough search of the school that involved several police departments and police dogs. Police from West Newbury, Newbury, Salisbury, Newburyport, Rowley, Merrimac, Groveland, as well as Massachusetts and New Hampshire state police were called in to assist.
“Students were moved from certain sections of the school to other sections of the school while the school was being searched,” West Newbury Police Chief Lisa Holmes said. “The entire school was searched — interior and exterior, including the roof.”
The search revealed no threats, and classes were allowed to resume later in the day.
The student, Allen Stevens, 18, of 13 Winter St., Merrimac, was arraigned in Newburyport District Court yesterday on charges of carrying a dangerous weapon on school grounds (a pocket folding knife); assault and battery on a police officer, disturbing a school assembly, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct.
Judge Peter Doyle ordered him held on $5,000 cash bail at an infirmary until bail can be posted. When out, Stevens was ordered to not go near the high school, unless school officials say he can.
According Assistant District Attorney Michelle Belmonte, a student saw a firearm in Stevens’ backpack and told a school assistant principal, who followed protocol and contacted police. Police arrived, and took Stevens away to search and question him. During that time, Stevens was uncooperative, fighting police as they tried to subdue and search him, particularly when trying to search his pocket. During the tussle, police had Stevens on the floor and he kicked West Newbury officer Monica Carnes in the chest with his foot.
When she was able to search his pocket, she found a folding pocket knife, which he said he kept with him to protect his friends. They also found the toy plastic handgun in his back pack, its orange tip covered with black electrical tape so that it looked real.
Stevens’ attorney, Jackson Casey, told Judge Peter Doyle that Stevens has Aspergers Syndrome, which caused the situation to “spiral out of control,” although he did not place blame on anyone. Aspergers is a form of autism, a developmental disability that can severely impact a person’s ability to communicate and to understand social norms.
Casey said Stevens was in Theater A at the high school yesterday morning watching a video and took the prop gun, which was on a shelf in an unlocked cabinet. Casey stressed the youth did not bring the gun into school himself but took it from the cabinet.
One of the symptoms of Aspergers, Casey said, is that it’s difficult “to deal with more than one person at a time.” When multiple officers confronted him, Casey said, Stevens was overwhelmed and acted out.
“It’s certainly understandable how this spiraled out of control,.” Casey said. “When police arrived en masse, he was unable to process the situation.”
Casey said one contributing factor to the escalation was that Stevens’ regular classroom teacher was out, and a substitute was there. Had his regular teacher been there, Casey said, this situation may never have happened for she would have known his condition and known the gun was a prop.
The state initially asked for $25,000 bail. Casey and Stevens’ parents pleaded with Doyle to reduce bail to $2,500 so they could post it and bring him home.
“He’s a senior. He gets good grades. He’s scheduled to graduate on June 1. He isn’t a troublemaker. He has no criminal record,” his mother told the judge. “This has never happened before. He’s never had problems in the past. Not his typical behavior. This is an aberration.”
The boy’s father said it was unfortunate that school staff had not told police that he had Aspergers Syndrome, and that police should have training in how to handle situations involving people with the syndrome.