Police: Student's replica AK-47 caused lockdown, gunman search at Thornton High School

Replica rifle part of display for class project

THORNTON, Colo. - Police say a student who brought a "Fallen Soldier" class project display to school that included a replica  AK-47 triggered a lockdown at Thornton High School and a massive search for a reported gunman on Friday morning.

At about 11:38 a.m., a Thornton High School student alerted a teacher that he had seen a male carrying what appeared to be an assault rifle outside the school, police said. The teacher looked outside and also saw a male carrying what appeared to be a rifle.

The school resources officer was notified and a lockdown was immediately imposed at Thornton High School and the Bollman Technical Education Center. That meant no one was allowed in or out. Meanwhile, lockouts occurred at International School at Thornton Middle School and Thornton Elementary School. That meant business as usual inside the school, but the doors were locked, school officials said.

Several surrounding law enforcement agencies, including SWAT teams, joined Thornton officers in a systematic search for the reported gunman inside and outside of the high school, said Thornton police spokesman Matt Barnes.

Some Thornton High students were eventually evacuated by bus to East 88th Avenue and Grant Street while the school was locked down.

The lockdown was lifted before all of the students were evacuated in that way, however. The remaining students were dismissed from the school.

At about 12:49 p.m., a parent called Thornton police dispatchers and said she had picked up a school project that included a replica rifle from her son at Thornton High School earlier in the day, Barnes said.

"Her son had called her and said, 'Hey mom, this could involve us' and mom called us to determine whether that was the case or not," said Barnes.

Investigators responded to the family's home and took possession of the display. Barnes said it was "very realistic and if you were to see, you would take it very seriously."

Police also interviewed the student, who told investigators he had brought the history class project to school on Wednesday that it included a memorial display with a "Fallen Soldier Battle Cross." The display included a replica AK-47 assault rifle, helmet and boots.

The boy said his mom drove to school on Friday morning to help him transport the project home, Barnes said. The boy told police he carried the replica AK-47 and the rest of the display from the school to his mom's car in the parking lot.

"The district does have a policy concerning the use of firearm facsimiles for school projects which includes an approval process. The district will investigate whether this approval process was followed and take any appropriate action," said a letter sent home to parents by Chris Gdowski, Superintendent Adams 12 Schools.

Barnes said the case remains an active investigation. No arrests have been made and no charges have been filed. The case will be presented to the Adams County District Attorney's office for review.

Nearly three hours after the first reports of a possible gunman, a school official declared, "The danger is over" to parents, students and staff waiting at 88th Avenue and Grant Street. The campus was reopened around 2:15 p.m.

The search for the phantom gunman stoked rumors and tweets full of speculation into the earlier afternoon.

 "A lot of parents are calling the police department, wanting to get an update on the situation. They're concerned about their students, just as we were when we got this report and that’s why responded in the way we do in today's world," Barnes said as the search was still unfolding.

Barnes told 7NEWS officers were "methodically" searching the area inside and outside the school.

-- View the complete slideshow documenting the search and evacuations: http://ch7ne.ws/124NGmq

"We're going to believe that this is a weapon until we prove otherwise," he said.

No weapon was ever found, Barnes later said.

"We had to go into this corner for three hours," said freshman Stanley Stettler, "and nothing really happened."

Photos from the campus during the search showed numerous police cars and armed officers with weapons in hand.  At one point, 7NEWS video shows an officer armed with a scoped rifle peering through the scope, appearing to check out a 7NEWS photographer who was some distance away.

"I'm okay now. I was getting (my) nails done right across street and I saw police walk by with rifles and I received a text. I went directly into panic. I tried to be calm but I was freaking out," said Sherry Henderson, a parent of a student at the High School.

 

"I say this was a success today," said Barnes. "We responded accordingly. The students did exactly what they are trained and told to do."

Finals were scheduled to end at 12:30 p.m. at Thornton High School on Friday, according to the Thornton High School website.

The school has 2,000 students and 130 staff members.

Friday was the last day of school at Bollman. Students were scheduled for a half day, according to Bollman's website.