PHILIPPI, W.Va. — The superintendent of schools in Barbour County believes the reason a 14-year-old student held a classroom hostage with a gun may have been more complex than bullying, though it could have been a contributing factor.
Jeffrey Woofter recalled the events at Philip Barbour earlier this week on Thursday’s “MetroNews Talkline,” based on witness statements from the students in the classroom.
It began when the student allegedly walked not into his assigned classroom, as previously reported, but into his girlfriend’s assigned class.
He asked her to hold his wallet and phone when the girl began to question his motives.
“Then he walked to the teacher, Twila Smith, pulled a gun out of his pocket, placed it on her temple and told her she was going to die that day along with others in the room,” Woofter said.
Then, while keeping the gun on Smith’s head, he instructed her to lock the door, cover the window and throw her keys across the room. He also had the students put their phones down on their desks, sit on the floor and put their hands up.
After the other students were on the floor, the suspect then went through a process which Woofter believes brought at least a portion of his motive to light.
“He then started to single out students, made them stand up and pointed a gun at them,” Woofter said. “He’d ask them questions and said that if they didn’t answer right, they were going to die.”
Among those forced to stand were two male students, who were told to admit they flirted with the armed student’s girlfriend, with one touching her leg and the other alleging to have touched her behind.
Another male student was forced at gunpoint to say “bad things” about another student in the classroom –Woofter noted that the boy apologized for the things he said while the gun was still on him.
During this process, the armed student reportedly made the statement that “his own father had held a gun to his head and he wanted other to know that feeling,” according to Woofter.
The hostage situation continued throughout the period without anyone else in the school really knowing what was going on.
At the end of the period, the armed student pointed the gun at Smith and walked her to the door. As other students attempted to come in, she stopped them and told them to a room across the hall to Mrs. Swift’s room.
Woofter credits Smith’s poise under pressure as saving lives by keeping the suspect clam.
“She was an absolute hero,” he said. “When you talk to Twila, she would deny that to the end. She’d say she was just doing her job.”
When Swift attempted to check on Smith’s room, the student attempted to take her hostage as well, but Swift slammed the door shut and notified the front office, initiating the lockdown and evacuation.
The authorities arrived on scene and began the negotiations that led to the hostages’ release and the eventual end of the situation when the armed student’s pastor walked him out to an ambulance in police custody.
Woofter is hesitant to say whether or not bullying played a factor into the student’s motive and it would be hard for the staff at Philip Barbour to detect, as the boy had only been there for nine days with school just starting.
“I think there’s a number of issues that would lead a young man of 14 years of age to do something this erratic,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair to say, we look in from the outside and say bullying was the cause of this because so many other things took place.”
Classes resumed on Wednesday with the county operating on a two-hour delay, increased police presence on campus and counselors on hand to talk with students.
A day after being held hostage, the students and teacher proved their resiliency when asked by the principal if they wished to change classes.
“Every kid in the class raised their hand and said they did not want to leave, and Mrs. Smith was the same way,” Woofter said. “It’s unbelievable.”
The suspect –whose identity remains unreleased due to his age– is being held at the J.M. “Chick” Buckbee Juvenile Center in Hampshire County and is charged with 28 counts of wanton endangerment, one count of making terroristic threats and one count of possessing a firearm on school premises.