Westview Elementary School: A son's rampage, a parent's lament

Mental problems to blame for school vandalism rampage, suspect's parents say

photo The down spout at Westview Elementary School was damaged from Aaron Roden's alleged rampage.
photo Students and community members perform the wave while gathering around Westview Elementary school early Wednesday evening to show support after a vandal caused over $60,000 worth of damage on Tuesday.
photo Safety Inspector Frank Bilbrey, left, and Assistant Principal Ruthie Panni examine extensive damage caused by a vandal inside of a portable classroom at Westview Elementary School on Tuesday. Aaron Roden, 22, was apprehended and charged by police at the scene early Tuesday morning.

When sheriff's deputies confronted Aaron Roden inside Westview Elementary School early Tuesday morning, they saw a man wearing nothing but boxer shorts, dangling from a TV holder secured to the rafters.

Roden already had thrown a fire extinguisher through a glass exit door at a deputy outside, who had to dodge it to keep from being hit.

Deputies had to stun the sweat-drenched 22-year-old with a Taser to get him under control after they pushed past a barricade of furniture Roden had stacked against the conference room's door.

His anguished adoptive parents said Thursday that Roden's lifelong mental health problems are to blame for the rampage that caused an estimated $60,000 in damage to the elementary school on East Brainerd Road. On the way to Erlanger hospital for evaluation, Roden told deputies that his intent was "to do as much damage to the school as possible and then burn it down," the arrest report released Thursday said.

Roden had spiraled downward over the previous two weeks because of a series of events culminated by breaking up with his girlfriend, who lives near Westview Elementary -- which is why he targeted it.

"He had no grudge against that school," said Aaron's father, Michael Roden, an assistant U.S. attorney in Nashville. "She had broken up with him that day. That was the final straw."

'Hell came to visit'

"We love him," Aaron Roden's mother, Laura Roden, wrote Thursday in a statement to the Times Free Press describing her son's mental health issues.

"We have loved him from the day we picked him up from the adoption agency," she wrote. "We have loved him from the day I said to my husband, 'There's something wrong with this baby.'"

As a child, Roden had problems in nursery school and kindergarten because he "could not calm down and was 'angry,'" Laura Roden wrote.

As a teen he was "defiant and unmanageable," constantly in counseling, running away from school, under multiple new medications and given a possible diagnosis of being bipolar.

"Middle school is when Hell came to visit," she wrote. "We sent him to a highly recommended wilderness program, but they could not help."

"Despite our numerous requests, he has never had a complete mental health assessment because our insurance would not pay for him to stay the length of time it required," she wrote.

This was Roden's second serious encounter with the law this month and his 11th incident with authorities since November 2010.

On Aug. 4, Roden was arrested at a North Chattanooga condominium on a charge of aggravated assault -- the police report said he cut a 19-year-old man's throat with a butcher knife while both were intoxicated. Roden was released from jail on a $40,000 bond. Roden has previous charges in Franklin, Tenn., and Whitfield, Tenn., that include probation violations, DUIs, identity theft and vandalism.

During a previous stay in jail, Roden was held in solitary confinement for several months, his mother wrote, which "of course, made his condition worse."

Things actually improved, Laura Roden said, after he was transferred to a state prison -- though she said he still received no treatment for his mental illness.

"Aaron is bright and personable, and was trying very hard to put his past behind him and start a new life," his mother wrote.

"Our son is not a criminal. Our son has an illness," she wrote. "It is our prayer that he will get the treatment he needs. We ask for your prayers as well."

County eyeing mental health court

Roden was booked into Hamilton County jail on Thursday and no bond was set. He had been at Erlanger hospital for medical evaluation since his arrest Tuesday morning.

The jail has a wing for mentally ill and unstable patients, but inmates are typically only moved there after being placed on suicide watch, officials said.

Officials wouldn't disclose information about Roden's location and condition, citing federal health privacy law.

Candace Allen, senior director of adult services at the Helen Ross McNabb Center, a community mental health organization that has a Chattanooga facility, said that people with mental illness, if left in the jail's general population, usually suffer increased side effects.

She said families can ask for for a forensic evaluation to see if the person was competent at the time of the crime.

"This can lead to getting them some help," Allen said.

Tina Glenn, criminal justice mental health liaison for Hamilton County, said cases like Roden's emphasize the urgency to start a mental health court in Hamilton County.

"The court will help identify and provide a safety net for people like this man," she said.

Such a court would offer offenders alternatives to jail. They would be given the chance to follow treatment programs and could have their sentences dismissed or commuted.

"A significant percentage of Hamilton County and Silverdale inmates suffer from mental disorders," Glenn said, adding that a statewide study found that 20 percent of people in Tennessee jails suffer from mental illness.

The court remains in the planning stages, she said, and a time line has not yet been established.

Westview Elementary School Principal Margo Williams believes the incident was Roden's "cry for help," and she prays that he will find some.

"He didn't hurt me or these children," she said. "We all just want him to find the help he needs."

"The damages he caused at the school are worth it in my eyes if this young man can get help and the children can grow to learn more about forgiveness," Williams said."If he would come back to the school and sincerely apologize to the teachers, students, and the building -- I would welcome him."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or at 423-747-6592.