Teacher accused of firing gun in Dalton High School may be mentally ill [photos, videos, documents]

Teacher accused of firing gun in Dalton High School may be mentally ill [photos, videos, documents]

Police charged Jesse Randal Davidson after they say he barricaded himself in his classroom and fired a shot out of the window

March 1st, 2018 by Tyler Jett and Emmett Gienapp in Local Regional News

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Dalton Police Department Assistant Chief Cliff Cason speaks during a press conference at the Dalton Convention Center on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 in Dalton, Ga. Students from Dalton High School were evacuated to the Dalton Convention Center after social studies teacher Randal Davidson allegedly barricaded himself in a classroom and fired a handgun.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter /Times Free Press.

Dalton High School Catamounts published this video on the same day law enforcement said extra police officers will be patrolling Dalton High School after a threatening note was found in a classroom on Wednesday afternoon.

Gallery: Dalton High School

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DJ Cross' freshman English teacher started to read "Romeo and Juliet" on Wednesday morning, the part where Juliet learns she's going to have to marry Paris, when the class heard a door slam down the hall. Then they heard someone yelling. Then, they heard a gunshot.

Cross, 15, didn't have much time to think. He and some other students hopped up, dragged some desks in front of the door. They piled eight of them into three stacks, flipped off the lights, covered the door's window. Some students ducked into a corner, between some overturned desks and a pair of bookshelves. Cross crouched near his teacher's desk.

He said she was texting some other teachers at Dalton High School, warning them about an active shooter. The intercom cut in. Someone announced the school was on lockdown, that whatever was going on was not a drill. Cross thought about the Valentine's Day shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school, where 17 people died.

Jesse Randal Davidson

Jesse Randal Davidson

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

He also thought about six days earlier, when Dalton school staff found a threatening note on the floor of a classroom. He texted his mother, LaDetra: "I'm on a threat lockdown ... desks against the door ... not a drill ... SWAT ... I love you."

Document: Jesse Randal Davidson 2018 incident report

Jesse Randal Davidson 2018 incident report

"I thought I was going to die," he later told the Times Free Press.

But he heard shoes stomping closer; then he heard someone talking. It sounded like a negotiation. After about 10 minutes, someone knocked on the door. Cross peeked out; the man appeared to be a police officer. With his teacher's permission, a student opened the door and found 10 officers outside, against a wall, holding guns.

Three doors down, in Room 413, Dalton police say social studies teacher Jesse Randal Davidson had fired a shot out the window. He allegedly brought a .38 revolver in his computer bag Wednesday morning and taught his first period class. At the end of a two-hour planning period, around 11:40, his next wave of students tried to come inside. They couldn't.

Principal Steve Bartoo came to the room and turned his key. But as he tried to open it, he said, Davidson slammed the door shut and yelled. He then allegedly fired his shot out of the building, not toward anyone. With students tucked away inside their classrooms, officers negotiated with Davidson for about half an hour before he turned himself in.

Dalton police charged Davidson, 53, with aggravated assault, carrying a weapon on school grounds, terroristic threats, reckless conduct, possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, and disrupting a public school.

Students, meanwhile, were escorted to the school's gym and later taken by bus to the Dalton Convention Center. School officials and Dalton police told parents to meet their children there. Nobody was injured in the shooting.

Police and school officials praised the response to the threat, saying teachers and other administrators managed the high-pressure situation as well as possible.

"I can't tell you enough about how absolutely proud I am of our staff and our students," Bartoo said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

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The incident immediately stoked the debate of gun control. In the weeks since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, some of the school's students have pushed on national stages for more restrictive gun laws. Democratic lawmakers have backed them.

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Some leading Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have pushed for more community resources to treat the mentally ill. Trump on Wednesday expressed support for expanded background checks, increased school security and raising the age to 21 for purchasing some firearms. The president has also said some public school teachers should be armed, adding they should receive a financial bonus if they are trained with a firearm. In Dalton, Bartoo said, teachers cannot bring guns on campus.

Just hours after Davidson shot out the window, survivors of the shooting in Parkland reached out to Dalton High School students. Sara Imam, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said incidents like these change lives forever and impact how a child feels at school.

"To learn that a teacher you know and trust has opened fire in your school must be devastating, traumatizing and scary really," she said in a message to a Times Free Press reporter.

"Any threat underscores a need for change. It doesn't matter whether those kids were hurt or not; their lives have henceforth forever been changed. They're never going to forget the sound of that gun. They'll never forget the sirens blaring; or the darkness and unknowingness of a lockdown."

She said the incident in Dalton was particularly concerning because a teacher fired a gun. He is there to protect students.

"But we see now that arming our teachers or having more guns on campus won't stop a threat — it may even be the problem, as it was today," she said. "It's time for America to change. It's time for us to realize that our children's lives are at stake. Because today could have been much worse. We're lucky it wasn't — but we can no longer take any chances."

David Garcia, a Dalton High School freshman, was in the cafeteria when he realized something was wrong. He saw people running, yelling "Code red." He hid in a locker room with other students.

"I can't help imagine what would happen if there was an active shooter targeting students," he said. "I choose not to live in fear, but I see how many people are scared of these things and it tears my heart."

Andrea Magana, another freshman, said her substitute teacher was about to give a quiz when someone spoke through the intercom and said the school was on lockdown. She didn't have her cellphone with her, and she worried for her brother and other family members, who also attend the school.

She wondered if she would die.

"It was horrible," she said.

Dalton High School will be closed today, a spokeswoman for the school system said. But the rest of the city's public schools will be open as usual.

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Davidson began teaching at Dalton High School in 2004 after graduating from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, according to an article about him in Dalton Magazine. He also announced the school's football games and released a book about the history of the program in 2012.

Document: Jesse Randal Davidson 2016 incident report

Jessie Randal Davidson 2016 incident report

"Teaching is without a doubt the best thing that I have ever done professionally," he said. "As much as I enjoy doing the radio games, teaching and interacting with students is a blessing I cannot imagine doing without. I doubt that I could have handled it in my 20s. I will teach until no longer physically able."

In recent years, however, Davidson seemed to struggle with mental health issues. In March 2016, according to an incident report, he told the Dalton police that he accidentally arranged to have a woman killed. He said he had an affair with his son's girlfriend, and she had become pregnant with twins.

He said the woman seemed to be an abusive mother. He complained to his friends about her, and they promised to "take care" of her. He believed they killed her. But investigators could not find any evidence this woman existed. According to the report, Davidson said he took several medications for depression and had just gotten out of the hospital.

"We never found any reason to believe she existed or that any of it ever happened," Dalton Police Department spokesman Bruce Frazier told the Times Free Press on Wednesday night.

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In the hours after the incident, state and national figures commented on the shooting.

Document: Jesse Randal Davidson 2017 incident report

Jessie Randal Davidson 2017 incident report

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr tweeted a short series saying his office is working to keep "Georgia's children safe" while "exploring new technologies that will help law enforcement detect and respond to incidents the moment they happen."

"If/when a security threat occurs, it is imperative that every community has a rapid response system in place to address the threat, ensure student safety and streamline communication amongst all responding agencies," he tweeted.

Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio talk show host, suggested that the Dalton High incident might have been faked by those opposed to arming teachers. A post on his website stated:

"What if the teacher is a radical leftist and does this to give the [media] a news story that they can then point to. 'See, we can't arm teachers.' We're dealing with exactly these kind of people who engage in fake everything that they try to make look real. Nope. I'm not claiming that's what this was. But I will say that if it turned out to be that, I wouldn't be surprised."

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In the weeks since the Parkland shooting, local law enforcement agencies have investigated several threats at schools, some resulting in arrests. Among others, these incidents have popped up in Hamilton County, Bradley County, Meigs County, Catoosa County and Chattooga County.

In Dalton, after she heard news of the shooting, Karen Burnette tried to get to the school. Her 14-year-old daughter, Lily, is a freshman there. But Burnette was shaking so much she couldn't drive. Her boss gave her a ride.

Outside the convention center, Lily Burnette said she still believed arming teachers could be a good idea. The school just has to limit the number of teachers, and make sure they're the right ones. Karen Burnette was not so sure.

"We don't know [anymore]," she said. "I mean, I don't know who to trust anymore."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.

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