Extra police officers and crisis counselors were on hand Wednesday as Hylton High School students returned to class following a gun discharge that kept the campus on lockdown for hours Tuesday.
A 16-year-old student has been charged with possession of a firearm on school property after, police say, he was showing the weapon to fellow students when it went off in an art class.
Where the boy got the gun, and exactly why he brought it to school, remained unanswered questions as detectives and school officials promised to conduct reviews on school security and communications with parents following the incident.
It took more than two hours before school officials realized a loud noise heard in the art room was actually a gunshot, bringing police en masse to the 2,000-student high school on Spriggs Road outside Dale City. The building was placed in “secure mode” and dismissal delayed until after 5 p.m. as police searched for the weapon.
Prince William County schools superintendent Steven Walts said the security process went smoothly, despite a lot of confusion and anxiety.
“I’d really like to thank the kids and especially the staff,” “It takes a lot of courage to et through this kind of thing.”
The gun went off shortly before noon in an art classroom after the student took it out of a bag to “show it off” to fellow students, said Prince William County police Chief Barry Barnard.
"At the time of the incident, there were other students and a teacher present in the classroom," county police Sgt. Jonathan Perok said. "Initially there was confusion over what the noise was. There were no initial indications of a shooting observed, other than a noise being heard."
The teacher immediately notified school security and a student was identified as possibly making the unknown noise, he said.
That student was removed from the classroom and brought to the main office for questioning.
Perok said the student was "not initially cooperative with what had occurred or the nature of the noise."
Other students who witnessed the incident also were not forthcoming with police during initial interviews.
During questioning, a class change took place and the teacher who was in the room discovered a plastic trash receptacle that had damage consistent with a bullet strike.
The school resource officer then found bullet fragments in the ceiling. But the firearm wasn't found, prompting the lockdown. Additional officers were called in to conduct "a methodical search."
As worried parents gathered in the parking lot, students were held at the school until police found the gun shortly before 5 p.m. The firearm was found hidden inside an adjacent room connected to the initial classroom where the incident occurred.
Police say the gunshot initially appears to have been accidental. The student involved reported a minor injury and was treated at the school. No one else was hurt.
That student, a 16-year-old boy, was charged shortly after. He was being held at the Prince William County Juvenile Detention Center on Tuesday night.
In the aftermath, some parents were critical of how long it took police and school officials to let them know what was happening, particularly since many students were texting their families from inside the school before official notifications were sent.
Walts said information went out as soon as police had a handle on what had happened, but communications protocols will be reviewed.
“As soon as we get the information, we try to get it out,” Walts said. “Repeated messages were sent through the afternoon.”
Police and school officials will also review how to prevent firearms from being brought to school. Hylton does not have metal detectors, but most county high schools have other security measures in place to prevent students from hiding weapons.
“It starts with education,” Chief Barnard said. “We and the schools will work collectively to assess security in our schools. There are a number of layers that need to be looked at.”