Just months after three children were slaughtered at a Christian school in the state’s capital, a Tennessee public school district returned a student to the classroom who last year threatened to shoot up his school — putting him in close quarters with the students who had testified against him in court, a Daily Wire investigation found.
Ninth graders at Giles County High School, in a rural community an hour south of Nashville, showed up for the new school year this August to find that the boy who sixteen months prior was arrested for his plan to shoot up their middle school had rejoined them in high school.
About seven of them had testified against him in court last year, detailing how he had a list of students he intended to kill, had a date picked out, and was running drills to practice the act. Now he was back and, they believed, had an additional motive for carnage.
When parents raised their concerns to the school district, it falsely stated that laws from the Republican-controlled statehouse were to blame for the situation. Parents say the school told them to become “activists” in the special session, where Democrats were pushing for gun control, if they had a problem with it.
Hannah Riley, whose son testified that he was warned by the would-be shooter not to come to school on a certain date so that he would live, said she and numerous others have pulled their children out of school because they believe their children are sitting ducks. She said the culprit, who The Daily Wire is not naming, disclosed his plan to her child because her child once showed him kindness, and he told authorities.
“My child’s desk is empty at my choosing because I don’t want it empty permanently,” Riley told The Daily Wire, adding that it brought tears to her eyes to have him miss out on key high school moments. “My child did the right thing and now he’s the one being punished…. This child has stated his motives repeatedly. My child saw the list.”
Parents have been pleading with the school to do something, but officials have tried to pass the buck onto state lawmakers. The administrators told them that if they had concerns about school violence, they should become “activists” at the state Capitol, which was at the time embroiled in a debate over gun restrictions.
Parents say handling of the incident sent the message that the top priority isn’t stopping school shootings, but rather pushing gun restrictions. They fear that the school was willing to put parents through a nightmare in order to get them to join with left-wing activists protesting in Nashville.
“They just told us you need to get in touch with your reps so you can change the law,” said Natalie Johnson, whose child was on the hit list. “Gun laws are not going to affect kids who are not supposed to have guns anyway. It’s sad that our kids are being used as pawns.”
The state has long given school districts tools to respond to students threatening mass violence–but Giles County Public Schools didn’t use them. While state lawmakers this summer were considering adding a “red flag” law that would flag people with questionable backgrounds to prevent them from buying guns, there is already a system in place to flag students who could pose a threat of violence so schools can keep an eye on them. The school system won’t explain why it apparently failed, with the district saying the high school wasn’t aware of the student’s recent disciplinary record.
As Riley pressed the school for answers, the school system directed her to its outside attorney, Tim Underwood. Riley and her husband asked him how their child was being kept safe, but the attorney “kept wanting to bring in gun rights.”
“If I had it my way there’d be more gun restrictions,” the lawyer told them, she recalled.
“The school wanted to look at us and say, ‘Our hands are tied and you’ll have to take it to Capitol Hill.’ It’s about pushing their own agenda,” she said. “’Activism. Where’s your activism?’” she says she heard over and over again.
“My husband said, ‘Last time I checked a 14-year old can’t buy a gun already,’” Riley said. “I don’t know why [Underwood] even brought politics into it, my husband was like this was so irrelevant.”
After the culprit returned to school, he immediately began engaging in violence again. He punched the child of Caleb Slagle, who learned of the backstory and began pressing school superintendent Vickie Beard on the issue.
Seemingly struggling to explain how the Republican-controlled statehouse had anything to do with the situation, Beard appears to have invented an explanation, according to emails reviewed by The Daily Wire.
“Tennessee law does not authorize or allow expulsion of students from public schools,” Beard told Slagle in an email. “Tennessee law does allow suspension of students for a calendar year or up to 180 days for zero-tolerance offenses. Due to Constitutional and privacy rights, we cannot discuss specifics.”
None of that is true. The Tennessee School Board Association, which Beard says she consulted, makes clear that “zero-tolerance offenses require [suspension] for not less than one calendar year” and local school boards may deem any offense a “zero-tolerance offense.”
Longstanding Tennessee code states that regardless of whether an infraction is “zero-tolerance,” school officials can set a suspension to be any length they want. The ability to expel students is also laid out in state law.
The Tennessee General Assembly’s Office of Legal Services confirmed that reading to The Daily Wire, stating that “Tennessee Code Annotated did not limit the length of punishment for a student who threatened mass violence against others at a school.” In July, a new law went into effect that requires districts to suspend a student for a year or more for threats of mass violence, but schools always had the authority to suspend them for longer, the office explained.
Internal emails obtained by The Daily Wire under the Freedom of Information Act show that after Slagle wrote to county and school officials, County Executive Graham Stowe replied privately to fellow officials that there were not any state laws tying the schools’ hands, and it was a matter of school policy.
“There are no statutes providing any guidance in matters like this, so the decision to retain this student resides w/ the Schools,” he wrote, adding that he had also discussed it with a state lawmaker. “Given that allowing this student to return to class was a policy decision, I asked Dr. Beard to take the lead in responding to Mr. Slagle.”
Beard then did so by telling Slagle the opposite: that state laws tied the school district’s hands on punishment.
Slagle, whose son was attacked, became a thorn in the school system’s side with his relentless push for an explanation. He told officials that if the issue was that state law prevented it from suspending him for more than a year for his 2022 threat to shoot up the school, it could use the assault on his son to remove him from the school now. But Slagle was told that if he wanted to go down that road, they would arrest his son too, for punching back.
Parents of students who testified during the court process were among the only ones who realized that their children may be sitting ducks, because from the beginning, the school district concealed from parents that their children’s lives may have been in danger, according to the materials obtained under FOIA.
The only communication about the incident from administrators came through a vague 15-second voicemail message drafted by Beard: “Hello parents! We are aware of a rumor that may be circulating regarding some inappropriate comments. This situation has been investigated and proper authorities are involved and assisting in this matter. Thank you and have a great evening!”
But it wasn’t a rumor about inappropriate comments. The culprit was charged with five counts of threats of mass violence on school property, as well as one count of harassment, The Daily Wire learned.
Riley said she called the school district this summer to ensure the culprit wouldn’t be matriculating at the high school alongside witnesses, but the district ignored her. On the first day of school, her son texted her that the boy was there, and she immediately picked him up.
The principal told Riley that he was unaware of the student’s background — even though Riley had reminded the district in advance — and that her son could have an excused absence for his safety. But when she met with the school resource officer days later, she learned that the principal still hadn’t even told security the student’s name, she said.
Riley enrolled her son in an out-of-district school at considerable personal cost.
When numerous others withdrew their kids from the school, fearing for their lives, it became clear that it would be the subject of controversy at a school board meeting August 17. The school board, perhaps anticipation of the impending uproar, used a parliamentary maneuver to remove the usual public-comment portion of the meeting. Discussion was limited to matters such as what it should do with an old Xerox machine, according to meeting minutes.
Giles County School Board members and superintendent Beard ignored repeated questions from The Daily Wire.
Captain Joe Purvis of the Giles County Sheriff’s Office said there were policy failures. Tennessee has a system designed to flag students with a serious history, “and they either didn’t use it or it was down at the time,” he told The Daily Wire.
“I’m not trying to tell the school board what they should do, but I need my SROs to know when someone like this is in school,” Purvis said. “They’re talking about red flag laws all over the news, I’m not a believer in that necessarily but this seems like an opportunity for a red flag” on the student’s transcript, he said.
Though Beard claimed that the “Constitution” barred her from talking about the matter, Purvis said that while the name of a criminal who is a minor is normally secret, information necessary for parents to be informed about public safety is not.
Purvis said that prior to the school shooting threats, the culprit had also been arrested for an unrelated assault in school on May 17, 2021. He was suspended for the remainder of the school year, Purvis said — a brief 12 days.
It was near the end of the following school year, in April 2022, that he was charged with five counts of threats of mass violence on school property and one count of harassment, Purvis said.
District Attorney Brent Cooper declined to tell The Daily Wire if the student was convicted of those charges and what criminal punishment he faced, if any. As a minor, the court records are sealed.
Purvis said he understands the culprit attended a middle school across town the next school year. Both schools feed into Giles County High School. The school system refused to say what action it took against a would-be school shooter, even with no name attached.
While Beard falsely claimed that the district was forbidden from suspending anyone for more than a year, it’s unclear that he was even suspended for that long. If the culprit spent any time at an alternative school or juvenile detention, that would have presumably been apparent in transcripts available to his high school.
“It frustrates me to no end when people in government just won’t accept and acknowledge that they made a mistake. That’s all you gotta do,” Purvis said. “If I’ve got 20 other kids suffering, the greater good is to remove that kid. I don’t get it.”
Parents continue to live in fear that each morning when they send their children to school, they may not come home. Some are likely still under the false impression, fed to them by the school officials, that it’s because state law forbids the school from suspending him for longer.
“I can’t in good conscience leave my kid here. He’s no longer viewed as the ‘kid who was kind to me,’ now he’s the ‘kid who turned me in,” said Riley. “He’s got the means, he’s got the motive, it’s just when’s it gonna happen.”