Students who overheard a classmate boasting about a mass shooting plot alerted teachers at their central Florida charter school, and police credited them with helping avert a possible massacre.
A 13-year-old student, who told police he was inspired by the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, had warned certain students at The Villages Charter Middle School in Lady Lake to either stay home Friday or wear white shirts and say the safety word “Eugene” to avoid getting shot, investigators told WFTV.
Students who said they overheard the teen believed he “was serious and they were bothered by his statements,” said a Sumter County charging affidavit. “They did not believe he was joking.”
After authorities were alerted earlier this week, the 13-year-old was stopped on his way to school Wednesday and questioned. He implicated a 14-year-old student, who was detained at the school the same day, according to a statement from the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office.
The teens had no weapons on them or in their lockers, law enforcement officers said, but firearms were found in the homes of both boys during a search the following day. One of the guns was an AR-15 assault rifle, according to police. Both teens were charged Thursday with conspiracy to commit murder. They’re being held in a juvenile detention facility. Police have not yet identified them, though they have been named by the media in central Florida.
Under questioning, the suspects tearfully confessed to the plot, according to police. Investigators said the younger teen told them he had been depressed and said, “I just want to die,” NBC reported.
He initially said he had been joking about the shooting, but both boys later said they had arranged to meet in the gym Friday and start shooting, police said. The signal to open fire was to be a dropped pencil, police said they were told.
The 14-year-old boy also noted Columbine as an inspiration, investigators said. That shooting, by two high school friends, killed 12 students and a teacher and injured dozens of others.
Officers thanked the students at The Villages Charter School who had spoken up about the threat.
“The Sumter County Sheriff’s Office is grateful for those students brave enough to speak out about the plot,” the sheriff’s office said. “Their heroic actions may have prevented a deadly tragedy and loss of precious lives.”
A sheriff’s spokesman told WESH-TV that school expulsion proceedings have started for both students.
Several students stayed home from school Friday. “I’m kind of freaked out about leaving him here, to be honest,” one mom told the TV reporter as she dropped off her son.
Police were patrolling the school Friday but said they don’t think other students were involved in the alleged plot.