WORTON — A Rock Hall man is being held without bond after allegedly entering Kent County High School Wednesday, Sept. 4 while possessing a loaded handgun.
Court records show James Michael Otwell, 35, is charged with handgun on person, loaded handgun on person, handgun in vehicle, loaded handgun in vehicle and dangerous weapon on school property. All charges are classified as misdemeanors, according to the court system.
A news release from the sheriff’s office states that the handgun — a semi-automatic — was allegedly in Otwell’s pocket when he went into the school Sept. 4.
“There were no specific threats made to anyone and no one was hurt during this incident,” the release states, which lists 12:10 p.m as the time of the incident.
Following his arrest, Otwell was ordered held without bond. That order remained in place Friday, Sept. 6 following a bail review hearing in the District Court for Kent County. A trial is scheduled for Oct. 21.
KCHS Principal Dale Brown sent an email at 7:13 p.m. Sept. 4 via the district’s notification system regarding the incident that occurred earlier in the day. A robocall also went out.
Brown said school staff takes threats to the safety and welfare of students very seriously. He said extensive security measures are in place to maintain a safe campus.
“The faculty, staff and administration of KCHS are committed in maintaining a safe and orderly environment conducive to learning for our children. We will always provide you with transparent, timely and accurate information as soon as we are permitted to share this sensitive information,” Brown wrote.
Speaking Sept. 5, Superintendent Karen Couch said Otwell reportedly entered Kent County High School the day prior through the main entrance. She said Otwell went through the security vestibule installed over the summer and was stopped by staff.
“He came in through the vestibule and staff did their job and he was detained,” Couch said. “He wasn’t belligerent. He wasn’t threatening anyone. He was cooperative when he was detained.”
Couch said School Resource Officer Scott Metzbower was not the one who detained Otwell, but was notified of the situation.
According to the application for a statement of charges filed by Lt. Dennis Hickman of the Kent County Sheriff’s Office, Hickman wrote that he was made aware on the morning of Sept. 4 that Otwell had allegedly been showing signs of mental health issues and was possibly a danger to himself or others. Hickman said that he also was told Otwell was known to keep a handgun on his person.
“While attempting to locate Otwell I located the Jeep Wrangler he operates in the parking lot of the Kent County High School,” Hickman wrote. “According to the School Resource Officer Otwell entered the building and attempted to speak with someone. After being inside the school for (a) very short period of time Otwell walked out of the school and left in said Jeep.”
Hickman said Otwell drove out of the parking lot, pulled into the Kent County Community Center next to the high school campus and walked inside. Hickman said he found Otwell in the center’s lobby talking on a cellphone. He reportedly asked Otwell to step outside and speak with him and Otwell complied.
“I explained to Otwell my concerns about his mental state,” Hickman wrote. “During the course of the conversation I asked Otwell if he had a handgun located inside the Jeep and he said yes and that it was located in the center console. During a search of the Jeep the Taurus Handgun was located and seized.”
Hickman said he took Otwell to the sheriff’s office in Chestertown for additional questioning.
“After I read Otwell his Miranda Rights, Otwell admitted that he carried the loaded Taurus into the Kent County High School,” Hickman wrote.
Couch said that Otwell has been a bus driver for Kent County Public Schools for two years, since the district purchased its own transportation fleet. She did not know if he had driven prior for one of the private contractors the district previously used for student transportation.
Otwell drove his regular route Tuesday morning, Sept. 3, the first day of school, but was not allowed to drive that afternoon or the following day, Couch said.
On Sept. 9, the Board of Education accepted Otwell’s resignation as a bus driver, according to a report of personnel actions posted online.
On Sept. 5, Couch said KCPS Supervisor of Operations Joe Wheeler raised concerns about Otwell on Sept. 3. In taking Otwell off his bus routes, Wheeler also reportedly contacted KCHS to inform staff there of Wheeler’s concerns. The district’s bus depot is located next to the high school.
“While there were some concerns about his behavior, it was not because he made any threat or indicated that he was going to hurt anyone,” Couch said of Otwell, adding that there had not been any previous issues with him.
Couch said Otwell did not carry a gun on a school bus to anyone’s knowledge. She said if he had, the district would have taken immediate action.
While Otwell had a district-issued identification badge, Couch said that did not grant him access to every school. She said he did not have access via his badge for the high school.
“His badge would not have allowed him to come into that building,” she said. “The only way he could have come in was through that main door.”
Couch said anyone entering KCHS must be buzzed in by staff through the main entrance, then go into the security vestibule, where they will be screened by staff.
She said that in the Sept. 4 incident, the KCHS staff did their job stopping Otwell and asking him to leave the building.
“I have to commend the actions of the staff at the high school,” Couch said.
Couch said that as concerns were raise, everyone did their jobs, including Wheeler for notifying the high school.
In his email Sept. 4, Brown said maintaining a safe school environment is a top concern at KCHS.
“Please be assured that the safety and welfare of our children, faculty and staff is our highest priority as we provide the best services available for our most valuable resource — children,” Brown wrote.
He also asked that parents take this opportunity to talk to their children about the importance of school safety. He said he wants to encourage children to feel comfortable reporting “any information they may have that could potentially compromise their safety and the safety of others.”
“Working cooperatively and collaboratively we can heighten the probability of maintaining a safe and orderly environment where all children are free to focus on learning,” Brown wrote.