Intruder prompts lockdown at Polk elementary school

Police say Don Stephens Bartow Elementary Academy.
Police say Don Stephens Bartow Elementary Academy.

BARTOW, Fla. (WFLA) – A scary incident unfolded at a Polk County elementary school on Monday after a teacher noticed a suspicious man inside the building.

It happened just before 2 p.m. when school was in session.

Police say the suspect, later identified as Don Stephens, 41, of Lakeland, was spotted on the second floor of Bartow Elementary Academy trying to get into two rooms.  Both of the rooms were locked.  The area housed the mechanical room and several fifth grade classrooms.

Parent Amber Doyle learned after school that her daughter had seen the man. “He actually walked past her and a friend that were going to the bathroom and winked and smiled at them. So they just kind of went knocking on the classroom door, eyes wide open, and told her teacher that there was a guy without a badge in the hallway,” Doyle said.

Just as the suspect was trying the door handles, a teacher noticed him and asked for his credentials.  The suspect said he was a mechanic and then took off. Several P.E. teachers then saw the suspect running from the school grounds.  The school was placed on lock-down for a short time until Bartow police officers found the suspect a few blocks away, at the corner of Main Street and Oak Avenue.

“It was certainly brazen on his part. It’s the middle of the day, schools open for session and we have kids out on campus, kids in classrooms,” said Bartow Police Sgt. Eric Sherhouse.

Stephens was arrested and charged with burglary of an occupied structure, trespassing on school grounds and disruption of a school function. Police say he has an extensive criminal history for burglary and theft.  He is currently awaiting trial on charges of possession of cocaine.

Police do not believe that he was on school grounds in an attempt to harm any children or staff.  They think he intended to steal something, but was deterred by the quick response from teachers and police.

The following email was sent out to parents about the incident:

This message is being sent on behalf of Bartow Elementary Academy. The school was placed on heightened security today after an unidentified individual tried to gain access to the campus. No students or staff were harmed, and the suspect was later apprehended by law enforcement. We take our commitment to providing a safe learning environment very seriously. The safety of our students and staff is of the highest priority. Thank you.”

Parents News Channel 8 spoke with said the school should have sent more information, and hope this incident changes their procedures. “It wasn’t the best information. I don’t think I was accurately portrayed that the kids were actually in danger. My daughter got in the car telling me she had direct interaction with the guy, so that was pretty concerning,” Doyle said. “I think that’s something that could be improved. And as long as things are being done to keep it from happening again.”

School principal Tracy Nelson released the following statement about the incident:

“We applaud the actions of our teacher at Bartow Elementary Academy. She did exactly what she should have done. We always stress that our students and staff members be mindful of their surroundings and, if they see someone or something suspicious, to report it.

This teacher, as well as all of our educators, are concerned about the well-being and safety of their students and colleagues. Their caring nature makes them ever vigilant, and we truly appreciate them.

Our students’ families are understandably frightened by this situation. An unauthorized person getting on campus is serious. We praise Bartow Police for their swift response in bringing this situation to a rapid conclusion.

Although we cannot discuss our safety plans under the law, our school is constantly assessing the environment and reviewing its safety procedures and working to improve them. In addition, we conduct drills throughout the year, and work closely with the Department of Safe Schools to maintain a safe learning environment.”

We’ll have more about the suspect and how he was able to get into the school tonight at 6 on News Channel 8.

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