Police suspect outsiders

Chris Thelen/Staff
Richmond County schools Superintendent Dana Bedden on Friday asked students to be proactive in keeping schools safe.

Police are investigating the possibility a security lapse allowed nonstudents to enter the Academy of Richmond County on Thursday, and they might have provoked a large fight that ended in at least eight arrests.

Richmond County sheriff's Maj. Ken Autry said Friday his investigators reviewed a Board of Education videotape and believe the fights started after several students began flashing gang hand gestures, or "signs."

Members of the sheriff's gang task force spent part of Friday at the school attempting to identify suspects from the videotape, which shows more than 100 people exiting into a hallway after a fashion show in the auditorium. Several students began "agitating" one another with the signs, Maj. Autry said, and from there the tension escalated into what one officer called a "riot" over police radio channels.

"We suspect that a couple of people in this video were not students, and it's my understanding that they were not arrested yesterday," Maj. Autry said Friday.

Superintendent Dana Bedden dismissed the suggestion anyone was on campus who shouldn't have been, saying Friday afternoon that nothing he has seen indicates otherwise.

The gang issue is one the community as a whole must deal with, he said. Gangs aren't at Richmond Academy, he said, though students who are members of gangs attend the county's historic school.

Dr. Bedden called on students to help schools be more proactive.

"I would challenge them to ask ... what are they going to do to help us to make sure we are safe," the superintendent said.

Four juveniles and four students 17 and older were charged with disorderly conduct as a result of the fight. Sheriff's Sgt. Blaise Dresser, a member of the department's gang task force, said the signs resembled those used by local gangs called the Harrisburg Posse and Zone 4, which he said are based in neighborhoods surrounding the school.

As students left Friday afternoon for their weeklong spring break, deputies fanned across the campus and into nearby neighborhoods to prevent any incidents. Authorities had already dealt with an argument between some students earlier in the day that was the result of the fight.

Maj. Autry said his department intends to make some additional arrests on gang-related charges based on the individuals identified in the video.

"We're going to be really aggressive with the incident, because it does appear they have a gang problem there," he said.

Dr. Bedden said random searches were conducted Friday at Richmond Academy and nearby Tubman Middle School. The searches will continue.

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851.

SALES TAX PROJECTS

Richmond County Superintendent Dana Bedden might ask school board members to revise a list of sales tax projects, including consolidating schools, because of what he called new information.

It will be a balancing act of recommending what the public needs and what the public wants, Dr. Bedden said Friday. He called a news conference, he said, to quell fears that sales tax dollars are being spent inappropriately.

About $230 million in special purpose local option sales tax revenue is being used to build schools, replace old ones and remodel others. Last month, however, an external review team recommended closing schools, citing a long trend of declining enrollment and projections that drop will continue.

Dr. Bedden asked for administrators and board attorney Pete Fletcher to review records to determine whether the money is being spent as the public asked that it be spent. He said his review found that it is.

-- From staff reports