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APS police say timeline, footage show abduction report ‘unfounded’

APS Police Chief Ronald Applin walks through their evidence at a press conference at Atlanta Public Schools Alonzo A. Crim Center  Friday 11, 2019.   Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
APS Police Chief Ronald Applin walks through their evidence at a press conference at Atlanta Public Schools Alonzo A. Crim Center Friday 11, 2019. Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

An Atlanta elementary student's report that an armed man tried to abduct her during recess was "unfounded" say school police, who have faced criticism from city police for their response.

An 8-year-old student at Deerwood Academy reported Monday that a stranger choked her and pointed a gun at her face while she played outside the school. She said the man ran away when a teacher blew a whistle signalling the end of recess.

The allegation prompted an investigation by Atlanta Public Schools police, who announced late Thursday that evidence does not support the student’s story.

At a news conference Friday, APS police Chief Ronald Applin walked through a timeline and produced photos from surveillance footage. He said that evidence, combined with testimonials from other students, convinced investigators that an attempted abduction did not take place, though an unidentified man was seen on camera walking across the field.

Applin acknowledged that the response had not been perfect, but he defended his police force against criticism from the Atlanta Police Department that it should have alerted the city sooner.

“We take any safety or security incident very seriously, and we investigate those fully,” Applin said. “We understood right away that something wasn’t right, but we still looked into this deeper just to make sure.”

City police criticized the school police response this week. The city police said it took hours for APS police to tell them about the allegation, hindering their ability to assist with a search for a suspect.

APS police said they notified a city police dispatcher 10 minutes after learning of the report. Several hours later, Applin contacted a city police commander to make sure the city "was fully aware of the incident," according to the school district.

But city police spokesman Carlos Campos called it “laughable at best, or poor police work, at worst,” to consider a call to dispatch sufficient notice. And, he said, contacting a local zone commander hours later “was grossly inadequate for us to mobilize our resources for immediate assistance.” He suggested APS “take a hard look at their protocols when it concerns child safety.”

On Friday, Campos said that the allegations being unfounded doesn’t change the city police views.

“When the incident was reported, it was not known at that time that it would be unfounded later,” he said, in a written statement.

APS has a history with the city police.

In 2016, the school district formed its own police force, ending an annual $5.6 million contract with the city to provide services for APS schools.

The district decided to replace city police officers with its own school police force to patrol schools.

School police reviewed surveillance footage during recess from the day of the alleged incident to reach their conclusion. Applin said the student’s story also changed in substantial ways.

Photos do show an unidentified man cutting across a section of the field, and he cannot be seen because of a blocked view for a short period. Applin said the child was not nearby, however, during that time period.

APS did acknowledge that time elapsed before school staff reported the incident to school police. After the child told a teacher a man had grabbed her, officials said, the teacher reported to an assistant principal that there was as a man in the parking lot.

School staff searched the grounds and put the school on lockdown. About an hour later, after the student told another school employee the man grabbed and choked her and mentioned a gun, the school contacted APS police.

“Was everything that occurred in this timeline perfect? No. But our students were safe and secure at all times during this period,” Applin said. He said police have not determined why the teacher didn’t immediately report the student’s full claim, but Applin said the school should have called APS police “right away.”

He said the principal has reviewed emergency protocols. There also are plans to install a fence outside the school.

Quinton Seay, an attorney assisting the child’s family, said he’s concerned about student safety and “what looks like a rush to judgment.”

“We’d like to see what the evidentiary basis is for their conclusion that this incident did not occur before we say anything else. We are trying to be prudent and reasonable,” he said.