School lockdown incident over swine flu
BLAUVELT, New York (WABC) -- The unassuming suburban New York school superintendent who tackled and disarmed a gunman in a middle school said Wednesday that the confrontation amounted to "an unfortunate distraction."
South Orangetown Central School District Superintendent Ken Mitchell also said he was embarrassed by parents, police and politicians calling him a hero after his battle with a parent - and former New York City police officer - upset over the school's swine flu policy.
"I don't see it as heroic," he said at a news conference outside the district's middle school in Blauvelt, about 22 miles north of New York City. "I think I had to respond based on the circumstances that presented themselves, and I don't know how else I could have responded."
Mitchell said that after the lockdown prompted by Tuesday's incident at the district's middle school, he was glad the school could get back to educating children on Wednesday.
"This has been an unfortunate distraction," he said in his first public comments about the fight.
Mitchell was the toast of Orangetown after Tuesday's confrontation with Peter Cocker, 37, of Tappan, a former New York City policeman. Cocker has a sick child and apparently was upset over a letter Mitchell wrote about swine flu policy.
The letter told parents that absenteeism was rising but the district was following the Rockland County Health Department's advice not to close schools.
District spokeswoman B.J. Greco said Cocker's child has been home sick but has not been tested for swine flu.
Mitchell said he had spoken with Cocker by phone earlier Tuesday. When the man came into his office with a handgun, "My goal was to persuade the individual to cooperate and end the situation safely for all involved," he said.
Nobody was injured.
Cocker was charged Tuesday with kidnapping, coercion and burglary.
Chief Kevin Nulty of the Orangetown police, whose jurisdiction includes Blauvelt, said Crocker stormed past a security guard, who saw the gun and called police.
When officers arrived, they found the superintendent's office locked and heard sounds of struggle, Nulty said. They shot out the door handle and seized Cocker, whom Mitchell had disarmed and pinned to the floor, the chief said.
Mitchell said Wednesday that prosecutors have warned him not to discuss specifics, but he said Cocker had pointed the gun at him. He admitted being frightened during the confrontation and rattled afterward.
"I'm a human being and I think most human beings would be shaking," he said. The former hockey goalie and coach said he thought of his wife and two daughters while he was being threatened, and afterward wanted only to spend the evening with them - and the Stanley Cup finals.
Sixth-grader Caroline Klepper said Wednesday that when the lockdown was announced, "At first, I just thought it was a drill." The 11-year-old said pupils huddled in a corner of the classroom, away from the door and windows, scared but calm.
Mitchell "did an outstanding job," Nulty said. Town Supervisor Thom Kleiner called Mitchell's actions "an incredible bit of bravery and heroism."
Cocker was a New York Police Department officer from 1993 to 2004, when he retired on disability. The NYPD would not give details of the disability or describe his assignments. A phone listing for Cocker was not immediately available.
At his arraignment Tuesday, Cocker said his gun wasn't loaded. Police did not immediately return a call for comment on that claim Wednesday. Prosecutor Dominic Crispino said Cocker threatened to shoot Mitchell in the heart.
Mitchell said Wednesday, "If I had thought this was an unloaded gun I probably would have just walked out of the office."
Cocker was ordered jailed. He did not have a lawyer and no plea was entered.
Outside the school, parents praised the superintendent. Tom Marren, a New York City police captain who has two sons in the school, said the superintendent did a "great, heroic job. It's an honor to have him."
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