Jesse Randall Davidson wasn’t a stranger, some mysterious threat from the outside. He was a bearded, bespectacled, 53-year-old social studies teacher and the play-by-play announcer for the football games at Dalton High School in northwest Georgia.
But when the teacher brought a gun to school, barricaded himself in his classroom Wednesday and fired a single shot, students quickly recognized that this wasn’t just a sad local incident.
Amid national outrage over school shootings — and suggestions by President Trump that schools would be safer if some teachers packed guns — it was a political event.
“my favorite teacher at Dalton high school just blockaded his door and proceeded to shoot,” a 16-year-old student named Chondi Chastain tweeted at the National Rifle Assn., earning more than 17,000 retweets. “We had to run out The back of the school in the rain. Students were being trampled and screaming. I dare you to tell me arming teachers will make us safe.”
The political winds around gun control have changed — in large part because U.S. high school students are learning from one another how to influence national policy debates.
It started with the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Since then, students around the country have been watching their Parkland peers use their personal experiences — and social media — to directly challenge Republican lawmakers and the NRA over gun control.
It wasn’t immediately clear what had driven the teacher kids called “Mr. Davidson” to act violently.
When students came to his door at room 413 during third period — a time his classroom is normally empty — it was locked, and Davidson wouldn’t let them in, police said later.
“My brother, who was one door down from the teacher, said he was yelling at his students to ‘get the [expletive] out of here,’ ” junior Henry Hansen, 17, wrote in a private message on Twitter.
The principal, Steve Bartoo, tried to unlock the door with a key, but Davidson “slammed the door before I could open it and said, ‘Don’t come in here, I have a gun,’ ” Bartoo said at a televised news conference.
Bartoo put the school into lockdown mode, and soon after, Davidson “apparently fired a shot from a handgun through an exterior window of the classroom,” Dalton police spokesman Bruce Frazier said at a separate news conference. “It did not appear that it was aimed at anybody.”
Fear quickly took over, and once again students at an American school wondered whether they were about to get murdered while trying to get their education.
“A bunch of kids started screaming and running into our cafeteria and to the back door,” Chondi wrote in a private message on Twitter. “I was really scared and left my stuff. I tripped over a chair on my way out and thought I would be trampled, but someone helped me up.”
Another student hurt her ankle while running away. Outside the school, Junior ROTC members directed frightened students to another nearby school, Chondi said.
Dalton police, the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office, the Georgia State Patrol and federal law enforcement agencies all responded to the emergency. “More or less everybody with a badge in the area came running,” Frazier said.
After about half an hour, Davidson surrendered and was taken into custody to face charges of aggravated assault, carrying a weapon on school grounds, terroristic threats, reckless conduct, possession of a gun during commission of a crime and disrupting public school, police said.
The incident showed the extent to which the Parkland students have influenced their peers across the U.S. and created a model for other students to follow.
The Dalton students immediately turned to social media to take issue with Trump’s calls to arm teachers.
“I’m a Dalton High School student,” tweeted one student, earning more than 4,000 retweets. “Please don’t tell me a damn thing about arming teachers. Please don’t tell me that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.”
“So are we still going to give teachers guns?” tweeted another. “I’m on the bus evacuating Dalton high school.”
Some of the Dalton students’ messages were retweeted by the Parkland students, who have amassed large followings on social media.
“To all Dalton High School students: I am so sorry,” tweeted one Parkland student. “We are together in this. Your school is a living example of why teachers shouldn’t be armed. If anyone needs someone to talk to, please dm [private message] me. I’m here for you.”
The Florida shooting, which left 17 students and faculty members dead, had been a hot subject of conversation at the Dalton school before the incident, students said.
“no need to arm teachers with guns,” junior Wesley Caceres, 16, wrote in a private message on Twitter after posting video of students fleeing the school. “it’s time for trump to do his job.”
Police said it was not clear when Davidson, who has taught at the school since 2004, brought the gun to school. Teachers are “not supposed to have guns” at the school, school district spokeswoman Haley Charlton said, adding that the school also has a school resource officer on campus.
Davidson, who served as a sports and news director at WBLJ-AM radio before becoming a teacher, did not appear to have a criminal history, and his Facebook feed is mostly filled with lighthearted posts.
The school honored him as a “STAR teacher” in 2012 and published a blog post about how Davidson had found a “happy medium” as a teacher and sports broadcaster at the district.
Chondi, who tweeted at the NRA, used Davidson as an example for why she thought arming teachers was a bad idea.
“Sure, they can go through background checks and make sure they’re mentally stable, but things can happen,” she said. “You never know what can cause someone to break. Mr. Davidson seemed completely fine. He was nice and funny and a great teacher. He hadn’t committed a crime. You never know what’s going on inside a person’s head.”
Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.