Purcell reportedly claimed act was to show metal detectors needed
By Shaun Moriarty
Citizen Chronicle Editor
SOUTHBRIDGE — A biology teacher was arrested on Thursday morning after allegedly placing live ammunition in a high school stairwell in an effort to prove a need for metal detectors in the building.
According to the Southbridge Police Department, Southbridge Middle/High School was placed on lockdown for roughly one hour after Alfred J. “AJ” Purcell III, 57, informed school officials that he had found a live round of 9 mm ammunition in a stairwell at approximately 8:12 a.m.
A police department school resource officer reviewed security camera footage with staff and quickly learned Purcell had actually placed the ammunition in the stairwell several minutes before reporting he had found it.
“They observed Mr. Purcell standing in that stairwell by himself, drop that round of ammunition on the floor, [and] quickly walk away,” Police Chief Shane Woodson told reporters. “About 10 minutes later they observed Mr. Purcell come back to that stairwell, stand over that round of ammunition that no one had touched, and it looked like he took a picture of it with his cell phone. Mr. Purcell was then observed picking up his school radio and calling for assistance, claiming that he had found that round of ammunition.”
During the lockdown, Purcell had returned to his classroom, where he would remain until police arrived, asked students to leave the room, and placed him in handcuffs.
“After learning and gathering all that evidence, our police officers arrested Mr. Purcell on scene, transported him to police headquarters, and during the booking process he had said that, he admitted that he had dropped that round of ammunition. He said the reason why he did it is because he believes that the school needs to have metal detectors.”
“I’m appalled,” asserted Dr. Jeffrey Villar, Superintendent/Receiver of Southbridge Public Schools. “This individual acted in a disgusting manner. I feel very badly for our students because its an adult that has failed them. A lot of our children have plenty of hardship and they need adults to help them.”
Villar continued: “It’s absolutely abhorrent that this individual decided to try to make a case in such a manner that demonstrated horrible judgement and really does a massive disservice to our children. They deserve much better.”
Woodson said he has “never seen anything like this” in his career in law enforcement, describing the incident as “very surprising.” He noted that Purcell has no criminal history and proper background checks had been conducted prior to his hiring last summer.
“He’s a teacher, he’s charged with protecting our children. He failed miserably,” Woodson added.
Villar, who cancelled a presentation he was to give at an out-of-state conference Thursday, said students were “clearly disappointed” with Purcell’s alleged actions. Guidance counselors and social workers have been made available for students as the district works to meet the social and emotional needs of students.
“Kids look to adults to protect them,” Villar said. “We had an adult who let down children.”
Live shotgun rounds found in teacher’s trunk
While Purcell was being booked at the police station, officers conducted a search of his vehicle and found 102 live rounds of .20-gauge shotgun ammunition in the trunk. Officials said they do not believe Purcell had any intent to use any ammunition beyond his call for metal detectors.
“We don’t believe … there’s any reason to believe that he planned on committing any acts of violence against the school, the school district, or the children,” said Woodson. “I think he was trying to make a point and he went about it in the wrong way.”
Woodson said that Purcell does have a license to carry in Connecticut, though that state’s license has no reciprocity in Massachusetts, and that it is illegal to have live ammunition on school property regardless of a license to carry.
The lockdown was the second of the week after several spent rounds of ammunition belonging to a student were found on school grounds Tuesday.
Though police said the two lockdowns did not appear to be directly related, Woodson suggested the discovery of used shell casings may have given Purcell the idea to allegedly place the live rounds to demonstrate a need for metal detectors.
“We believe that part of Mr. Purcell’s motive may have been to try to get the schools to get metal detectors because he wasn’t satisfied with the way that we handled that incident on Tuesday,” Woodson said. “If Mr. Purcell felt for some reason the school is not safe, or we were not doing our jobs, or that the administration was not doing theirs, that he could have contacted us and expressed his concerns to us rather than take this into his own hands.”
Asked whether two separate incidents this week would lead to metal detectors being placed in school buildings, Villar would not commit one way or another.
“The question of metal detectors is a pretty large one that, across our nation, has really been grappled with since Columbine. The data on that is very inconclusive,” Villar explained. “Certainly always looking at safety measures is important — we do safety drills, we work with the police on a regular basis, we do lockdown drills, we try to educate staff and children — safety is the number one concern.”
“Certainly as a superintendent of schools I take safety very seriously,” said Villar. I also have high expectations for my teachers, and he’s failed to meet those expectations, so I will exercise everything necessary to make sure our kids are safe.”
Villar said Purcell was receiving assistance “to improve his instruction” and had “struggled with classroom management.” Purcell had been previously notified he would not be brought back as a teacher at Southbridge High School next year, Villar said, suggesting his non-renewal could be a potential motive for his actions.
Purcell has been placed on leave and police have informed he is not allowed on school grounds. Villar pledged to “follow every legal avenue possible.”
Purcell, a resident of Woodstock, Conn., has been charged with two counts of unlawful possession of ammunition; two counts of carrying ammunition on school grounds; disturbing a school assembly; disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace.