The former policeman who authorities say took a gun into a suburban middle school and threatened a superintendent has a sick child and was apparently upset over the district's swine flu policy, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Peter Cocker, 37, was charged with kidnapping, coercion and burglary Tuesday after Superintendent Ken Mitchell wrestled him to the floor and took away his revolver, officials said.
Parents, police and politicians called Mitchell a hero.
B.J. Greco, spokeswoman for the South Orangetown Central School District, said the dispute apparently stemmed from a letter Mitchell sent to parents on Monday.
The letter said absenteeism was rising but the district was following Rockland County Health Department advice not to close schools.
Closing schools, he wrote, "cannot prevent the spread of this disease since it is community wide."
Greco said Cocker has a child at the middle school who is out sick but has not been tested for swine flu and won't be, under county guidelines. She said she did not know Cocker's specific complaint about the letter.
Mitchell, who has not spoken publicly about the confrontation, was not at work Wednesday, Greco said. His office is in the same building as South Orangetown Middle School, which is in the hamlet of Blauvelt about 22 miles north of New York City.
Counseling was being offered to children and staff, Greco said.
Chief Kevin Nulty of the Orangetown police force, whose jurisdiction includes Blauvelt, said Crocker stormed past a security guard Tuesday morning at the single unlocked door to the school. The security guard saw his gun and called police.
When officers arrived, they found the office locked and heard sounds of struggle, Nulty said. They tried to negotiate but when the noise seemed to become more violent, they shot the door handle and seized Cocker, who had been pinned to the floor by Mitchell, the chief said.
Meanwhile, the school was locked down.
"At first, I just thought it was a drill," sixth grader Caroline Klepper said Wednesday. The 11-year-old said pupils huddled in a corner of the classroom, away from the door and windows, scared but calm. School officials tried to reassure them by loudspeaker, she said.
Mitchell "did an outstanding job," Nulty said. Town Supervisor Thom Kleiner called Mitchell's actions "an incredible bit of bravery and heroism."
Former NYPD officer
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.
At his arraignment Tuesday night, Cocker said his gun had not been loaded. Police did not immediately return a call for comment on that claim Wednesday, but prosecutor Dominic Crispino said Cocker threatened to shoot Mitchell in the heart.
Cocker was ordered jailed. He did not have a lawyer and no plea was entered.
Outside the school, parents praised the superintendent. Caroline's mother, Eleanor Klepper, remembered Mitchell playing harmonica at a school event. "Now, he's a hero, too," she said. She added, however, that "Yesterday was terrible."
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."