Richmond police say a tip about an armed person at a graduation ceremony is what prompted an evacuation Wednesday night at the Altria Theater.
It was supposed to be a joyful moment for parents, teachers and students. Instead, the graduation for Thomas Jefferson High School was evacuated around 8:30 p.m., leaving many confused and panicked.
A spokeswoman for Richmond Public Schools said there was a “safety concern” that caused the evacuation of the building.
A parent, who wanted to remain anonymous, says administrators from the school called her on Thursday. She says he will not be allowed to walk across the stage when his classmates attend the rescheduled graduation on Saturday, because her son is one of the students targeted by a threat on social media.
She's not pleased with that decision.
"This is a big day he was waiting for, so why would you take that away from him?"
RPS says it can't comment on what the parent said, but they released a statement saying, " We are working to ensure that all will be safe at the rescheduled ceremony....We look forward to celebrating all of the TJ graduates and are disappointed that what has transpired has altered what should be a special occasion for everyone."
Local comedian Micah White was the commencement speaker for the ceremony on Wednesday. He saw the evacuation first-hand in the middle of the program.
"I noticed a little movement to the side,” White said. “Everything was very calm though."
White said a man came on stage and told them they had to evacuate the building, and despite the unknown, students and parents followed suit.
"I'm so proud of how the individuals in that space behaved themselves, stayed calm in such a moment,” White said. “The graduates did not allow that moment to mess up what was such a great moment for them."
Students had just given their speeches and were about to walk across the stage when police stopped the graduation. The entire building was evacuated - except for the students, who were told to stay in place for more than an hour until the scene was clear.
"It did not destroy those kids' excitement about what they had accomplished or their parents," White said.
Several parents said there was a "credible threat" that led to the evacuation. One person said she saw a social media post from someone saying they would start shooting just as soon as the graduates exited the building.
"You just never know how far someone will go, so you have to follow protocol,” White said. “I think last night it was followed in such a professional manner, and again how it started set the tone for how things happened afterwards."
Thomas Jefferson’s graduation was rescheduled to 10 a.m. Saturday at the Altria Theater. A spokesman said they would pick up in the ceremony where they left off, with the valedictorian speech followed by the diplomas.
Another concerned family member said, "I won’t be back. Too much drama. Just give my nephew his diploma."
"Student safety is always a top priority and RPS looks forward to celebrating the graduates of Thomas Jefferson High School," RPS released in a statement.
As more graduations happen across the area, you will continue to see a large security presence.
"As someone who works in security, I think it's just fine,” said Walter Scott Burton III, who was attending a graduation at the Siegel Center Thursday. “I think they're taking the necessary measures without overstepping their bounds. I think they're doing all right, as far as I'm concerned."
Families who attended graduation ceremonies at the Siegel Center Thursday had to go through metal detectors and get their bags searched.
VCU Police said the remaining ceremonies will continue as scheduled and security measures will remain in place.
"There are police everywhere and I'm sure they've done their work," said Augustine, who was attending a graduation.
"I don't have any concerns,” said Betsy Garrison, also attending a graduation. “I'm very positive and I think everything is going to go well."
A spokeswoman for RPS said no final decisions have been made regarding changes to security measures for the remaining graduations, and they are investigating the incident at the Altria Theater.
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