Lexington teacher said gun in car was ‘mistake,’ asks for her job back
The Lexington 1 school board voted unanimously Tuesday to affirm the firing of a River Bluff High School teacher arrested for having a gun on campus.
After an 8-hour hearing into last year’s incident and more than an hour of discussion behind closed doors, the board backed Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait’s decision to fire teacher Susan Horton, finding “good and just cause for the notice of determination.”
“The evidence submitted showed willful violation of policy by having weapons on campus,” board member Brent Powers said in reading out the board’s decision at the district office in Lexington. District administration will now draw up a formal written order for the board to approve at a later date.
A computer science teacher, Horton had appealed her firing in a public hearing before the school board.
Horton was arrested at River Bluff on Dec. 2 when police found an unsecured gun in Horton’s car on the high school campus. Lexington police were following up on a tip they received that the 54-year-old Horton had told her students that she always kept a gun in her car.
Horton told officers she was a concealed weapons permit holder, but the gun was not in a locked or secured compartment within her vehicle as required by law, police said. Police said Horton’s gun was found in her purse on the passenger side floorboard.
Horton was arrested at the scene, taken to the Lexington County Detention Center, and released on a $2,500 personal recognizance bond.
The gun was not the only weapon Horton had on her at the time, board members heard. She also had a machete in the car, which she told administrators she kept in her car for self defense. She also had a box-cutter-like implement on her key chain as well as an approximately 2-inch pocket knife. Assistant Principal Tradd Denny said a student carrying such items would have faced disciplinary action leading to a potential expulsion.
There was no real dispute at Tuesday’s hearing about any of the details of what happened on that day five months earlier. Police, school administrators and Horton herself testified about events in a trial-like atmosphere, answering questions under oath from attorneys for the school district and the teacher.
River Bluff School Resource Officer Donnie Hare said the fact Horton shared that she kept a gun in her car was enough to raise security concerns since it would make her car a more likely target for a break-in. He noted that several days after Horton’s arrest, a former student was arrested while trespassing on campus in the same area where Horton had been parked.
Hare said he was aware Horton had a concealed weapons permit because they had spoken about it before, and that he had previously emailed her a copy of the statute when she asked about the law around carrying her gun.
Horton told administrators that on at least one occasion, she sent a student to retrieve items from her car, and had a student help her move Christmas decorations from her car the morning of her arrest.
Horton’s attorney, Ryan Hicks, got all witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing to say that Horton would have been within her legal rights to have the gun in her car if it had been placed into a sealed compartment. Hicks even argued Horton’s purse met the legal definition of placing the gun in a “closed container with an integral fastener,” such as a zipper. The police testified that the purse was unzipped when it was removed from the car.
Principal Jacob Smith said that besides the gun, the fact that she had a machete in her car raised safety concerns of its own.
“I grew up watching ‘Friday the 13th,’” Smith said. “If you know Jason Voorhees, that’s his primary weapon of choice.”
Hicks disputed that assessment, arguing that the machete was never removed from Horton’s car and that the identification was only made by Lexington Police Cpl. Nick Beza, a certified knife defense instructor, because he saw a handle between the seat and the center console. Horton was not charged with any offense related to the machete.
In her testimony, Horton called the machete a “$5 garden implement I bought at Walmart” that she used to cut plants.
Horton told board members she could not recall telling students about her concealed weapons permit except during a general discussion of personal safety, and said she never discussed guns at all except when discussing hunting with students who are hunters.
Since receiving the tip, River Bluff administrators said two students have told them about Horton mentioning the gun in her car.
Horton said she takes concerns about student safety very seriously, and has discussed with her class what they should or could do to protect themselves in the event of a school shooting.
“I know my students like my own children, and I want them to feel like school is a happy, positive place,” Horton said. “I don’t just frivolously live my life without thinking about these things.”
Horton said she had placed the gun in her purse earlier that week and forgot it was in there, partly because she got sick with suspected food poisoning the night she put the gun there. She never brought her purse to class with her and only had it in her car that day because of some planned activity outside of school. She said she only remembered the gun on the day of her arrest, after Smith had asked her if she had any weapons but before she brought her cutting tools to the principal’s office at his request.
“The only two beings who knew it was in my purse that day were God and Satan,” she said. “I thought about whether I could go and move it, but that would be disingenuous. I made a mistake that was not intentional, and I trusted them and thought I was in a safe space and I thought that my gun was secure.”
Horton said she was surprised to be arrested and had to spend the night in the county jail before she could see a judge. She’s since completed pre-trial intervention and is trying to get her arrest expunged, Horton said.
“I love my job, my school, my students. They’re my community,” she said. “If I had moved my gun a few feet from one container to another, it would all be OK.”
Postlewait, the district superintendent, said one reason she recommended firing Horton is that Horton maintains she did “nothing significantly wrong.”
“I asked her if she could see the point of view of the principal, the assistant principal, and the SROs,” Postlewait said. “She maintained that the law was on her side and she did not concede that there was a safety concern.”