Russell Furr smiled when he saw his school administrator walking toward him March 8. The South Carroll High School senior had just picked up his cap and gown and thought he was about to be congratulated for improving his grades enough to graduate.
Instead, the school official escorted Furr to the office, where his mother was waiting.
"Hand over any school property you have with you," Patricia Furr told her son, who dug two textbooks out of his backpack and gave them to the administrator. "We're going home."
It wasn't until his mother pulled over on the side of the road to talk to him that Furr learned what was going on. School administrators had called his parents, telling them Furr needed professional help based on a conversation he had had a month earlier with a crisis counselor.
Disappointed that the school would take such action after their son made what he believed was a private plea for help, Patricia and Robert Furr pulled him out of school to let the situation blow over.
It never did.
Within days, police were investigating rumors of a hit list and interviewing students about classmates Furr might have threatened. He was suspended, arrested and charged with threatening to kill or seriously harm several students. He was also charged with misdemeanor assault and disrupting school activities.
Last week, after spending six weeks on court-ordered home detention, a juvenile master ordered him to serve probation after he entered an Alford plea, which allowed him to maintain his innocence while acknowledging the evidence against him likely would have led to a conviction. Now, Furr and his family hope that talking about their experience will prevent other students from having to go through similar trauma.
In this post-Columbine era, as school districts grapple with ways to root out violent students before their towns become the dateline for the next school shooting, Furr's is the story of one family who says Carroll County got it all wrong.
Regarding the threats, Robert Furr, an operations manager with a real estate company, said in an interview after last week's hearing in juvenile court, "The fact that a couple of kids have words with each other in the hallway one day shouldn't cost parents $15,000 and a kid his high school education. It just shouldn't. I understand that there are things going on in the world that make school systems worry, but it seems to me that things should start off slowly. This thing started off in third gear."
South Carroll High Principal George Phillips declined to comment on the school's handling of the incident, saying he cannot talk about student discipline matters.
Cynthia Little, the school system's pupil services director, also would say little. "They certainly are entitled to their belief," she said of the Furrs' complaints that the school overreacted. "I do think we acted appropriately and we are going to continue to handle any threats made in the school system in a serious manner."
Two days after Furr's parents pulled their son out of school, they received a letter saying he had been suspended and that the matter would be referred to the police. "To sit there and watch your son be handcuffed and nine state troopers go through your house and spend three hours looking for something we knew did not exist is the biggest nightmare you could ever go through," said Patricia Furr, a hospital director.
Furr described his detention as boring and isolating. He spent his days reading and watching television while rumors swirled around school about an alleged "hit list" of Furr's potential targets and the teen-ager's supposed plot to kill everyone at school on his 18th birthday a la Jason Voorhees in the "Friday the 13th" horror films.
Police never found any such list or any evidence that Furr intended to carry out his threats. Furr said allegations that he drafted the list and rumors about any kind of plot are untrue.
Because the juvenile master directed Furr not to contact anyone who might have a grievance against him, his parents decided it would be best not to talk to anyone from school. For the first 3 1/2 to four weeks, he left his home only for a court hearing, to see his attorney or to go to counseling.
"I wanted to talk to people so bad," Furr said. "My closest, best friends had been interviewed by cops and I couldn't talk to them. I wanted my school work, I wanted to go back to work, and I was worried about how this was affecting other members of my family."
It was concern for his family that persuaded Furr to enter an Alford plea at his hearing Thursday, allowing him to maintain his innocence and skip what likely would have been an intense trial while acknowledging that the evidence against him likely would have led to a conviction.
He and his family refer to the threats only as "exchanging words" or "having words" with other students. His lawyer describes them as "a very technical violation, at best" of school rules.
"Russell, in responding to other people, may have said a couple things," defense attorney Robert N. Smith III said. "But none of the people we could find actually felt threatened by that. They didn't believe he meant it."
Smith and the Furrs would not discuss what Russell Furr told the crisis counselor that provoked the school system, fearing it could be blown out of proportion again.
Senior State's Attorney David P. Daggett, who prosecuted the case, said he doesn't know what was said at that meeting nor does he care. Daggett told the juvenile master that Furr had brought this on himself by making the threats and by his behavior in school.
Now, Furr and his family want to put the ordeal behind them. He wants to finish school through the Internet program he has been using since March and receive his diploma in June. He plans to study creative writing and computers at a community college. His family and friends are planning a party this weekend as a six-weeks-late celebration of Furr's 18th birthday, which was the night he spent in police custody.
"As the mom, it's nice to see Russell smile for the first time in six weeks," Patricia Furr said after Thursday's hearing, as her son bowed his head in embarrassment, just as any other teen-aged boy might. "And he's got a great smile."