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Pope Elementary Principal Qvonda Birdsong: 'It could have been another Sandy Hook'

6:21 PM, Feb 12, 2013   |    comments
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Lakeland, FL -- It could have been another Sandy Hook.

Those are the chilling words from the principal at a Polk County elementary school who was attacked in her office at the start of school day.

After the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., Pope Elementary and other schools stepped up security.

And yet a man managed to walk into the school just at the same time parents were dropping off their kids on Monday. It didn't take long to realize he was no parent. He was big trouble.

"Hitting me. I mean, [he was] hitting me with his fists," said Qvonda Birdsong, the principal at Oscar J. Pope Elementary.

Birdsong says her attacker, 42-year-old Elester Trudell, verbally and physically attacked in her office. 

Why? She still has no idea.

"At that point it was almost surreal, because it happened so quick," said Birdsong.

Trudell, she says, had walked onto campus as the children were arriving for school on Monday. He may have appeared to be one of the kids' parents, entering the school through a side door used mostly by teachers.

They say that door will now will be kept locked.

Trudell, arraigned in court Tuesday, is no stranger to the legal system. He has a long list of prior arrests on drug and theft charges.

Although none of the school's 500 students were ever harmed or involved, the incident has been very troubling for some parents, whose children were afraid to go back to school the following day.

Ellen Tefoe, whose daughter is just 6, told her mom she was scared someone would try to kill the students.

"I'm not happy with this at all," said Tefoe, "And if I can get her out of this school, I would."

Investigators say a custodial worker helped protect Birdsong from Trudell until a sheriff's deputy - coincidentally on patrol nearby - was flagged down.

Trudell, cornered in the school office, was arrested.

The man responsible for ensuring safety at Polk schools Greg Bondurant, says he gets it.

"You know, what if he'd have had a gun or a knife?" he said after seeing Trudell in the back of a squad car acting "crazy".

In response, parents and students will now only be allowed to use the main entrance and other doors to the school will remain locked, as they have been since the shootings in Newtown.

Pope Elementary currently shares a deputy with a nearby middle school, but there is no plan, says Bondurant, to hire additional armed security.

"Well, it takes resources and we don't have it," he said.

Principal Birdsong says frankly, even if they did have the financial resources, she'd prefer not having armed guards at school. She questions the real effectiveness of it, and the impression it might leave on her young students.

"Because if a kid can't feel safe here at school, where can they feel safe?" she said.

Birdsong believes this was an isolated incident, but she says she will review the school's procedures. It's impossible to ignore what happened.

"Do I wish we could just kinda change a few things here and go back to life as normal, yes," she said, "but there'll be a lot of changes."

Birdsong says she still has no idea what Trudell's motive was for coming to the school.

His only connection they are aware of, she says, is that he was a student there more than 30 years ago.

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