'Free Cole' controversy takes over Johnston County town


One day after a Johnston County high school senior was expelled for having an unloaded gun on campus, ABC11 learned administrators only suspended an assistant principal at the same school for a similar incident last year.

David "Cole" Withrow is a Princeton High School honors student who was arrested Monday and charged with a felony for having a shotgun in his truck in the school parking lot. Sources told ABC11 the Eagle Scout forgot it was still in the truck after skeet shooting over the weekend.

Once he remembered, he used the phone in the school office to call his mom. Administrators overheard him, and he was arrested and expelled.

ABC11 has uncovered that two school officials both brought guns onto school property in recent years, but were never charged with felonies like Cole.

An assistant principal at Cole's school was suspended for three days, but never criminally charged. She still works in the same position at the school.

"I think it's wrong, if an assistant principal can bring a loaded handgun and doesn't get punished? No, unacceptable," parent Nancy Terry said.

A teacher at another high school in the school district was cited and resigned.

The students and parents in the community are outraged that Cole has received such harsh punishment for what he said was an accident.

"I don't have any problems with the assistant principal, but it's still not fair. Students and teachers should get treated the same," one student said.

The Johnston County Sheriff's Office told ABC11 that if a school administrator brings a gun to school, they will be charged with a misdemeanor. For a student, the charge is an automatic felony.

The school district would only say that they are following the law.

Now "Free Cole" has exploded in the small town thanks to all the people rallying behind the student.

"Everyone makes a mistake, he tried to do the right thing by it and it's upsetting," student Tyler Pope said.

For now, Cole's future is uncertain. He was admitted to Campbell University and East Carolina University to attend school in fall. He was also awarded a scholarship, but because he is currently charged with a felony it is unclear what will happen.

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