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Lessons learned: Weston High School goes into lockdown

SCH-high-schoolThe lockdown and subsequent evacuation at Weston High School last week didn’t quite make the grade.

Parents and students complained about overlooked classrooms, communication problems, and late dismissals.

Superintendent Colleen Palmer and Weston Police Chief John Troxell acknowledged things didn’t go as smoothly as they could have and said valuable lessons were learned from the experience.

“This is the first time with a real lockdown situation on the heels of Newtown, and we understand the high level of emotions and fears everyone had,” Dr. Palmer said.

Events

The events on Wednesday, Feb. 27, unfolded as follows according to Dr. Palmer and Chief Troxell.

Around 11 a.m., a hand-written note with several lines of text containing references to staff and students dying was discovered on the floor in a hallway of the high school by a staff member.

The note was given to a Weston police officer who was at the school at the time. The note mentioned “25 people,” but there was no specific “hit list” nor was any staff member or student mentioned by name.

The police immediately began an investigation. After tracking down a lead that did not go any further, the school was placed in a lockdown at 12:15 p.m. as a precautionary measure. A full lockdown means people must stay where they are and can not exit or enter a classroom.

The three other Weston public schools were not placed in lockdown as the unconfirmed threat was confined to the high school.

Police called for assistance to conduct a search of the school. Officers from Westport, Wilton, Redding, and Easton responded, as well as members of the Connecticut State Police. The state brought in firearms-sniffing dogs to search for gunpowder. None was found.

At about 1:15, the school was evacuated and students and staff were moved to the middle and intermediate schools so a search of the high school could be conducted.

The school was searched and no threatening items were found.

All after-school activities were canceled. Students were dismissed on buses from the middle and intermediate schools. Students who drove to school were escorted to their cars by police.

Later in the day, police announced there was a juvenile male person of interest in the case. The threatening note was sent to a state forensics lab for evaluation.

An investigation is ongoing, but as of The Forum’s press deadline, no arrests had been made.

Overlooked classrooms 

All did not go smoothly with the evacuation, and several classrooms were overlooked. A student who did not want to be identified said her classroom was not evacuated until after an “All Clear” announcement was made over the intercom and police let them out.

The student said several classmates grew agitated and started crying while they were waiting, not having heard anything over the intercom about the situation for more than 90 minutes.

With the events of the Sandy Hook shootings on everyone’s minds, she said students were scared because they didn’t know what was going on.

Dr. Palmer said several classrooms were indeed overlooked during the evacuation. “In the process of releasing the school from a lockdown, police go room to room to say the lockdown is over. It took too long to notify each classroom, and during the first wave of going through the building, several classrooms were overlooked,” she said.

To remedy that problem, she said, the schools are developing a plan so there is redundancy during an evacuation to make sure each room is accounted for.

Chief Troxell added that too little information was given over the intercom telling classes what was going on and those protocols would also be reviewed.

First selectman weighs in

On Thursday, the day after the lockdown, First Selectman Gayle Weinstein had a few grievances.

She said she was not kept in the loop about what was going on and received information at the same time other parents did — information that was not disseminated in a timely manner.

“It’s so essential for the schools to put out as much information as they can as quickly as possible, because they have to understand we [parents] are hearing from our kids on a regular basis” through text messages and on outlets like Facebook, she said.

“The rumor mill was spreading like crazy that there was a ‘kill list,’” Ms. Weinstein said. One of her sons sent her a text from the high school during the lockdown saying, “Mom, you have to find out who’s on the kill list” and students were posting on Facebook that 25 students and teachers were on a list, she said.

Information like that coming from their kids inside the school combined with near silence from the school district or police meant “many parents were panicked,” Ms. Weinstein said.

Parents were eventually told through the school district’s email blast service that high school students would be picked up by buses or allowed to drive home starting at about 2 p.m. But, Ms. Weinstein said, most did not make it home until after 4 p.m., and parents were not given updated information.

“The only message I received about it was a text from my son saying, ‘The police are not letting us leave,’” Ms. Weinstein said, adding she had no idea at that time if that was because there was still a danger or if there was some other problem.

Dr. Palmer admitted there was a problem with communications which may have caused undue stress on some families.

As the lockdown progressed, emails to parents from the administration suddenly came to a halt.

The district’s wireless Internet service failed, Dr. Palmer said, after it was overwhelmed by a huge number of cell phones and handheld devices being used all at once by students and staff.

“It interrupted our ability to send out communications. We didn’t realize this number of users would exceed our bandwidth. Now that we know this limitation, we have added two levels of redundancy so it never happens again,” she said.

Dismissal

A problem also arose with dismissal. After the school was evacuated at 1:15, students were sent to the middle and intermediate schools to be dismissed. But it took a long time and some students did not get home until after 4 p.m.

One of the reasons for the delay was that School Road was blocked in part by cars, and buses had a difficult time getting to the students, Dr. Palmer said.

She said the schools and police are working together to come up with an off-site staging area for parents during emergencies.

“School Road is narrow and there was gridlock caused by parents who drove to the school to pick up their children. We need to let parents know not to pick them up until they are told an appropriate time to do so,” she said.

First selectman/police chief

To complicate matters, a disagreement arose between Chief Troxell and First Selectman Weinstein when she showed up at the high school during the lockdown.

The chief referred to their disagreement as “a matter of semantics.” Their discussion got so heated, he said he told her to leave the scene. (Ms. Weinstein could not be reached for comment about this issue as she was out of the country until after The Forum’s deadline.)

Chief Troxell explained that no civilians were allowed on the scene, including Ms. Weinstein, which is why he told her to leave. Because juveniles were on the scene at the school, including a juvenile person of interest, he said there were privacy issues that needed to be maintained. Since the  first selectman was a parent of high school students, he said he needed her to leave in order to maintain privacy.

He compared this incident to the Scott DeiCas matter from a few years ago, which involved a former school bus driver who threatened town and school employees. Since that case was a direct threat to the town of Weston from an outside entity, he said the first selectman as the town’s chief elected official, was immediately brought into the investigation. “But they are two  different types of matters,” he said.

“We were in the middle of a serious investigation. There are certain times when people have to be patient under those circumstances. We came to an impasse in our conversation and I had to refocus on the investigation,” he said.

Despite their disagreement, the chief said things can be worked out with the first selectman. “We have our ups and downs about things but overall I’ve been very happy with our working relationship,” he said.

Lessons learned

The police department and schools will have a major debriefing to review issues with the lockdown.

But despite areas that need improvement, Chief Troxell believes a decent job was done overall. “We had zero casualties,” he said.

He called it a “learning experience” for school staff, police, and school security. “We’re not perfect but we are addressing issues with our best training. There will be some trial and error, but there will be continuous improvement,” he said.

Dr. Palmer said police had the ultimate authority and control over the event. She commended the police for their support.

“While we never would have planned a lockdown in this manner, we hope we can learn from this experience,” she said.

She also commended students and staff for an orderly evacuation. “There were teachers and staff members who even volunteered to ride the buses home if necessary. Some people went beyond the call of duty to ensure the safety of our students,” she said.

This story has been updated and edited to correct and clarify Chief Troxell’s comments.

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