Board members Kathy Larsen and Nichole Crafts presented a report on the incident, including a timeline of events and list of suggestions for improving the security policy. Also attached to the report was a letter from Wilmington Police Chief Joe Szarejko in which he praised school officials for their response to the threat, and their decision to resume classes after the building had been searched.
“I feel they (superintendent Nancy Talbott and DVES Principal Rebecca Fillion) made the right decision. There will be other issues such as this that will come up. You have good people there, capable of making a decision quickly, if necessary, with all children’s safety in mind.”
Responding to a review of school security policies that began at the boards’ last meeting, Szarejko said he left the meeting concerned that the board was “looking for things they believed or perceived school officials did wrong,” and not with what they did right. He noted that police policies are updated frequently, but can’t cover every incident officers face on the job.
“Policies cannot replace a quick thinking officer who has to make a decision given the facts they have at the time, often in a very short perod of time. We give officers a little leeway when they have shown good judgment in these situations. There is no place in our job for an officer who doesn’t make a decision and has to call a supervisor every time something is slightly different. That applies here.”
According to Larsen’s timeline of the events that unfolded on the morning of Monday, May 6, the DVES school secretary received an email that included a nonspecific threat to blow up the school at 8:15 am. Fillion called police and the superintendent, and alerted the school’s crisis team, which began to put the school’s crisis policy into action. By 8:23 am, Wilmington and state police had arrived and, along with the crisis team, searched the exterior of the building and the playground “for a safe place to evacuate students.” Nothing suspicious was found outside the building. At 9 am, the building was evacuated, and at 9:05, with Szarejko now on the scene, police searched the interior of the building with the principal, custodian, and two school staff members – people familiar with the school. At 9:35 Szarejko asked the school receptionist to check the automatically generated computer records of entries into the building since Friday – there was no evidence that someone had entered the building over the weekend. Also at that time, Fillion and Szarejko analyzed the email, and concluded that an immediate threat was unlikely. “The content implied that if a certain demand was not met, there would be a device put in the building,” according to the report.
According to discussions at the boards’ last meeting, the email included a demand of ransom for an iPod stolen from the school and a threat that, if the demands weren’t met, the iPod-nappers would “blow up” the school. Two youths have been charged for making the threat.
By 10:15, the search of the interior of the building had been completed and nothing had been found. Talbott, Fillion, and Szarejko met to discuss the situation, and Szarejko’s analysis of the email. He noted that the email didn’t indicate that the sender would actually follow through with the threat. He said he believed it was sent by a student. At the end of the discussion Talbott, in consultation with Fillion, Szarejko, and the crisis team, made the decision to return children to the building and resume classes. Students were back in the building at about 10:50 am.
Parents were notified after the incident, with a message sent through the school’s AlertNow communications system at about 11:05 am. Talbott also wrote a letter informing parents of the incident, which was emailed and sent home with students whose parents weren’t on the email list.
At the board’s May 14 meeting, parent Rebecca Morris expressed concern that the school’s communication efforts were insufficient. Her AlertNow call was garbled, she said, and some parents weren’t notified at all because their cell phones or secondary numbers hadn’t been included in the AlertNow message distribution. She said every parent should have gotten an email, a phone call to all of their phones, and a hard copy of the letter. “It’s not an outrageous thing to ask,” she said at the time.
This week Morris thanked the board for their report, and asked how the school would address communications issues. “I had from 11 am (when she received the garbled message) to 2 pm until I knew what was going on.”
Crafts said suggestions in the report called for improvement to the AlertNow system, including periodic tests, an AlertNow email listserve, and ensuring that AlertNow telephone alerts are distributed to all of the phone numbers that parents have provided. The report also calls for a communication coordinator to be included in the crisis team, as well as an AlterNow coordinator at the middle/high school to coordinate with the elementary school in the event of a security issue.
Other suggestions include posting the AlertNow message on the school website, and having a prerecorded message for the school’s answering machine that can be activated during a security emergency. “This way, if there isn’t anyone inside the school to answer, or if they are unable to answer, at least parents will get some information.”
Morris asked how the public would know that the suggestions had been incorporated into the school’s procedures. “We’ll put this on the action log, it will be handed off to the crisis team, they’ll respond back, and it will stay on the action log until it’s resolved,” he said. Board members and school administrators assured Morris they wouldn’t let the matter drop.
In other matters, board members gave Twin Valley Food Service Director Lonny Paige the go-ahead for a summer food program. It will be the second year of the program, which provides lunch and breakfast to students. The program targets families with students that qualify for free and reduced lunch, but it’s open to all students, including those enrolled in summer programs. Paige said that, this year, the program will only be available at the high school because of construction at the middle and elementary schools. “For me, it will be much easier to have it at one location,” he said. “We’re going to expand the menu a bit, add some hot food and additional cold food.”
Taylor reported that preparations for construction were being made at DVES and TVMS. He said he’s looking for high school or college students home for the summer to assist with the packing and moving at each of the schools. Students would earn about $10 an hour for their efforts.
Taylor said construction at the middle school in Whitingham will begin this summer. Bids have been received for the work, but no contract will be awarded until the bids have been analyzed and compared. He said the process would be similar to the one at Deerfield Valley Elementary School, in which some nonessential project components would be “reserved” until the board can be assured the budget will cover it. In the meantime, he said, the board will be “value engineering” the project. “There’s always room to find better ways of doing things,” he said. “We’ll sit down and go over things like the replacement windows.”