Tuesday January 29, 2013

Security concern prompts police, locked doors at area schools

BRATTLEBORO -- Locked doors, police cruisers and watchful staff greeted students throughout Windham County Monday morning in response to what administrators characterized as a possible security threat.

But what that threat was -- and when or how it may have occurred -- remained unclear.

The lack of specifics and a last-minute warning prompted some parents to complain and, in large numbers, to keep their kids at home. But the top administrator in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, where the warning originated, said he did the best he could after consulting with Brattleboro officials.

"They were on high alert," Superintendent Ron Stahley said. "After running through the situation with them, we felt it made sense to take precautionary measures."

Brattleboro Town Manager Barbara Sondag released a statement Monday, stating the town first heard about a possible security issue on Friday afternoon.

"Town officials were notified that a person who had previously made nonspecific threats regarding school-age people might be returning to the area," Sondag stated. "Taking the threats seriously, representatives from police, fire and town administration met to develop a response plan."

Sondag’s statement made reference to December’s school shooting that left 20 students and six adults dead at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

"Since the recent tragedy at Newtown, we are extremely sensitive to possible threats to our children and will respond in a proactive manner," the town’s press release stated. "While we live in a time that requires us to be watchful, the individual in question has violated no laws and our response must therefore be balanced."

Brattleboro police Chief Gene Wrinn confirmed that his department had not undertaken any criminal probe in connection with any school-related threat.

"Right now, there is nothing to investigate," Wrinn said.

While not disclosing any details about the person in question, Wrinn also sought to reassure the public that no school or group of students had been targeted.

"There were no specific threats regarding any of the schools at all," Wrinn said. "The problem is, in this age, (with) any type of threat -- there needs to be a response."

That response was what Stahley characterized as "securing the buildings."

That differs from a lockdown, officials said. A lockdown is an extreme set of measures -- for instance, locking children in classrooms -- designed as an emergency response.

But on Monday, Stahley said he simply asked that all exterior school doors be secured throughout the supervisory union. This did not represent a change at some facilities: Steve Perrin, Brattleboro Union High School principal, noted that the school’s doors already are locked.

Officials said they also requested and received a larger police presence near school buildings on Monday.

"They’re out in the schools and visible," Stahley said.

That display included Brattleboro police, state police and the Windham County Sheriff’s Department, where deputies who already were on patrol made time for school visits.

"We just asked them to stop in at the schools," Sheriff Keith Clark said. "We didn’t change anything."

The precautions spread to the county’s other three supervisory unions. Windham Central Superintendent Steven John said all buildings’ exterior doors were locked.

There also was a police presence "in the vicinity of Marlboro and NewBrook (elementary schools) because they are the closest to Brattleboro," John said.

Officials in Windham County’s southwest and northeast supervisory unions took similar measures. Christopher Kibbe, the northeast superintendent, said it is standard practice that all of the union’s school doors are locked.

"The difference (on Monday) is, there’s a little bit higher level of alert than usual" for staff members, Kibbe said.

He added that the northeast union staff had heard from some concerned parents.

"We did have some calls early in the morning," Kibbe said. "We’ve gotten back to everyone who called."

In the southeast union, however, administrators’ attempts to notify parents about the situation created some controversy. Some parents received robocalls late Sunday evening.

"They knew about this on Friday, sent the message on Sunday night and released no details that might empower parents to make safe decisions for their children," one resident wrote in a post on the Reformer Facebook page. "I think our educators are amazing and dedicated people, but I think the WSESU and the authorities handled this appallingly poorly."

Stahley offered apologies for the delayed notifications.

"That was not our intent," he said.

Stahley said school administrators from throughout the supervisory union were conferring in an effort to develop a "consistent message" to send to parents over the weekend.

"I was trying to gather information on Saturday. Unfortunately, our e-mail system was down," Stahley said. "As a result of technical problems, (robocall notifications) were delayed."

The late notification also impacted how the threat information was disseminated in other ways. Reformer Editor Tom D’Errico said he decided to initially post the news on the newspaper’s less-formal Facebook site while waiting for more information before publishing updates in the printed edition.

"We were trying to be very sensitive when this news first came to light Sunday night in the newsroom. Above all, we wanted to be able to provide information in context," D’Errico said. "Aside from the robocall parents were already receiving, no other officials were available at that time."

In light of the security concerns and uncertainty, Stahley said he respects the decisions made by numerous parents who kept their kids away from school on Monday. He estimated that absenteeism reached 40 to 50 percent.

But he added, "We wouldn’t open schools if we didn’t think they were safe."

It is not clear how long the tighter school security will continue. Stahley said the same measures would be in place on Tuesday but could not speculate further.

"I’m not sure how long it’s going to last," he said.

As the day drew to a close at Brattleboro Union High School, Perrin said officials were preparing another phone notification for parents "to kind of acknowledge that it’s been a rough day and to let them know we’re going to continue our safety protocols."

The icing on the cake for that "rough day" was a broken sprinkler pipe inside the Fairground Road educational complex at 3 p.m. Monday. The building was evacuated for about 10 minutes, Perrin said.

With only about 60 percent of the student body present on Monday, Perrin said teachers were forced to change their lesson plans.

"I think the teachers adapt," he said. "There’s a natural frustration, because they want to teach."

Perrin also said he’s hoping that things can return to normal soon.

"We’re glad that (parents) trust us. We’re glad they’re patient with us," he said. "And we’re ready to get back to business.".