Unified board debriefs after lockdown

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An Essex Jct. firefighter guides traffic after the lockdown at Essex High School on April 12. (File photo by Colin Flanders)

As the investigation into the April lockdown at Essex High School continues, law enforcement and state education representatives met with the unified school board earlier this month to reflect on lessons learned.

The April 12 incident began when a male suspect informed Essex police he intended to harm EHS students with weapons and explosives. The call sent all Essex Jct. schools into an hours-long lockdown while more than a dozen police and emergency response agencies rushed to the high school.

The Chittenden Central Supervisory Union updated parents via messages over the next 12 hours as police swept the building’s interior and exterior. The next day, police determined the event was a so-called “swatting” incident, in which a caller reports a fictitious threat to create a large law enforcement response.

Still, the event represented real fears for many parents and gauged the capacity of both school officials and police to respond to emergency situations.

“As the person ultimately responsibility for public safety in this community, I was very satisfied with the response,” Essex Police Chief Brad LaRose said. “Not just from law enforcement — we drill this in different ways all the time — but the schools. The school folks did exactly what was supposed to happen. The students were just outstanding.”

LaRose told the board he couldn’t say much about the investigation but stressed it’s ongoing.

“This isn’t over. It’s very complicated, and we’re making progress, let me just leave it at that,” he said.

LaRose was joined by Vt. Agency of Education’s school safety liaison Rob Evans, EHS principal Rob Reardon, Center for Technology, Essex director Bob Travers and superintendents Mark Andrews and Judith DeNova for the debriefing.

DeNova said CCSU administrators and building leaders met April 18 to review the incident. They praised law enforcement’s response and determined their well-practiced contingency plans had prepared students and faculty for the situation.

“Schools are a safe place because we drill,” DeNova said. “This is where we teach students what to do in an emergency, and people did what they practiced and it paid off.”

As proof, she pointed to the schools’ speedy reaction — EHS and CTE were fully locked down 13 minutes after police received the initial call — and feedback from parents, who said they felt their children were safe and well-cared for during the incident.

DeNova then commended EHS and CTE on their dismissal process, which began at 2:05 p.m. and ended over an hour later. She said the schools released one class at a time, checking each name off a roster for accountability.

DeNova also highlighted areas to improve, including an upgraded PA system, since some students couldn’t hear the lockdown announcement from the bathroom, as well as translation services for the alert messaging.

She also accepted responsibility for a miscommunication that allowed some students and faculty to leave the classroom before armed officers finished clearing the hallways.

Knowing many students couldn’t access bathrooms, and in some cases food or water, DeNova said she was anxious to make the transition from lockdown to lockout.

DeNova sent out the message 12 minutes after police swept the building, but even though it came after police confirmed there was no threat, some officers didn’t get the message due to “dead spots” in the building, she said.

“People had the unfortunate experience of having armed people … go through the protocol of what police do when somebody is moving in that kind of an event,” DeNova said.

“I am sorry for that fearful time,” she continued.

LaRose said communication issues are historically challenging in significant emergency responses, and police will emphasize verifying lockdown-to-lockout messages in the future.

DeNova said the district is researching a state grant to purchase an app that allows cell phones to access radio frequencies. Every administrator will also have an app to access every security camera in the district, she added.

“Had I had it on my phone at the time, I could have done a secondary check of hallways to make sure they’re clear,” DeNova said.

The board also briefly discussed parents’ role in emergency situations.

Essex Fire Chief Charlie Cole escorts a preschooler from CTE’s day program after the lockdown May 12. (File photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

CCSU’s initial message asked families to not go to the high school, though up to 60 parents were posted on Old Colchester Road by noon, with others located by Essex Rescue. Many parents kept in contact with their children via text messages, others briefly speaking on the phone.

Board member Marla Durham said she was shocked to see the latter and wondered how the board could educate the community on emergency protocols.

Most students keep their cell phones on silent, board member Kim Gleason said, and the ability to communicate with their children reassured some parents.

Evans, the safety liaison, added parents must wait for additional directions from the school instead of showing up.

“But there is an opportunity to educate families and parents and caretakers about what they’re supposed to do and not do during an emergency,” Evans said.

Travers, noting his tech center had preschool students attending a day program, said his preschool supervisor texted every parent to let them know their children were safe. It’s an example of the delicate balance the district must strike between safety and assurance.

And, for the parents of those young children, the boundary around the school likely felt like it was “miles away from where their kids were,” he said.