Lack of information during middle school lockdown led to needless ‘terror,’ parents say

photo by: Kim Callahan

Police were called to Lawrence's Liberty Memorial Central Middle School after a reported threat late Tuesday morning, Sept. 24, 2019. The school was put on lockdown, but the threat was determined to be unfounded.

The administration badly mismanaged a lockdown Tuesday at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, causing needless panic and trauma among the young students there, according to some parents familiar with the situation.

“For more than 15 — possibly 20 — minutes” hundreds of children “contemplated their own demise,” said Andrea Albright, the mother of a seventh grader, in a letter she sent to Superintendent Anthony Lewis and the Lawrence school board and shared with the Journal-World.

Lewis acknowledged to the Journal-World on Thursday that the lockdown “was definitely unfortunate and traumatizing.”

“The misstep on our part was how it was communicated,” he said. “There were some holes there that I’m not pleased about,” he added, referring to the lack of information in the interim principal’s initial announcement of a lockdown.

The lockdown at the school, 1400 Massachusetts St., was called, police have said, after students had “voiced concerns to school administrators that another student had possibly brought a gun to school.” Those concerns turned out to be unfounded and based on a “miscommunication,” police later said, but “administrators began questioning the child, and as a precaution, put the school on lockdown.”

Meanwhile, according to sources who contacted the Journal-World, teachers and students were in the dark about the nature of the possible threat and had prepared for the worst — drawing blinds, locking doors, securing classrooms, collecting objects to hurl at an intruder, hiding, crying and frantically texting parents. Albright described to the Journal-World how her son’s teacher positioned himself behind the door with a chair “ready to smash someone over the head if they came through it.”

“A friend of mine reported that her daughter sent messages of love to each family member and then apologized for being mean to her little brother,” Albright said.

The mass anxiety reportedly ensued after interim Principal Sabrina Tillman Winfrey made what some described as a confusing announcement on the intercom. Albright said a teacher told her that the announcement went like this: “May I have your attention please. We are doing an ALICE drill. Wait. This is not a drill. We are following ALICE protocol. Please lock your doors and keep students safe.”

The Journal-World could not confirm the exact substance of the announcement, but Lewis confirmed that the word ALICE was used and that that word in students’ minds “correlates to intruder.”

ALICE refers to Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. It’s a type of training that schools use to “handle the threat of an aggressive intruder or active shooter event,” according to the website.

Winfrey was not available for comment Thursday.

photo by: USD 497/Contributed Photo

Sabrina Tillman Winfrey

It’s not clear why the school, if it had isolated and was questioning the student of interest, would go into ALICE protocol absent an aggressive intruder or active shooter.

“No words came from the office. No emails to the teachers. Nothing over the intercom,” Albright wrote of the failure to communicate after the initial intercom announcement.

In other words, the “I” — inform — in ALICE was missing.

Lewis does not dispute that assessment. He said that in the wake of the announcement there was “radio silence in terms of communicating with staff.”

More information should have accompanied the announcement, Lewis said.

“That didn’t happen and that caused students and teachers to be alarmed,” he said.

Albright said she received a text from her son that the ALICE protocol went into effect at 11:18 a.m. Tuesday. The school received an all-clear announcement around 20 minutes later, and the administration told the school to resume a “normal day,” she said.

But a “normal day” wasn’t possible for many at the school. More than 80 students chose to leave school for the day, according to school district spokeswoman Julie Boyle. A Journal-World reporter observed a steady stream of upset parents pulling up alongside at least seven police vehicles at the school Tuesday to collect their children. For the people who remained at school, the atmosphere was anything but normal, one teacher said, after the intensity of emotion that had accompanied the lockdown — an intensity that was compounded, the teacher said, by the silence surrounding what exactly had occurred.

photo by: Kim Callahan

A broken window is seen at Lawrence’s Liberty Memorial Central Middle School Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019, after a reported threat at the school. Police on scene said worried parents broke the window and pulled students out.

As previously reported, one parent, upon getting his daughter’s anxious text, drove to the school and, in the absence of information about what was going on, used a 4X4 fence post to shatter a classroom window and get the students out of the building. Some of the students suffered minor lacerations from the broken glass and were treated later at the scene by paramedics.

That parent, Kevin Green, said no police were on the premises when he arrived at the school. He said it was parents, not the school, who called 911 and alerted police because they understood, based on the ALICE alert, that someone dangerous may have been on the premises.

“My daughter was in there, and there was zero information,” he said at the time. He also said that his daughter’s class was being taught by a substitute teacher who was not familiar with the school’s lockdown requirements.

Green said that if he were confronted with the same situation and same information void again that he would break the window again — and would keep breaking as many windows as necessary.

The day after the lockdown, the superintendent sent a message emphasizing that the school had never announced that there was an intruder: “We understand from our review of what occurred that some of our students mistakenly began spreading the rumor of an intruder.”

Some, including Albright and Green, saw this message as misplacing blame. They and others who contacted the Journal-World indicated that speculation arising in an information vacuum was not surprising. The real problem, they said, was the initial announcement of the lockdown, the way the word ALICE was used and the absence of communication that followed — the nearly 20 minutes of fear and panic that they think could have been easily avoided.

“What happened at Central on Tuesday and the scars that it has no doubt left behind were caused solely by the principal through her response to a rumor, the way she relayed information to the rest of the school and her utter lack of communication once she had started the panic ball rolling,” Albright wrote in her letter to the school district.

“When you come across the loudspeaker and use those words and say nothing else, that’s where the panic starts,” Albright told the Journal-World.

Another parent, Jenny Skillman, told the Journal-World she was “appalled” by the way the lockdown was handled: the needless “terror” that the initial announcement induced and the lack of information that perpetuated it for more than 20 minutes.

“The words used in the announcement were completely and wholly inappropriate for the level of threat,” she said, referring to the student being questioned by the administration. “It was a controlled situation, but that was not conveyed to any other person in the building.”

Lewis emphasized on Thursday that the district was aware of the shortcomings in the handling of the lockdown and said numerous conversations were occurring to help people understand what happened and how the district would learn from this experience.

Winfrey was meeting with all the grades Thursday to address student concerns, he said. And the district is discussing specific scripts that can be used in potential crisis situations — scripts that include more useful and calming information, if appropriate, such as telling teachers that the lockdown is precautionary and that teachers should keep teaching. In other words, “Tell as much as possible,” Lewis said.


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