After the report of a gun on campus forced Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School into a lockdown for more than an hour Wednesday, some community members are calling on the district to reassess its approach to communications during serious situations.
Shortly before 10 a.m. Wednesday, there was a fight between students in a hallway, and a student who was watching thought they saw someone with a gun. The student called a parent, who called 911, according to school district leaders and messages to parents from the school. Another student reported possibly seeing a gun to school administration, police said.
The school was placed in a lockdown while police investigated. Police said no gun was found and the lockdown was shifted to a shelter-in-place at 10:55 a.m. and lifted at about 11:20 a.m., according to an email to families from Principal Shelton Mooney. Students were dismissed early, around noon, as previously scheduled.
While the school was in lockdown, at about 10:27 a.m., MCPS issued a brief press release, saying the lockdown was initiated at about 10 a.m. due to a report of a report of a “possible weapon in the school” and pledged an update later.
The first message to parents and community members was sent 14 minutes later, at 10:41 a.m. Some families did not get the message until a bit later, around 10:52 a.m., because the messages are not able to be sent all at once, district leaders said.
In the interim, there were no internal messages to staff members, according to some staff members and Lyric Winik, president of the school’s parent-teacher association.
Winik said it is “unconscionable” that MCPS did not communicate with staff, but issued a press release.
“The level of communication failure here is so staggering I almost don’t know where to begin,” Winik said in an interview Thursday morning. “When you allow the kids to become their own reporters and try to piece together what’s happening … that’s a big deal.”
Mooney referred questions about the incident to district spokesman Chris Cram.
In an interview, Cram said he decided to send a press release because so many reporters were reaching out with questions about what was happening, and relaying rumors they were hearing. It was the easiest way to address the volume of questions with confirmed information, while also heading to the school to help with the lockdown and school-level communications, Cram said.
Because administrators at the school were “fully focused” on ensuring the lockdown was in place, the message to B-CC families was not sent immediately.
Winik said MCPS has an obligation to first inform the people most directly affected, such as staff members in the school, which did not happen. She suggested that MCPS designate a person to handle communications with families and staff members during future incidents. Consistent and timely messages could help ease anxiety, or help people involved feel more prepared, she said.
“I can understand saying, ‘Notify parents later,’ but there is a profound obligation to staff to keep them up-to-date,” Winik said. “These are the people on the front lines with children trying to take care of them. … They had an obligation to reach out to people in the school before anybody else.”
Winik also urged MCPS to focus on sending emergency messages in multiple languages so families who do not speak English are able to receive the information. On Wednesday, some parents who speak multiple languages were helping to translate messages for those who were not English speakers, she said.
Winik also said she heard of some teachers who did not immediately or correctly implement lockdown procedures. Some reportedly did not hear the announcement because the loudspeakers don’t work everywhere in the building. Others thought it was a drill, Winik said.
“Had this been, in fact, a serious incident, the behavior of the small minority of staff … would have jeopardized those students,” she said.
Cram said evaluating staff members’ response is part of a “debrief” following serious incidents in schools.
“If there’s any indication [people did not follow the proper procedure] that will be addressed through future professional development and a reminder,” Cram said. “That flies against the purpose of what a lockdown is. We’re not calling a lockdown and saying this is not a drill lightly.”
In Mooney’s message to families Wednesday night, he wrote that students texting each other and their families during the lockdown “heightened the anxiety and complicated matters for police and staff because many people arrived at the school and had questions about our safety procedures.”
On Thursday, Cram said approximately 75 people, including many parents, gathered outside the school Wednesday during the lockdown.
“Lockdown is not a call to come to the school, it is a call to prepare for safety because there is an imminent threat of harm,” Cram said.
Mooney’s message added: “Our schools, students and staff train on these procedures multiple times each year. When an emergency procedure is called, we all must adhere to what we’ve learned in our training. We must allow our emergency partners, police and security staff, to do the work necessary in response to the situation.”