Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School Principal Shelton Mooney says that the decision to call for a lockdown on the morning of Sept. 14 wasn’t one he made lightly. But after receiving a tip that a student might have a gun on campus, he thinks it was the right call.
“Based on the information that I had available at the time, it was absolutely what I felt was the right decision in order to make sure everyone was safe,” Mooney told parents during a community meeting at the school Tuesday night.
Mooney, along with other Montgomery County Public School administrators and security staff met with dozens of parents to discuss ongoing concerns about communication and other issues stemming from the event, which ended with county police searching the school and not finding a weapon.
Mooney provided a more detailed timeline of the events that led up to the lockdown. He said that on Sept. 14, there was a “verbal altercation” between one student and three other students, in which one member of the group of three lifted his T-shirt. The one student arguing with the group thought he might have been going for a weapon, but no words were ever exchanged about there being a gun, Mooney said.
“That was just the student’s impression,” he said.
The student who thought he saw a gun then left school and sent a text message to a friend that the friend should leave because there might be a gun on campus.
“The student who received a text called his mother, and his mother called the school. So we got through this game of telephone over the course of an hour and 45 minutes from when the initial verbal altercation happened, until it was back in the office,” Mooney said.
School district officials have been criticized by parents for contacting the media first before sending messages to parents or internally to staff within the school.
MCPS sent a news release at 10:27 a.m. on Sept. 14 stating that BCC had entered a lockdown after a report of a weapon in school, and that police and school security were responding.
Associate Superintendent Peter Moran told parents that the school system has created “scripts” in multiple languages so that principals don’t need to write a message themselves when a crisis occurs.
“They’re all uploaded, could be personalized, and can be sent out immediately,” he said.
Moran said that having the scripts will help streamline the communication process. He acknowledged the school system needs to improve its communication strategy following the B-CC lockdown.
“I think that we need to be clear about what you can expect from us around communication, and make those expectations clear from the very get go. That was a missed opportunity,” he said.
Skip White, the parent of a B-CC senior, said Tuesday that scripts don’t go far enough.
“Scripts will help you with translation. They will not provide actual, meaningful information about what’s happening in the moment,” he said.
White said that a better approach might be a series of short school-specific text messages sent to parents in real time as information is learned.
“The community does not expect perfection. The community expects to be informed,” he said.
MCPS spokesman Chris Cram explained to parents why he believed he needed to address calls from members of the media about rumors that turned out to be inaccurate.
“I do want to say that that is the first time I sent an advisory in the flurry of an emergency because the accusations coming from the media were so very wild,” he said. “They were so convinced that there was an active shooter on the scene … . I was concerned that they were inflaming the community and I wanted to put out that we are responding to a threat and first responders are on site.”
Lyric Winik, president of B-CC’s parent-teacher association, had testified last week in front of the Board of Education that MCPS needs to create an emergency communications system for each school to share information in real time.
“The current situation is unsafe for students, staff and first responders. MCPS also must contact families first, not the press,” she said in the testimony.
On Tuesday night, Winik told officials that it’s important to recognize that students were sending text messages to friends and family with varying accounts of the situation.
“You have to understand all of the different ways and the information streams that not simply that you are in charge of, but that are exiting the school,” she said.
“You had a significant number of students in the school who believed there was an active shooter in the school. And that was what they were messaging their parents.”
Winik said she initially received a text message from a parent she didn’t know, saying that her daughter thought there was a shooter. She said she later learned from her son that the rumor was that someone thought they saw a gun in the restroom, which she thought was more likely.
“We’re OK waiting, but what we’re not OK with is incorrect information with our teachers, with our students in the school, which is then creating additional panic … you have to message the people in the building first,” she said.
In response, Mooney said that in today’s world school officials are likely to be “behind the message no matter how fast we get something out.” He said he recognizes that a simple message such as the words, “no active shooter,” would have helped the situation.
“Part of what we have to do is work on getting out accurate information as quickly as possible. Because that information does help lower anxiety,” he said.
Winik had also raised the issues last week in her testimony of the public address system not always working and the fact that some teachers thought the lockdown was a drill.
Mooney said he knew of one space in the school — the dance studio — where the PA system wasn’t working, but it has been fixed. Another parent said later the system also may have been malfunctioning in the gym. Mooney said he and the security team would check on it.
Parents also called for better training of teachers and staff members. In its 2022-2023 Student’s Guide to Rights and Responsibilities, MCPS states that in a lockdown, the school system is to alert staff members that “imminent danger” exists inside or outside the building. In a lockdown, all students must be under adult supervision, students and staff must “move quickly to a securable location, remain quiet and follow staff members’ instructions,” it states.
In her written testimony to the BOE last week, Winik shared accounts of students who were told by a teacher to continue their work during the lockdown, and in other cases students never heard the all-clear announcement.
“The wide variety of responses is also a cause for concern: from barricaded classrooms and students in the basement who remained in a closet, hiding, for almost 90 minutes because they never heard the all-clear and had no reception on their phones, to classrooms where work continued, and even several rooms where students were told to finish a quiz,” she wrote in her testimony.
Mooney and other officials said the school system is developing a review of staff expectations when it comes to training, and is distributing literature to substitute teachers with instructions for responding to various emergency situations.
“We did have staff members who had a variety of responses. And part of that is, until you’re actually in an emergency situation, you don’t necessarily know how you’re gonna respond,” Mooney said.
One woman said during Tuesday’s meeting that she spent seven years as a substitute teacher in MCPS and she never received training for lockdown or shelter-in-place situations.
“They don’t really get the training. When I did substitute teacher orientation, it lasted about an hour. And security spoke to substitute teachers for 20 minutes. Maybe 15,” she said.
Mental health needs
Several parents said that after the Sept. 14 lockdown, their children took tests as scheduled the next day in their classes. Julia Matheson said her 10th-grade son had two tests the next day.
“To me that reflects that we have teachers that have no emotional recognition,” she said.
MCPS officials had said a crisis response team and counselors were available the next day to check in on students. Another parent said students needed more time during the regular school day to process the events.
“I recognize you’re saying there are mental health counselors available. But for some kids, that’s just not how they roll. They’re not gonna do that,” she said.
Parents also asked various questions about how many school security staff are in schools and how easily police officers can respond to an emergency. One parent asked whether it would be worth considering the installation of metal detectors. Ed Clarke, the chief safety officer for the school system, said in response the district has not decided to take that step.
“As a district we have not gone down that road, but I think every situation creates an opportunity to have that discussion, to see what maybe is a better solution or not. So I think we have to listen to parents and students about what are the best practices,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at email@example.com