School Climate & Safety

Sniper Attacks Prompt District ‘Lockdowns’

By Sean Cavanagh — October 16, 2002 8 min read
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In Washington-area schools coping with a sniper’s threat, the responses have been quick, decisive—and strikingly similar. Within hours of the first shootings earlier this month, access to buildings was sharply restricted. Outdoor activities were brought inside or canceled. Movement through hallways was curtailed.

On school grounds spanning a huge swath of Maryland and Virginia counties outside Washington, the “lockdown” policies designed to protect students used slightly different terminology and procedures, but were well-coordinated and thorough, according to some of the country’s top school safety experts.

In fact, those experts said they saw evidence of a new preparedness, in the wake of the Columbine shootings 31/2 years ago and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks last year.

Day after day, with a sniper still on the loose, a new routine unfolded at schools across the Washington metropolitan area. Students were kept inside all day, through gym class, recess, and lunch, in what many area districts termed “code blue” restrictions. Most after-school and off-campus activities, from football games to field trips, were canceled. Schools broadcast waves of updates to parents, by phone, fax, e-mail, and the Internet.

But despite those steps, many parents and administrators acknowledged that the sniper’s actions also reminded them that even the best precautions could not guarantee protection. That reality was underscored last week when a Maryland middle school boy, just as he was arriving at school, was critically wounded in one of the attacks.

“We have probably 15 scenarios, but there are combinations of things you can’t possibly think of,” said Kitty Porterfield, the director of community relations for the Fairfax County, Va., schools, a district of 161,000 students near Washington. “It’s a horrible thing to face, but that’s where we are.”

Last week, Fairfax County administrators moved school and after-school activities inside and canceled the ones that couldn’t be brought indoors. All school doors were locked or monitored.

A full-fledged “lockdown” in Fairfax would have entailed much stricter measures, such as drawing window blinds and barring students from moving between classrooms.

At Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., at schools in Jonesboro, Ark., and West Paducah, Ky., and in other locales shaken by school violence over the past five years, the assailants were known, or quickly became known. And the violence, however terrifying, lasted a relatively short time—in most cases, a few minutes.

In Maryland, Virginia, and the nation’s capital last week, there was no immediate end to the fear for students, parents, teachers, and school officials.

The assailant who, among other attacks, shot and critically injured the 13-year- old boy outside Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Md., on Oct. 7 had not been caught as of press time last Friday. The gunman is believed to have fired with a high-powered rifle, probably in a wooded area about 150 yards from the school. There were no known witnesses.

Investigators believe the gunman was responsible for at least seven shooting deaths, all involving victims shot at long range. Five Montgomery County, Md., residents were killed during a single 16-hour stretch on Oct. 2-3, most of them shot as they went about routine tasks such as pumping gas or mowing a lawn near bustling suburban shopping hubs.

A 72-year-old man was shot to death while crossing the street in Washington on Oct. 3. Police also suspected the same sniper was responsible for the critical shooting injury of a 43-year-old woman in Spotsylvania County, Va. On Oct. 9, a fatal shooting in Prince William County, Va., was also linked to the shooter.

‘Let’s Go, Let’s Go’

That Oct. 9 attack came shortly after 8 p.m.; the victim was shot to death as he pumped gas at a service station north of Manassas, Va. Throughout the night, Don Mercer, the director of risk management and security for the Prince William County schools, kept in touch with local police investigators and relayed information to top school administrators.

By 8 the next morning, officials of the 60,000-student district—which had periodically canceled outdoor events after the initial shootings a week earlier—had made their decision: no outdoor activities at any schools for at least one day, and possibly longer.

Prince William County’s schools routinely keep their doors locked. But last week, administrators were instructed to be even more vigilant about locking doors, Mr. Mercer said.

“You make decisions on a daily basis,” said Mr. Mercer, whose system does not use the “code blue” language. “The whole situation changed at about 8:20 last night, and it may change again.”

Across the region, parents lined up in cars after school to pick up children at the end of each school day, hoping that would bring added security.

In Maryland’s 137,000-student Prince George’s County district, which includes Bowie’s Benjamin Tasker Middle School, Kenneth Sterling normally didn’t give his 8th grade son a ride home from Greenbelt Middle School, about 10 miles from the attack on the student. But now he does, Mr. Sterling said last week.

“Right now, it’s just more nerve-racking than anything else,” he said. “More parents should be here helping out, getting more of a visual presence.”

“Let’s go, let’s go!” school personnel commanded students, a few steps down Greenbelt Middle School’s sidewalk, urging them to get onto school buses quickly on Wednesday of last week.

The routine was similar down the road during a code- blue day at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, where administrators stood watch at several points outside the building as classes were dismissed for the day.

Walkie-talkie in hand, Roose-velt Principal Sylvester Conyers told students waiting for buses or other rides to move near the front entrance, so staff members could keep better track of them. On the borders of the campus, police officers stood guard alongside patrol cars and watched as students left.

“Would we be asking students to go to the front of the building if this weren’t a code-blue day? Probably not,” Mr. Conyers said. “But under the circumstances, it makes sense to have them all in one spot.”

Like many schools in the Washington area, Roosevelt High also has a stricter, “code red” restriction, when the threat to students is deemed more immediate. In those situations, pupils are forbidden to leave their classrooms, and movement in hallways is more severely restricted.

A Sustained Threat

In Maryland’s Montgomery County and other systems, once top police and school officials chose a plan of action, they were able to get that information to individual schools and parents quickly. Montgomery County district administrators broadcast updates to principals and other school officials through an automated phone-calling system, spokesman Brian J. Porter said. An e-mail with more detailed instructions was sent to those same officials at the same time.

Montgomery County’s latest crisis-and-lockdown policies took shape shortly after the Columbine shootings, Mr. Porter said.

But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism, school officials revamped the process, partly on the advice of local police. The specific roles of administrative staff members during a crisis were not always clear, and did not account for many uncertainties, such as the absence of a key staff member, Mr. Porter recalled.

As recently as August, school administrators—including the superintendent, the chief operating officer, and the deputy superintendent— rehearsed the new decisionmaking process. And when the shootings began in Montgomery County this month, district officials followed it.

Updates were broadcast to parents on the school’s Web site, and an automatic e-mail system sent messages to reporters and editors from local news organizations.

But like many school officials, Mr. Porter conceded that emergency responses like “code blue” were created to deal with single incidents, not sustained threats that require tougher security for days and possibly weeks.

“It doesn’t make sense to be in perpetual code blue, or it becomes less than meaningful,” Mr. Porter said. “Many of our decisions will be based on the best available information on a day-to-day basis.”

Patrick Fiel, the executive director of school security for the District of Columbia system, said staff members in Washington’s schools were trying to accommodate parents who wanted to pick up their children at school but were delayed in getting there.

But the length of the sniper crisis was forcing administrators to adapt to new situations and fears.

“I don’t think any school can say they’re prepared for one week, or two weeks,” Mr. Fiel said. “The schools are not made for sheltering.”

Quality of Plans Varies

Even before the Columbine High shootings left 15 people, including the two student gunmen, dead in April 1999, many states began requiring districts to improve safety procedures on their campuses, said Kathy Christie, a vice president for research at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based policy- sharing organization for school and state officials. But she said many of those plans were aimed at curbing poor student behavior, such as bullying and bringing weapons to school—not responding to the threats of a shooter.

After Columbine, however, many school systems put better crisis plans in place, said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm in Cleveland.

But he noted the quality of those procedures varies greatly.

Mr. Trump pointed to a recent survey of the National Association of School Resource Officers, an organization representing school law-enforcement and security workers, based in Osprey, Fla. The survey of 658 officers found that 55 percent said their school crisis plans were not adequate, and 52 percent said those plans had never been tested.

“Most schools have improved since Columbine, but for some schools, there’s also a ‘been there, done that’ tendency to become complacent,” Mr. Trump said.

Some safety experts say new schools could be designed more effectively to protect students, through fencing, landscaping, and better use of open space—a popular concept among some urban planners.

But others said the schools were coping with a ghostlike threat that defies most security measures.

“You cannot protect anybody or anything from a sniper,” said Patrick McCurry, the police chief for California’s Fontana Unified School District, a 40,000-student system east of Los Angeles. “How could you ever tell there is someone in that area with a gun?”

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