DerryNews.com, Derry, New Hampshire

January 23, 2014

Editorial: When students face threat, parents need to know


Derry News

---- — Last week, there was a report of a student with a firearm on the Pinkerton Academy campus. It turned out to be nothing -- the report was untrue.

Pinkerton Academy generally responded to the potential threat well. But what the school did not do so well was keep parents informed of what had happened. That’s almost as important as responding to the threat itself, as parents understandably get nervous whenever there is a report of a gun on a school campus.

School officials were notified that a specific student might have a firearm, Pinkerton spokesman Chip Underhill told our reporter. The school’s resource officer was not on campus, so the Derry police were called.

Derry police received a call at 1:51 p.m. Jan. 14 about a student “possibly in possession of a firearm.” Police and school officials quickly located the student, who has found to be unarmed.

“No charges are expected to be filed and the investigation has been closed,” police Capt. Vern Thomas wrote in his report.

That was the end of the matter as far as the school and police were concerned. But not so for parents, who began to hear disturbing reports from their children about what had happened on campus late in the day.

“Are you kidding me? My daughter did tell me a student was handcuffed, but had no clue why,” Stephanie Tsepas wrote on Facebook. “Sad that we as Pinkerton parents had to find out about this on Facebook!”

“And as a parent of a student there, why am I hearing about this on Facebook and not from the school?” Kim Witkum wrote.

Some people thought the school’s response was appropriate.

“Better to be safe then sorry,” Joseph Ferland wrote. “(The) general public will find something to complain about either way. I’m glad it was looked into, regardless.”

Underhill said the school followed its safety procedures in responding to the potential threat.

“Upon receiving the information, we followed safety protocol by immediately contacting the Derry Police Department, which quickly responded, quickly determined the student in question had no weapon, and quickly determined there was no threat,” he said.

Had police determined the information was credible, “additional steps would have been taken,” he said.

Some parents questioned why the school did not go into “lockdown”, herding students into designated safe areas until the threat was resolved. Underhill said the time of day, as students were being dismissed, factored into the decision.

Police agreed that a lockdown was not warranted.

“The school did everything they needed to do,” Thomas later told our reporter. “We had a student under our supervision as soon as we got there.”

We’re inclined to agree that Pinkerton handled the threat properly and that police responded appropriately and well.

But Pinkerton dropped the ball in failing to communicate promptly with parents to explain what had happened.

A day later, Pinkerton sent emails to parents and posted a report on its website. But by then, the rumor mill already was in full gear.

This is the age of instant communications. Pinkerton may have believed that it was fine to inform parents the next day. But, as the Facebook traffic made clear, parents were already talking about the incident and worrying about the way it was handled.

Pinkerton officials could have avoided inflicting that unnecessary worry on parents by sending our emails and making calls immediately to explain that a firearm report had been made, responded to and found to be untrue. Surely, there still would have been some parents who objected to the nature of the response. But no one could say Pinkerton had not done everything necessary -- responding to the threat and keeping parents informed.

Headmaster Mary Anderson said the school is constantly evaluating its safety protocols.

“We continually evaluate events and situations and we regularly enhance our safety and communication procedures as a result,” she said. “The incident was managed according to our well-defined safety protocol, however, each situation has unique circumstances which are individually assessed. That assessment and other safety considerations are confidential in the interests of protecting our students.”

Here is an opportunity to learn something.

From the school’s point of view, once the threat has been neutralized or found to be unsubstantiated, the incident is over. But in the minds of parents, the incident is not over until they’ve been told what happened so that they can decide whether their children were in any danger that day at school.