, Newburyport, MA

May 7, 2013

Better response needed for school lockdowns

Newburyport Daily News

---- — It’s sad that we live in a time when the threat of a gunman shooting children in their classrooms is a real possibility, one that everyone must train for.

But what happened last week at Pentucket Regional High School shows us that no matter how much training occurs, there is always a scenario that wasn’t in the playbook.

Unfortunately, that has left a direct impact on one Pentucket senior who unintentionally triggered this response.

On Friday morning, the school went into a lockdown when it was reported that a gun was found in the building. Police from throughout the region, plus K-9 units, descended quickly on the school. Close to a dozen different police jurisdictions were on the scene within a matter of minutes. They were deployed and organized quickly, and soon a “gunman” was apprehended and a room-by-room search was under way.

That was the part that demonstrated how good police and schools have gotten at coordinating their responses. It gives us confidence that a crisis would be handled with the utmost competence.

But as the day wore on and the details of what spurred this event came out, it became clear that this was not a situation that endangered the school. It was a misunderstood matter that triggered a massive response, a response that was well beyond what was truly needed.

The student in question had found a prop gun in the school’s drama department and put it in his bag. It was seen by another student and reported as a real gun. In the moments that followed, police confronted the student, who has a developmental disability known as Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition that can make it hard to grasp social cues and situations that most people naturally understand.

According to the student’s defense lawyer, the student didn’t know how to respond appropriately. He kicked a police officer when he was being searched, and a small pocketknife was found. He was arrested on a variety of charges, including assaulting a police officer.

What happened next developed like a train leaving its station with a full head of steam and a schedule to keep. As per protocol, the school was searched top to bottom, and students were shuffled to “safe” areas of the building. It was a tremendous disruption to the school day.

According to the student’s lawyer, further complicating the situation was the fact that the student’s regular classroom teacher was out, and a substitute was in charge. The lawyer argued that if the regular teacher had been in the room, there would have been a better understanding of the student and the situation would have played out in a less confrontational way.

Those are hindsights, of course. But they are worth considering.

The classrooms of today are a different environment than a generation ago. We have seen an increase in the number of children diagnosed with a variety of special needs, many of them requiring special assistance to manage behaviors. Sometimes, situations occur that can be wildly misinterpreted, if the proper context is missing.

We agree with the boy’s father, who said at his son’s arraignment last week that there should be better training in place to handle a situation involving a special needs student. This is something that both the schools and the police will need to coordinate.

The Pentucket student is due in court today. We hope that the charges will be dropped, and that there will be a reconciliation that allows for a normal transition as he prepares to graduate next month.

We also feel this is a situation that other schools can learn from, and figure out ways to diffuse or avoid.