MANCHESTER, NH – A lockdown at West High School on Sept. 25 ended with the arrest of a former student, who entered the building carrying a pellet gun and a knife. He made his way through the building to a third-floor classroom, anonymous in the flow of students trying to get to class in time for the morning bell.
It was a student who saw what she thought was a gun in his waistband, and reported it to school officials, which set in motion the lockdown and police response.
Damian Johnson, 21, did not make any threats to anyone while on campus. Court papers from a Sept. 26 probable cause hearing say he approached a former teacher to get a letter of recommendation for college.
Five day later there are more questions than answers.
In the aftermath of the lockdown, some parents, city officials and school committee members are focusing on security procedures at Manchester’s schools. In this case, everything worked the way it should, according to Superintendent Debra Livingston. Johnson was apprehended quickly and without incident or injury to himself or others. Police commended school administrators for following security procedures.
But the question remains: How safe are our schools?
One parent, Bridget Evarts, immediately posted a petition on Change.org, in which she says what happened at West High School is unacceptable. She is seeking 1,000 signatures to present to the school board. She’s calling for cameras and alarms, and to have guards – possibly military veterans – and metal detectors at main school entries:
“I believe I speak for most parents when I say “it wasn’t just a pellet gun” with regards to the occurrence at West High School on September 25, 2014. It was a former student just walking into the school unquestioned. It was the barrier of a safe zone being demolished. It was about an hour and a half of parents, students and teachers being terrified of the outcome. There is more to this situation than “it was just a pellet gun.”
This single act of carelessness has changed the day to day procedures. I am petitioning to have all doors of the Manchester School District schools properly secured and monitored. I am petitioning to put cameras and alarms for ease of monitoring. I am also petitioning to have guards (veterans) and metal detectors at the main entrances. The presence of a person trained (veteran) to look for suspicious behavior would be enough of a deterrent to most looking to do/carry unlawful things.”
There are cameras for monitoring on all school buses. There are cameras at city hall, banks, all retail stores etc. What about protecting our most innocent treasures, the children of Manchester School District? – Change.org petition initiated by Bridget Evarts
Board of School Committee member John Avard said he has already requested a special meeting to review what happened at West, and to look at possible changes to the city’s security procedures, going forward.
“[Dr. Livingston] has not yet called for this meeting. If she opts not to call a special meeting of the full board, I will be calling a special meeting of the Building and Sites Committee, as the chairman of that committee, to have a discussion regarding the safety of our schools. The safety of our students and employees is paramount to all other issues in our school district and we cannot afford not to invest in protecting those in our care,” Avard said Saturday.
School board member Katie Desrochers represents the families in Ward 11, where West High School is located. She’s also a parent of a West High junior, who was inside the building during the lockdown.
“I was freaked out when my daughter texted me that the school was in lockdown,” said Desrochers. “I asked her what was going on and she said she thought it was real, because there were police outside the building. After I called the district office to find out what was going on, I went over to the school and waiting in the library parking lot, texting back and forth with my daughter. She was terrified.”
However, Desrochers says she is not sure that what Evarts is proposing is feasible or even effective when it comes to school security.
“It’s been proven in the aftermath of Columbine and Sandy Hook, that those things, like metal detectors and guards, are not even the most effective way to keep schools safer. In a majority of incidents that happen in schools, usually one or more persons knew it was going to happen. Personally, I believe it’s communication within the school that makes a difference, and kids feeling safe enough to report something – which is exactly what happened at West,” Desrochers said.
That point of view is shared by Bill Bond, school safety specialist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, who was quoted in a December 2013 CNN article as saying there is no single safety measure that could have stopped what happened at schools like Columbine or Sandy Hook.
“When you allow absolutely insane people to arm themselves like they’re going to war, they go to war,” said Bonds, who also does not endorse buzzer systems and metal detectors.
“In a school, your only real protection is kids trusting you with information,” Bond said.
In recapping the incident with her daughter, Desrochers brought up the fact that Johnson was able to walk into school with weapons, and nobody knew it.
Desrochers said her daughter wasn’t as surprised about that fact as parents seem to be.
“The comment my daughter made was, ‘But mom, so many people do that.’ I didn’t even know what to say to that,” Desrochers said.
She understands the complexities of life for many students in an urban setting, where there is confirmed gang activity.
What played out in Desrochers’ head as she waited in the parking lot last Thursday for her daughter was the same thing that brought a throng of parents to the perimeter of the crime tape during the lockdown, and the swift response from local and state police with SWAT teams: Images of Columbine and Sandy Hook, and all the others, where, in a flash, mass school shootings happened without warning, and ended in tragedy.
“I’m just not sure the answer is $50,000 in security equipment at every door in the school. I don’t want to sound like I’m against that, but I’m not sure it’s a more efficient or realistic way of solving weapons issues,” Desrochers said.
She said one solution might be to have teachers man the school entrances at the start of the school day – to welcome students and perhaps to spot someone who’s out of context, as Johnson was.
“There’s no an easy solution, that’s for sure,” she said.
Locked Down and Armed: Security Responses to Violence in Our Schools Prof. Todd A. DeMitchell, UNH