NORRIDGEWOCK — As word of a lockdown at Mill Stream Elementary School swept through town, more than 100 parents, many of them in tears, crowded around a police perimeter in lightly falling snow and waited to hear news from inside the school.
“I totally freaked out because of the recent thing in Connecticut,” mother Kerry Falvey, 45, said shortly after the lockdown, tightly holding the hand of her son, Jaden Falvey.
Like Falvey, many of the parents at the school Monday, said they immediately thought of the Sandy Hook school shootings in Newtown, Conn., when they yeard Mill Stream was locked.
The lockdown, which was initiated about 8:30 a.m. when two first-graders told a teacher they saw a man with a rifle outside the school, was lifted a little more than an hour later after Maine State Police said there was no threat. After interviewing the students who sounded the alarm, police concluded that children had not seen a gun, Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said in a statement.
Many parents took their children home for the day, even though the threat was unfounded.
At the beginning of the lockdown, the school’s automated message delivery system told parents not to call or come to the school, but more than a hundred of them showed up anyway, clogging U.S. Route 2 for a few hours.
Security experts say that if there had been a real threat, the parents who responded would have added to the risk, making it more difficult for police to do their jobs.
Falvey said she didn’t think that her son fully understood there was a potential threat. Jaden said he was excited to be leaving school early. School administrators said many of the younger children didn’t differentiate between the incident and a standard drill, but most of the older children realized it was not a test.
Falvey first heard something was wrong when she received a phone call from her daughter, Crystal Rushton, at Halcyon House, where she is program manager. Rushton, 26, saw yellow perimeter tape and police at the school and stopped to find out what was going on.
Falvey remained in phone contact with her daughter while she left work to join the growing crowd of parents. She said she appreciated the way the school reacted to the crisis.
“They did an excellent, excellent job,” she said.
About two hours after the initial report, both shoulders of U.S. Route 2 next to the school were still lined with parents’ cars. The spectacle caused traffic to slow to a crawl on the busy road for much of the morning.
While many parents chose to take their children home for the day, school district Superintendent Brent Colbry said others just wanted a quick visit.
“Many said, ‘I know there’s no threat to my child, but I want to see them, comfort them,’” he said.
Of the school’s 411 students, 182 had been removed by their parents by noon, school administrators said. The school is part of School Administrative District 54, which has schools in Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Skowhegan and Smithfield.
Some at the scene praised the reaction of the school staff, the behavior of the students, and the speedy response from law enforcement officers, some of whom arrived less than three minutes after the school’s principal contacted them.
‘They thought they saw a gun’
The drama began when two first-grade students told a teacher they saw a suspicious man in the large open area between the school and the Norridgewock Library, which is next door.
“They said he had a black hat and looked threatening,” Colbry said. “They thought they saw a gun.”
Colbry said the students may have mistaken an older student for an intruder.
After the students told the teacher what they thought they saw, the teacher told the principal Bill Pullen. Pullen talked to the students and decided that the threat was credible enough to alert the police.
Colbry said the district reacted appropriately by locking the school down and contacting state police.
“We made a decision to treat it seriously, obviously,” he said.
Nearly three dozen state troopers, game wardens and sheriff’s deputies established a perimeter around the school grounds and interviewed the students before determining that there was no threat.
Pullen said that the school goes through safety practice drills twice a year, a schedule he implemented when he first became principal three years ago. He said students and teachers did exactly what they were supposed to do during the incident.
A state trooper and school district guidance counselors spent the day at the school in order to provide a comforting presence to anyone who might have been upset, according to Colbry.
McCausland said the students did the right thing by reporting something they found to be suspicious. He said that, while there is an increased awareness among administrators and students, there has not been an increase in lockdowns, which he said are very rare.
While everyone can understand the desire of a parent who wants to rush to their child in the event of a school emergency, security experts say a crowd of anxious parents only adds to the problem.
Pullen said that the secretary can’t record a customized message at the onset of a crisis, so the message that parents got from the automated system was a general one designed for any lockdown.
The message that was sent said, “We are currently in lockdown mode. Please do not come to the school or call the school during this time. Your children are safe. Do not worry. We will send updates,” according to Pullen. About 75 minutes later, Pullen said, an update told them that the lockdown was over.
Betty Follensbee said she came to take her child home even though the school’s messaging system assured her that everything was fine.
“They said not to call and not to come,” Follensbee said. “I’m sorry, I’m not sitting at home, wondering what the heck.”
Pullen said the school tells parents not to come because “it could possibly not be safe. Everyone’s in lockdown and they wouldn’t be able to get to their children anyway.”
Parents are asked not to call because the support staff doesn’t answer the general phone lines during a lockdown, he said.
Bob Cayer, of Cayer Security, a Waterville company that provides security systems to area schools, said the messaging system encourages parents to come even when the content of the message urges them not to.
Cayer said that, as a parent, he wants to know when there’s a threat to his children, but as a security consultant, he sees the automated messaging system as adding to the risk.
“In my opinion, the original message should not have gone out,” Cayer said. “They should have put a message out only after the scene was cleared. I’m not in agreement that it should be at the time of the incident because of the risk of having the parents go there and getting in the way of law enforcement doing its job.”
Glen Allen, owner of Maine Security Surveillance in Winslow, said districts might alter the wording of the message to help parents understand that their presence could be harmful to the safety of their child.
But Cayer said no wording is likely to deter parents from rushing to children.
“When a parent gets an automated message like that, it really puts them in a state of panic,” he said.
Still, Pullen said, he understands why parents come despite the content of the message.
“They want their kids safe just like we want them safe,” he said.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287