Emergency Plan Gets High Grade In Pr. William
Schools Find Lessons in Gun Scare
By Christina A. Samuels
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page C07
Prince William County school officials said the armed seventh-grader who entered a Bull Run Middle School, apparently intent on settling scores with classmates who bullied him, was caught quickly and safely because everyone involved followed a well-rehearsed emergency plan.
Annual drills meant that teachers knew to order students under their desks and lock classroom doors at the first indications of trouble over the public address system. The first police officers to arrive knew the building's layout and knew they should go inside as soon as there were five of them, rather than wait for backup. As soon as the incident was over, school personnel began arranging buses to take students to nearby Tyler Elementary School.
"They did a well-practiced lockdown, and they did that very well," said Donald Mercer, the school system's director of risk management and security. "That's the most important thing that we did."
But the day that didn't end in tragedy was not without flaws. At a meeting with parents Thursday night, school officials acknowledged there were lessons to be learned and applied in case there is a next time. Internally, they said, the chain of command became slightly tangled. Externally, some parents had trouble finding out what was going on and understanding what was being done to protect their children. And some children and parents who had heard something about the student's intentions had not told school officials.
School Board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp (At Large) said that in addition to being thoroughly prepared, "we were very, very lucky." But "we need to take what the parents said -- good, bad or indifferent -- and update the crisis plan."
Though parents came to Thursday's meeting with concerns, the mood was mostly one of gratitude. They gave standing ovations to the police and Principal William Bixby, who in turn thanked his staff for its performance and students and parents for their understanding. "The actions of a number of individuals were quite remarkable," said Bixby, who recalled telling his students often that "we never know where or when or why we're going to implement" the emergency plan, that the point "is just to be ready."
Prince William schools have had an emergency plan for decades. But in the past several years -- particularly since the fatal shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 and the 2001 terrorist attacks -- there has been a concerted effort to update policies and make sure everyone is trained, Mercer said.
The emergency plan, contained in thick binders, describes what should be done in events as wide-ranging as "aircraft disaster" to "workplace violence," Mercer said. Each principal can modify the plan for a school's circumstances, and the specifics are revealed only to those who need to know. Each summer, the plans are reviewed and police conduct drills in schools so they can become familiar with their layouts.
"It sounds as though they planned and had personnel who are able to think on their feet," said Kenneth A. Trump, president and chief executive of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland, a consulting firm on school security, crisis preparedness and youth violence.
Trump said Columbine prompted school districts across the country to devise crisis plans, many of which are now "collecting dust."
"You don't just have a crisis plan on paper for the sake of having one," he said. "You have to plan, prepare and practice."
According to police, the 12-year-old student arrived at Bull Run on June 18, the last day of school, with his mother, a school cafeteria worker. Just before school started, he returned to the family's minivan, where he allegedly had stashed three rifles in a blue nylon bag. Police said his mother had seen the weapons earlier and locked them in the van but did not tell anyone and did not know that her son had a car key. The boy retrieved the weapons and headed for a restroom usually used by adults near the main office.
Assistant Principal Jamie Addington, making routine rounds, heard the sound of a weapon being loaded in one of the stalls, peeked into the stall and saw the boy putting a cartridge into a 30.06 rifle. Addington ran to the office, where there were about a dozen employees, students and parents, and told them to call 911. He alerted other school personnel by walkie-talkie and left the office.
Witnesses said the student came into the office, followed shortly by two teachers who saw what was happening and ran out, pursued by the student. Everyone else in the office locked themselves in a restroom.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company