WWII?shovel causes Meridian middle school lockdown
Feb 15, 2013 (The Idaho Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
It turns out that the 8th-grade teacher who asked a male student to go to his car and bring in a folding WWII-era folding military shovel had no idea he caused a schoolwide lockdown at Heritage Middle School Thursday.
A school staffer who saw that student carry the shovel in around 9 a.m. thought it might be a man carrying a double-bladed axe and told the Meridian police school resource officer.
That set in motion a chain of events that led to a 90-minute, room-by-room search by armed officers. Scared students and parents waiting at a nearby church were left to wonder what was going on.
Despite the false alarm, school and police officials say the lockdown went smoothly and showed that processes set in place by police and school worked the way they were supposed to.
That included an automated voice message that went to more than 1,000 parents who'd signed up for the service.
"They did a good job communicating," said Candise Cortes, who was picked up for her two children. "I mean, it looks like chaos, but, really, it's pretty organized."
Manuel Rodriguez followed news updates on his cell phone and exchanged text messages with his 12-year-old son inside the school.
"I didn't want him to get scared, so I just told him everything's going to be OK," Rodriguez said, who admitted that he was scared.
"The feelings you have for your kids, you don't want anything to happen. You want to protect them."
It wasn't until about 11 a.m., when the searches were almost over, that police identified the student in a surveillance video. They couldn't tell what he was carrying at first. But about the time police searched the classroom with the shovel, everybody put it together, Meridian Police Deputy Chief Tracy Basterrechea said.
"The teacher didn't have any idea (the shovel) initiated the whole lockdown," Meridian Schools spokesman Eric Exline said.
The shovel was part of a school project about World War II and neither the student nor the teacher got in trouble, Exline said.
More than 100 students left for the day, many with waiting parents who clutched their children close.
Twelve-year-old Hannah McKay went home early with her mother.
"I was really scared, (thinking) that maybe somebody was in the school and my life was in danger," she said.
School officials decided to lock down the building shortly after 9 a.m. The announcement went over the intercom; each teacher checks the hallway to make sure all kids are inside then locks the door. Teachers and students are told to make themselves "less visible" -- turn off lights, move everyone away from windows and behind solid objects if possible.
Teachers aren't told why -- the point is to get it done as quickly as possible, Exline said.
Meanwhile, more officers arrived at Heritage about three minutes after getting the SRO's call -- more than 60 in all from multiple Valley departments.
Officers began a general search of the building while others reviewed video surveillance. They saw a boy, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, wearing a Boise State T-Shirt and carrying a 3-foot-long object. The video was grainy; officers couldn't tell if it was an axe or something else.
Police decided to search the rooms. About 9:30 a.m., Exline sent parents the message about the lockdown and a suspicious person who might be in the school with a weapon. Parents were told kids appeared to be safe and that police were in the building. They were told about the church near Meridian and Ustick roads where they could get updates from police.
Some officers searched the school grounds and blocked traffic on nearby streets.
Other officers got keys to each room. They knocked on the doors, using code words so teachers knew they were police. The officers went in with guns drawn, pointed at the floor in the "low ready" position. Some officers asked the kids to put their hands in the air. Once done with the room, officers re-locked the doors and moved on to the next.
"At first I thought it was just a big hoax, but then when the police officers came in checking the room, I was like, holy cow, this is actually, really happening," said 13-year-old McKay Clark, who admitted that his heart was racing. "I was like, I don't know if I should be scared or if I should just be completely cool about it. Well, I just did whatever they said. I just put my hands up."
McKay said he now sees police officers in a different way.
"I just thought they were nice people that just help with the community, you know, keep everyone safe. But I never knew that they are really serious about their jobs," he said. "This is the other side of them. Serious."
Once the shovel had been explained, officials lifted the lockdown at 11 a.m. Exline sent another message, telling parents that classes were resuming, but they could pick up their students if they wanted.
Mary Clark found out about the lockdown by driving past the school and became "terrified my kids were in danger" when she saw all the police cars.
She said police and school officials did a great job communicating with parents.
"I just kept telling myself that I couldn't do anything and I had to trust in the people that were taking care of it and watching over the kids," she said. "They did the best that I could have imagined.
"Everything that happened in Connecticut has put us all on this higher level of sensitivity to this type of a thing. So I'm really so grateful that they're OK."
Exline and Basterrechea said the processes used by the agencies are based on best practices models for schools and law enforcement. Both said Thursday's events will be analyzed to figure out if there were any problems and how those can be fixed.
Patrick Orr: 377-6219, Sven Berg: 377-6275
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