No one hurt as sixth-grade student quickly removed from classroom by principal

By Marcy Stamper

MVES-policy-boxThe expulsion of a sixth-grade student who brought an airsoft pellet gun to school last week has stirred debate among parents about how the school administration handled the incident, and about the timing of how students’ families and law enforcement officials were notified.

The Methow Valley Elementary School student was expelled after bringing the pellet gun to school in a backpack on March 16, according to Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable.

No one was harmed in the incident, but questions have been raised about how school officials responded and how adequately parents were informed.

Another sixth-grade student first reported that a classmate had a gun to Methow Valley Elementary Principal Bob Winters shortly before the end of the school day, said Winters. The reporting student said the backpack was in a closet in the classroom, said Winters.

Winters said he immediately went to the classroom and, while other students were busy, discreetly removed the child and backpack from the class within 30 seconds.

Winters said he was comfortable handling the situation because the closet was in an alcove near the door. “I knew when I walked just three steps into that classroom, that I’d be between the student and the bag and the student wouldn’t have access to it,” said Winters. He didn’t know at this point if the gun was real or a toy, he said.

When Winters got to the classroom, he asked the student “if it was true what was in the bag.” The student said “‘yes,” and Winters asked the student to go to his office. The student complied immediately, and Winters picked up the backpack and followed the child, he said.

“I took care of the situation — I know the student well and felt comfortable it wouldn’t be volatile,” said Winters. “Once the student and weapon were secure, I went back to talk to the classes.”

The student’s parent arrived quickly to pick up the student. Winters also gave the parent the pellet gun.

Winters followed up with an email to families of sixth-grade students at 5:20 p.m. that afternoon. The email said in part, “We had an incident today in which a sixth grader brought a weapon onto our school campus. Students alerted an adult, and swift action was taken to insure the safety of all of us here. At this point it appears that this was a poor decision and not any kind of intent to do harm.” The email did not provide any other details about the weapon, and did not mention that it was a toy and not a real gun.

Venable reported the incident to police at 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, some nine hours after the incident occurred. Winters followed up with another email to all elementary parents on Thursday morning.

The gaps in notification made some parents anxious as discussions began to circulate in conversations and on social media.

Aimee Budrow, who has children at both the elementary and high schools, said administrators should have called 911 immediately upon learning a student had a weapon. No one should have gone to the classroom until law enforcement had determined whether the situation necessitated a lockdown, evacuation or sheltering in place, she said.

“It’s really concerning for me as a parent — they had no idea what they were walking into when notified there was a weapon. They dodged the bullet this time, but if the scenario were to repeat itself, it could be a different outcome,” said Budrow.

The normal procedure, when there is a weapon issue at a school, is to make sure everything is safe and under control, said Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers. Once things are controlled, an administrator would typically call the police so they can follow up while the situation is ongoing, “so they’re all on the same page,” he said.

Pellet guns can look like lethal weapons. They are typically used for target practice or games. While the guns are not intended to cause harm, being hit by the pellets can be painful and can cause injury, particularly at close range, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Once he picked up the gun, Winters said it was obvious it was a toy pistol — it was plastic and very light, almost like a squirt gun, he said.

Winters said there was not a lot of time to deal with the situation before school was dismissed and that he had not spent a lot of time with the student or parent that day in his office. The child was very upset and it was not a good time to ask a lot of questions, he said. He said he would talk more with them as they continue to address the situation.

“My main concern was containing a threat in the school, and it was easily and discreetly done. No one was in any danger,” said Winters.

Notifying families

Because both sixth-grade teachers at the school said many of their students were aware of the incident, Winters talked to the two classes before school was dismissed to explain that everyone was safe and to applaud the student for alerting him about the gun.

“We talked a lot about safety and how, as grown-ups, our first priority is safety,” said Winters. He spoke to the sixth-graders again on Thursday morning.

Winters and Venable decided it was important to notify all families of sixth-graders so they would be prepared to talk with their children when they got home from school. About three hours after the incident occurred, they sent the email to everyone who has signed up for electronic notifications.

Winters sent another email Thursday morning to families of all elementary students, which contained somewhat more information and identified the gun as “an airsoft pellet gun.”

Several parents questioned why administrators did not notify families of all students in the district, since the schools are on the same campus and students ride buses together.

“There is lots of hearsay and assumptions,” said Venable. “Word travels fast, especially through social media. I understand that worst-case scenarios run through our mind when we hear a report about weapons on campus. I acknowledge the fear and concern it creates.”

Venable said that’s why they decided to send the email to the sixth-grade families and called the Methow Valley News Wednesday afternoon after the incident occurred, and to notify other elementary families the next day. The News posted an account of the incident on its website Thursday morning.

Law enforcement involvement

It was not immediately clear why the call to police was not made until nine hours after the incident occurred. Winters said he and Venable had decided not to contact law enforcement Wednesday afternoon because they could tell there was no threat and that it was not a real weapon.

Venable said he reported the incident to law enforcement after “determining that law enforcement hadn’t been called,” to make sure police were aware of the situation even though the threat had been removed. Whenever a student brings a weapon to school, it creates concern about the student’s access to a weapon, he said. “That’s one reason we call law enforcement,” he said.

The police log shows the incident was called in at 11:31 p.m. Wednesday. Okanogan County Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Kinman followed up on the matter the next day, according to Rogers.

Kinman talked with school administrators and the student’s family. He also reported the incident to the county prosecutor, who determined there was no reason to charge the youth, said Rogers.

Budrow questioned why the incident had not been reported until almost midnight. “It’s very scary — there is no procedure and no protocol — we just got lucky,” she said.

Aimee Budrow is married to Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow, but the police chief is not involved with the situation in a law-enforcement capacity.

Safety versus panic

In responding to an incident like this, administrators try to balance keeping everyone safe with avoiding unnecessary panic or alarm, said Winters.

“One of the things we try to do is keep things as normal as possible,” said Winters. “Calling in law enforcement gets everyone’s attention.”

Budrow disagreed. “I don’t think there’s a single parent who would have faulted the school district for overreacting,” she said. “We live in a world where there are school shootings. We’re not immune to that because we live in the Methow Valley — we have to be proactive.”

Some found the school’s approach appropriate. A commenter on the Methownet.com online bulletin board said, “The school confiscated the gun as soon as they were aware of it. If the danger was past and the student in ‘custody’ what is the value of a lockdown at that point? If it was close to students going home, that is the best course of action …  let them go home.”

Another said, “Looks to me like the school exercised some common sense but I guess that isn’t allowed any more.”

Still another said a lockdown would have been beneficial. “Locking all the doors, calling in to police, dogs sniffing around the school etc., that teaches all the kids the seriousness. That is something they will all remember and hopefully think twice before bringing toys and/or actual weapons to school.”

Another proposed arming school staff. “I hope part of their preparation for these situations involves allowing members of the staff to carry arms at the school to protect our children.”

Winters said he and the sheriff’s deputy discussed how to make sure any weapons in the home are secure. “Families need to be cognizant of what their kids have access to,” said Winters. Even toy guns are prohibited at school because they can present a threat or frighten people. There are instances where children with toy guns have been shot by law-enforcement officers, he said.

When to use lockdown?

If there is a threat in a classroom, the approach is to remove the threat or evacuate the class, not impose a lockdown and keep the child who is posing the threat in the classroom, said Venable.

“To me, if you get the kid and the backpack and have it all controlled, there’s no reason to lock it down,” said Sheriff Rogers. “It’s just going to cause a lot of stress, and parents are going to be freaking.”

Rogers said a lockdown would be imposed if someone was on the school campus with a gun but no one knew exactly where that person was.

School policies

School district policy does not tolerate any weapon, real or fake. Any time a student brings a weapon — or a toy that resembles a weapon — to school the student faces an emergency expulsion for the remainder of the school year, said Venable.

The expulsion can be appealed, where a neutral hearing officer works with the family to determine whether it is safe for the student to come back to school, said Venable. Part of the focus is on the student’s access to weapons at home and what can be done to prevent future incidents, he said.

In this case, the family is eager for the student to return to school, said Winters. They have already made connections with various professionals who support children and families in situations like this, he said.

On Monday (March 21), Winters received a written apology from the student and spoke with the parent. Both said the student had picked up the wrong backpack by mistake. The student knew the right thing to do last week was to say something but was afraid of getting in trouble, said Winters.

The school district’s emergency handbook is posted in every classroom. It includes information about dangerous/concealed weapons, bomb threats/explosives, child abuse, campus unrest and lockdowns, among other situations. The introduction to the handbook states, “Remember, if in doubt call 911.”

The section on dangerous/concealed weapons states that staff response depends on the perceived danger. It could require escorting the person to the principal or calling 911.

Every school district is required to report all incidents involving weapons to the state annually. In 2014-15, there were three daggers reported in the Methow Valley, but no other weapons, including firearms and shotguns.

Bud Hover, the district’s director of operations and capital projects, has been attending trainings about emergency preparedness and response planning in preparation for chairing a comprehensive safe-schools task force in the district, said Venable. The task force will include students, staff, community members and local authorities, who will review and update existing policies and protocols.

Learning opportunities?

Budrow said she hopes the school will use the incident to launch a schoolwide discussion in an assembly, including law-enforcement personnel to educate students about the seriousness of the matter.

Venable was also thinking about what could be learned from the episode. “When events like these take place, it’s my hope that our schools and families take advantage of the opportunity it creates to discuss gun safety and accessibility. While having clear policies and protocols for how schools respond is important, taking a proactive, preventative approach is critical,” he said by email.

“We live in a community where many people hunt. As such, it suggests that many of our children live in homes or spend time in the homes of friends where guns are present. Initiating a proactive, preventative approach begins in the home. Taking the time to educate ourselves about the proper storage of guns is an important first step,” he said.

It is standard practice to debrief after such incidents to see if there might have been a better way to handle communication, said Venable. “I don’t know if there’s any one right way,” he said.

Venable said it was appropriate to notify sixth-grade families first so they were informed when kids got home from school. Administrators will probably go back and forth about whether they should have sent a message to the broader community Wednesday night, rather than wait for Thursday morning, he said.

“It could have been handled differently, but some would say Winters defused a situation that could have been ignited by the presence of law enforcement,” said Venable.

Winters said he is concerned about the student and the student’s family, particularly in a small community like the Methow. “I would hate to see people vilify this child and family, especially if this was an honest mistake or lapse of judgment,” he said.