Tonawanda News

October 9, 2013

Schools respond with lockout

By Jill Keppeler jill.keppeler@tonawanda-news.com
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — As police and fire department activity buzzed around a Fries Road home Monday, a flurry of activity was also going on behind the scenes at the Ken-Ton School District. 

Superintendent Mark Mondanaro said he spent the day in constant communication with town Police Chief Anthony J. Palumbo as the situation developed, getting updates and making decisions about the schools’ level of alert based on the district safety plan and Palumbo’s advice.

From there, Mondanaro said, he alerted the district principals about the situation and the emergency status.

“It used to be walkie talkies. In this day and age, honestly, it’s cell phones, and the principals know that,” Mondanaro said. “The reality is when you have as many as 16 buildings ... we break into a team of three to four people and do that same verbal contact. We need to know the plan is being implemented and that is the only way to do that.”

Police said Joseph Hollywood, 60, started the fire at his 163 Fries Road home and was inside with an unknown number of firearms when fire crews and police arrived. 

The district posted a notice on its website Monday morning warning parents and residents that the police department had advised “all school district buildings should not allow anyone to leave or enter at this time” due to a “possibly deranged individual.” A text through the district E-Alerts system went out at 10:53 a.m. about the lockout status.

A little after 1 p.m., Mondanaro issued a statement saying police told him the lockdown was no longer needed. However, at 3:24 p.m., an E-Alert went out about a delay to the dismissal of Edison Elementary, Franklin Middle and Kenmore East schools, as a SWAT team searched a nearby Mayville Avenue home for Hollywood. At 4 p.m., the students were allowed to leave. 

Mondanaro said the district is in the process of putting in place a new messaging system that will contact all parents through a series of emails, messages and robocalls in the case of just such an emergency.

“That really would have helped yesterday,” he said. The current E-Alerts system requires residents to sign up at the district website (www.kenton.k12.ny.us/ealert) to receive the messages. 

“It works, but the system we’re going to be moving to is going to be much better.”

The important thing, Mondanaro said, is that students were safe.

“I’d rather be criticized for being conservative,” he said. “I don’t know if this guy is going to jump out of this house with a gun. I don’t know that. I’m not going to take that chance. That’s how we think. That’s our philosophy.”

The status at the schools Monday was termed a lockout situation, in which the district has been informed of a possible threat, precautions have been taken but the school day continues as normal except for outside activities. 

In the case of Kenmore East High School, not far from the scene, a combination shelter-in-place/lockout status was in operation, Mondanaro said. Under a shelter-in-place status, students remain in place within the school or are moved to a single location therein. 

District parents seemed mostly positive about the district’s actions during the incident.

Dawn Stinner, a parent with four children at Lindbergh Elementary School, was actually at the school during the situation and was unable to leave.

“I happened to be there when the principal got the call and he said, ‘We have to lock down the building,’ “ she said. “It was flawless, it really was. I happened to be in a class at the time, and the teacher kept the kids calm and continued on with her class, but in a quiet mode. It actually worked out very well.”

Stinner, who has three first-graders and one fifth-grader at the school, said that at their age, many of the kids had no idea anything was going on.

“They didn’t seem to have much stress with the situation. I think the district did a great job,” said Stinner, who also has a preschooler. “I was glad to see it from the inside, because it really did put my mind at ease.”

Tara Sciortino, who has twins at Hoover Middle School and a child at Edison Elementary School, said she thought the district handled the situation well, but was concerned about the timeliness of alerts. She didn’t receive the E-Alert message about the delay in Edison dismissal until after the original dismissal should have taken place.

“Eight minutes after the bell rings ... then I got the text,” she said. “I never thought my children were not safe. But this is not in a timely manner. That needs to be addressed.”

When her son walked out of school, he took one look at her and burst into tears, Sciortino said. 

“It was the fear of the unknown. They really weren’t told anything,” she said. “I think the district handled it well, but there’s room for improvement. It was scary and I think what frustrated me was if they didn’t know where this guy was, why was the lockdown lifted in the first place?”