Huddled in a storage closet at Thomas Edison High School on Thursday, students were quiet.
After a few minutes, a school administrator announced over the intercom, “Stay in lockdown mode — turn off lights and lock the doors.” It was not a drill.
Outside, police had arrested a man who walked into the front office at Wheaton High School, said he had a gun and walked next door to Edison. He was apprehended by police outside of building, but the school was placed on lockdown for nearly an hour, prompting fear and anxiety inside.
Robert Grant, a junior at Walter Johnson High School who is part of Edison’s Foundations of Automotive Technologies program, said he and his classmates were directed into a small back room and told “to just stay there.”
“When I found out what was happening, I was a little terrified,” Grant wrote in a message to Bethesda Beat on Thursday night. “… From this I learned that your life can be turned upside down in an instant, so don’t take life for granted.”
Edison’s threat was one of at least four threats against Montgomery County high schools reported this week. On Sunday, a Montgomery Blair student made a social media post saying if they continued to be bullied, they would “end your f–ing lives.” Approximately 700 students were absent from school the next day as the police continued to investigate.
On Monday, five Clarksburg High School students were arrested. One brought a handgun to school and was robbed in a bathroom by the others, police said. A loaded magazine was found in one teen’s backpack.
There was no lockdown or imminent threat on Monday at Clarksburg High, but senior Zoe Tishaev said the situation was “unnerving.”
“It’s frightening to know a kid can carry a gun into school and nobody would know, and that’s why it’s so important that kids feel comfortable talking to security,” Tishaev said. “Clarksburg is safe and security does a phenomenal job. Sometimes kids make the wrong decisions.”
On Thursday afternoon, around dismissal time and after the incident at Edison, someone phoned in a threat to John F. Kennedy High School, prompting a 30-minute lockdown.
Nate Tinbite, a senior at Kennedy and the student member of the Montgomery County school board, wasn’t supposed to be at school on Thursday, but he returned in the afternoon to meet with the principal, Joe Rubens.
Mid-conversation, the threat came in and Rubens sprung to action, Tinbite said, making phone calls and directing Tinbite to hide in a conference room, where he turned out the lights and locked the door. School officials “did everything they were supposed to do and did it quickly,” Tinbite said. Police were at the school within minutes.
Approximately 10 patrol cars arrived and officers jumped out, jogging inside wearing tactical gear — bulletproof vests, helmets — and carrying assault weapons, Tinbite said.
The school fell silent, but many began posting on social media. “Why are we on lockdown???,” one Twitter post said. Another: “this is crazy…”
Many said they were scared, even after the lockdown was lifted.
“What’s really going to scar and traumatize students is that visual of the heavily armed officers, and having to hide under desks or in corners,” Tinbite said. “This is being normalized and it shouldn’t be.”
Andrea Anaya, a senior, was not at school at the time. Text messages from her friends began flowing in, saying there was a lockdown that wasn’t a drill. Anaya said she felt helpless; her friends were scared and there was nothing she could do, no information she could share.
Anaya and her friends mused about how they “never expected it to happen at our school.”
“I don’t know if I really want to go to school tomorrow,” Anaya wrote in a message to Bethesda Beat Thursday night. “It feels unsafe, it feels like anything can happen.”
On Monday, after the social media threat targeting Blair, the Montgomery County Police Department released a statement, reminding community members that all threats will spur “thorough investigations.”
The statement says that anyone who makes a threat, “regardless whether it is a prank,” will be criminally charged. Charges could include disorderly conduct, threats of mass violence or threat of arson/destructive devices.
MCPS spokesman Derek Turner said the school district often sees an increase in threats around the anniversary of major school shootings. Friday marked two years since 17 people were killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Experts say school shootings are rare, but threats are common. In the 2018-19 school year, 3,058 threats of violence were reported against schools throughout the country, according to data released by the Educator’s School Safety Network.
That number represents a 46.6% increase from the 2016-17 school year.
About 40% of all threats were reported to have been made on social media and about 85% of the threats were made by students.
According to data compiled by Education Week, 51 people were killed or injured in 25 school shootings in 2019.
Training and active assailant drills
In the midst of high-profile school shootings, districts across the country have amped up preparedness training.
Last year, MCPS rolled out new active assailant training called “lockdown with options.” The training focuses on preparing schools and students to handle an incident involving an active assailant, instructing them to hide, run away or fight the assailant if no other options are available.
School administrators say the training focuses on developing situational awareness by asking the staff and students to consider their surroundings — thinking ahead about how to escape or barricade a room and what items could be used to defend themselves.
Each year, classes review PowerPoint presentations and discuss possible emergency scenarios.
There are no simulations of a shooting event, but, still, some parents have raised concerns about the psychological toll on students.
On Tuesday, Everytown For Gun Safety, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association released a white paper calling on schools to reassess the use of lockdown drills.
The groups, representing millions of educators and activists across the country, point to a lack of data that suggest the drills are effective in preventing violence, while other data suggest the drills may traumatize some students.
“Given growing concern among parents, students, educators, and medical professionals about the impact that active shooter drills can have on student development, Everytown, AFT, and NEA do not recommend these drills for students and believe schools should carefully consider these impacts before conducting live drills that involve students and educators,” the groups’ white paper says.
If schools conduct active shooter drills, it says, they should not include simulations, parents should be given advance notice, the staff and students should be aware in advance that it is a drill and there should be clear data about the efficacy and effects of the drills.
In December, the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations passed a resolution, forwarded to the local school board, with many of the same requests.
The resolution also calls on MCPS to provide information to parents about their legal obligations to ensure firearms are stored properly and to evaluate the effectiveness of its behavioral threat assessment program, passed in May. Each school now has a threat assessment team trained in how to react to real or perceived threats and how to identify potentially dangerous students and community members.
“Nothing is more sensitive to parents than these kinds of things, so (MCCPTA) has been working for a long time to make sure the procedures we have in place are effective and align with best practices,” said Gillian Huebner, chair of the MCCPTA’s subcommittee on school climate and safety.
MCPS officials say counseling is available for students who are uneasy, anxious or upset after active shooter drills.
Additional counseling was also available for students at schools affected by threats this week, Turner said.
“We know that threats can be a misguided community member or student doing a prank, or it could be a student crying out for help, and regardless, we’re going to respond with our police partners and take action,” Turner said. “And we are ready to support any students who need it.”