Questions arise after attack on school property

By Austin Vinner and Jeremy Chung

As students continue the transition back to school, the issue regarding school safety comes back into question. Recently this has become more prevalent at WCHS due to an incident that occurred on Oct. 13, in which a Whitman student assaulted a WCHS student outside of the bus loop, then threatened parent and student witnesses with a knife.

The attack occurred around 11:34 a.m, when the majority of students were at lunch, and some were in the process of arriving at school. The assailant, however, quickly left at around 11:36. The administration had to act fast to keep everyone safe, so they allowed everyone to enter the school building before announcing a shelter in place.

“We were halfway through lunch and we had people leaving, arriving, coming in, getting picked up, so we felt that communicating at that point would be too confusing,” Principal Taylor said. “Everybody wouldn’t get the message, and it would be chaotic, so we got everybody in and then went into shelter.”

With students and teachers not being in class for over a year and a half, there have been growing pains and many adjustments to ease this transition. However, one thing is certain: this incident has shown the school’s security flaws and allows for improvement in the future.

“We went a year without doing any of this, so we are all out of practice,” Taylor said. “We need to make sure we’re thinking about it and practicing it.”

Some of the confusion amid the incident came from unclear expectations about what to do during a shelter versus a lockdown. Because students and teachers have been out of the building for over a year, clarifying this could be beneficial.

“A lockdown is always the same; everybody locks their doors and hides,” Taylor said. “A shelter in place could be anything. It could be staying in your rooms and getting rid of the bell schedule, or it could be continuing instruction and having normal transitions.” 

The decision by the administration to act as it wasn’t a lockdown and allowed students to transition between classes has brought about a lot of confusion. Still, it’s important to have perspective and think about this situation and how it differs from other possible scenarios. In this case, multiple witnesses verified that the Whitman student in question had left school grounds.

“It would be a very different thing if an incident occurred where the person ran into the Bulldog Lobby, and we didn’t know where they were,” Taylor said. “We would have been locked down. When we lock down, we are only coming out of lockdown when police go room to room, so if we have to, we’ll do that, but we didn’t feel that was the situation we were in.”

WCHS has many safety precautions already in place during arrival and departure. Still, this incident occurred during an overlooked period in the delayed opening schedule, where security was preoccupied with PSAT testing. While incidents like these are never ideal, they provide insight into how the school can better protect its students.

“When we have these delayed openings, we think about students arriving after lunch, but we realized that students start coming before and during lunch to see their teachers,” Taylor said.

The outrage surrounding this incident is due to more than just the event itself. Many parents have criticized how the school communicated during and after the incident with students, parents and the surrounding community. When Principal Taylor debriefed parents during the Oct. 19 PTSA meeting, they commented that Principal Taylor’s email notifying parents of the event was sent out too late.

“It would be nice to know that something unusual is happening because what happened is that the first time we heard about this was 3 p.m. when you sent out the letter,” a parent at the meeting said. “I know it can be logistically hard and it might create more unnecessary panic, but notifications in real-time would be nice.”

Taylor has since mentioned the county’s ongoing plan to create an emergency text system for schools. This will allow for timely information to go out to the community and cut through the bureaucratic red tape.

“People expect emergency texts,” Taylor said. “You get the Alert Montgomery messages 5,000 times a day because somebody had a fender bender. Can we not use a similar system when there’s an actual emergency in a school? It seems like we would be able to do that, but it is still something that MCPS is working on.”

In response to the lateness of the email, Principal Taylor outlined the many steps that must be taken before an email is sent out to the school community.

“Multiple people have to look at what I’m sending out before I do so,” Taylor said. “In the past, we have been worried about sharing too much information, but now we are trying to be as transparent as we can with what is happening so that we are giving as much information as possible unless there’s a reason why we can’t share something.”

Despite this goal, shortcomings during the event caused the administration to have difficulty reaching students within the school. The PA system throughout the school was not working correctly when the shelter in place announcement was made, making it hard to hear and leaving many students and teachers with more questions than answers.

“We think there was something wrong with the system, with a particular phone, so we had people come out and look at it,” Taylor said. “The bells are now significantly louder than they were because we turned the whole system louder, but we also think that one of the phones was not as loud as the others, but that has been fixed as well.”

Even communication within school administration leaves something to be desired. WCHS English teacher Aishling McGinty explains how the situation was brought to her attention and how the details surrounding the event were not made clear until after rumors had already spread.

“We weren’t told a lot of information,” McGinty said. “I actually heard more information from the students. Some students told me that there was an incident and we were probably going to go to a shelter in place. This was before they announced anything, so there were a lot of rumors. Afterward, I got an email about us going into a shelter from Mr. Taylor.”

Due to the subpar execution of safety plans, students and teachers are not fully confident in staying safe in school. Principal Taylor plans to schedule time to debrief students on safety protocol. However, as of Nov. 8, no plans have been made.

“Some of the students I’ve talked to have said they are fine and they saw the news reports or their parents talked to them about it, but that hasn’t necessarily happened with all of the kids. We are still looking for an opportunity to talk about the situation, maybe as part of a shelter and lockdown drill,” Taylor said.

While significant visible changes to prevent something like this from happening again have not been made, Principal Taylor has expressed his optimism that positive changes are coming and hopes that the WCHS action plan will improve soon. On another note, some security measures have been in place: such as security guarding entrances and most importantly, locking the doors leading to the portables during class time.

“Practice makes perfect,” Taylor said. “We should talk about the difference between shelter and lockdown. We need to be clear on what to do because what we don’t want is to go into a lockdown and have people thinking it’s something else.”