There was an intruder in my boys’ middle school last week. How do I know? They told me about it. Yes, finally the story of the controversy that sparked my apoplexy on Facebook last week.
Early last Thursday evening, I picked up the three big boys at Hebrew School and started catching up on their days. Ben typically has a laundry list of stuff stuck in his craw, dominating the conversation, and that day was no exception. “French quiz this, position paper that, need money in my lunch account, math midterm tomorrow, yadda yadda yadda…”
All of a sudden from the back seat pipes up this little voice, “There was an intruder in the school on Tuesday,” announced Zack, almost matter-of-factly.
“EXCUSE ME?” I bellowed, alarmed. “You guys let Ben blab on about all this inane stuff and you didn’t lead with this?”
Yes. In homerooms that morning, the kids were told that there had been an intruder in the school on Tuesday who had been peacefully escorted out by security. They were told that there would be a lockdown drill the next day and that everyone needed to be more aware about security in the school. Outside doors should not be propped open, classroom doors should not be opened for anyone except a teacher, and should you see a stranger in the hallway without a teacher’s badge or visitor sticker, you should alert a teacher or direct the person to the main office. (Actually, two of my three boys reported varying details, and the third, who does the school’s morning TV show instead of homeroom, didn’t have any official information about this at all. He had heard rumors second-hand from friends at lunch.)
WHAT? I’m hearing about this from my kids and not the principal? She didn’t think this was important enough to tell 800 families about? Something didn’t sound right. And the thought of a security breach at the school sent me into orbit, with a massive headache from the vein pulsing on the side of my head.
I immediately got in touch with a very well-connected friend, who filled me in on the nitty-gritty. Everything I had heard was perfectly accurate, and the principal was not planning to address it, much to the dismay of my friend. What allegedly happened was a man had been buzzed into the school on Tuesday, and under standard procedure, was told over the outside intercom to sign in at the main office. He appeared in the office and asked if he could use a restroom. A secretary directed him down the hall to the restroom without asking for identification, having him sign in or take a visitor’s badge. A few minutes later, apparently realizing her error, she contacted security who escorted the man peacefully from the building. My friend then told me that the police had come to school the following day to do an investigation. Hmmm. That’s a little odd to wait ’til the next day. Red flag #1.
Red flag #2: if everything was so benign, why wouldn’t the principal inform parents of the incident so we could have an informed, reassuring conversation with our kids when they came home? Are we not valued partners in our kids’ educational experience? I can’t imagine I was the only alarmed parent. Even though—thankfully—there had been no danger to our kids, my background in crisis communications explicitly dictates addressing issues like this proactively to assuage any anxiety and reassure us measures had been taken to prevent a security penetration from happening in the future. Why the principal wouldn’t choose to do this puzzled me, and frankly, raised my suspicions.
That evening I wrote her an email, cc’ing the superintendent. She called the next morning and asked if David and I could come in to meet with her that afternoon. In the meantime I heard back from the superintendent in a very ass-covering email that I’m sure counsel had drafted or at least eyeballed.
This is the principal’s first year here in Westport, and I know her personally, as I sit on the PTA’s executive board, so I knew what to expect at the meeting. I went in with a firm though non-confrontational attitude, ready to listen to her story, since she had called the meeting. We had checked the facts beforehand with the police department—indeed the incident had happened on Tuesday and they hadn’t been called ’til Wednesday. The file was still open for some reason, so I couldn’t yet obtain a police report. The principal was sorry we were upset not to have heard from her or any administrator about this. She said there was no precedent about communication in this instance, and that it had been left to her discretion to decide. Since she didn’t want to make the ultimate decision (sound like a good manager? just asking…) she had assembled different teams of administrators (including the friend I had contacted) and asked what they all thought she should do. Ultimately the polling concluded she should furnish her teachers with a script, have them inform the students, who would then bring the info home to their parents. Anyone else see a flaw in this logic or is it just me? Don’t you think that perhaps you lose control of the message when you tell dozens of teachers to give facts to 900+ kids and have them go home and disseminate the information to all their parents? Is it a mystery how rumors get started? It was like a giant school-wide game of “Telephone”—and unconscionable in my opinion.
So I diligently pursued my line of questioning. The superintendent had asserted in his email that the principal had followed district procedures, but something troubled me. Why did the police not come until Wednesday when the incident happened on Tuesday? Was that crisis procedure? To wait a whole day to summon the police to school to investigate and search the bathroom? What’s to say this person hadn’t left behind something potentially dangerous? Ahhh. Therein lay the crux of the decision not to communicate to parents. The principal acknowledged my concern, attempting to gloss over it quickly, but when, after a few minutes, she could see I wasn’t going to relent, she acquiesced and spilled the beans as discreetly as she could, without naming names. While the intruder had been in the school on Tuesday, the principal wasn’t informed about the incident until Wednesday, whereupon she called the police immediately. So yes, technically she followed procedures by calling the police as soon as she learned of the incident, but why had 24+ hours gone by without her knowing? She had followed procedures, but obviously others hadn’t. Bingo. That’s why she didn’t want to inform parents. End of meeting. All I needed to know.
Clearly there are administrative problems within the school if there isn’t instant (or even timely) communication from the principal about an issue this critical. Based on conversations with some of the school administrators as well as my experiences at school, I have my own opinions about the source of the problem.