Boy had gun in waistband, Mayo says
Jan 11, 2013 (The Morning Call (Allentown - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
When the Allen High School security guard saw the boy on his camera monitor Tuesday afternoon, he knew something wasn't right.
Classes were in session and the final bell wasn't scheduled to ring for another hour. So the boy had no business being outside the building and even less coming back in.
"That raised his suspicions immediately," district Superintendent Russ Mayo said Thursday night after the school board Education Committee meeting.
The guard then radioed Allen's security team and administrators. They began sweeping the building in a search that coincidentally came about the same time a lockdown drill was scheduled to begin, Mayo said. They found him about an hour or 90 minutes later.
"He was in a hallway," Mayo said. "Administrators questioned him."
They didn't suspect or know he was armed, Mayo said, until the student showed them the gun in the waistband of his pants.
"He was cooperative," Mayo said.
Allentown police arrested the 16-year-old at 2:53 p.m. at the school. The teenager, an Allentown resident, was charged in juvenile court with possession of a weapon on school property, possession of a weapon by a minor and possession of a weapon without a license. He was sent to Lehigh County Juvenile Detention, where he awaits a hearing.
Mayo relayed his account to a reporter after he publicly defended his administration's handling of the incident during a brief speech at the beginning of Thursday's meeting. He had been criticized because he and city police waited nearly 24 hours to alert the media and did not inform parents.
During the meeting, Mayo said he knows there are questions about the incident, but he said policy is to inform parents if a "crisis and ongoing threat" is occurring.
He said the incident was taken care of quickly when it was discovered shortly after school ended. In addition, the superintendent said, Allen Principal Shannon Mayfield informed staff of the incident Wednesday morning. That afternoon, Mayo said, he and police Chief Roger MacLean contacted the media.
Mayo said he understands the concern among staff and the public, especially in light of recent violent events at schools. However, Mayo said, there are some security and student privacy issues the district cannot release to the media.
"We are trying to keep people informed," Mayo said. "The system is working and we are concerned about our kids and staff and certainly we inform parents of imminent danger."
Earlier in the day, some parents and crisis management experts questioned what they consider delayed communication.
"It's disturbing," said Shelena Butcher, who has a daughter and son at the school and spoke while waiting to pick them up Thursday. "They usually will send out an alert when something happens."
Butcher learned of the arrest by reading her newspaper. She said she's not even sure her children knew about it because they never mentioned anything.
Leslie Rivera only found out about the arrest as she waited Thursday to pick up her two sons.
"Why would they not tell us," she said as she sat in her vehicle parked across from the school. "They'll tell us when it's going to snow, but not when some kid has a gun."
Police and Mayo released news of the arrest around 4 p.m. Wednesday. The boy, in his first day of classes, was never buzzed in and was possibly let in by another student, Mayo said Wednesday.
After Thursday's meeting, Mayo said the boy did not enter through the front door, as The Morning Call reported Thursday. The front door leads to a large vestibule in which students and visitors have to pass a security guard in a booth before entering the main hallway. Citing security reasons, Mayo declined to say which door -- Allen has more than a dozen doors -- the student entered.
Mayo said there was no reason for anyone to think the student was armed. The lockdown that was occurring was coincidental "and was not a result of this [incident]," he said.
"This was not an imminent crisis," Mayo said. "If it had been, we would have notified parents, believe me."
In a separate interview Thursday, MacLean said he would not be giving out any more information on the incident. He said police are still trying to determine where the boy got the gun.
Allentown, like all school districts across the country, went on heightened alert following last month's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Mayo's administration sent robocalls then to parents and administrators reminding them about the district's safety protocols and to be on alert.
Butcher said the last time the school sent a mass notice to parents was to tell them about a planned moment of silence for the Sandy Hook victims.
The 24-hour notice given by Allentown authorities is not long compared with the public release of information on an incident state police responded to at Lehigh Career & Technical Institute in Schnecksville.
At 2 p.m. Jan. 2, troopers arrested a juvenile for having a BB gun on campus and charges were sent to Lehigh County Juvenile Court, according to a news release issued Thursday.
Two crisis management experts faulted the Allentown school administrators and police for not releasing information about the arrest until nearly 24 hours later and only to the media, not parents.
Matthew W. Seeger is dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts and a professor of communication at Wayne State University in Detroit who has written six books on crisis management.
He said best practice is to release information as quickly as possible, which means after the scene has been secured and basic facts are gleaned, Seeger said.
"If the superintendent and police are busy managing circumstances, we do not expect them to stop doing that to hold a press conference," Seeger said.
But 24 hours is too long, he said, even if further police investigation is needed.
Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland consulting firm, said school officials have to protect students' privacy rights under federal law. But that does not preclude them from disseminating basic information in a timely manner.
"It's difficult to believe it took 24 hours for the basic understanding that a gun was found and law enforcement was involved and action was taken," he said. "Every second school districts do not get out accurate and timely information is only going to contribute to a communication crisis for the school district."
Seeger said that the longer school officials delay, the sooner they lose control of the message, especially if an incident was captured on a student's cellphone and is sent out on the Internet. All it takes is one kid with a cellphone and one piece of information and all kinds of rumors and speculation start, which can probably cause more harm, he said.
More importantly, Seeger said, school administrators lose credibility with the public if they are perceived to be withholding information.
He said it is a myth that people panic in a crisis.
"First, the public does not panic," Seeger said. "In general, the public responds in logical, appropriate ways. They respond in appropriate ways to information they have. So withholding information facilitates inappropriate responses."
Trump said the reason school officials withhold or prolong the release of information is that it is part of their workplace culture, Trump said.
"It gets to the longtime culture in the education community of downplay, deny, deflect and defend when it comes to communicating what school officials perceive to be 'negative' information when it is around school safety," Trump said.
In August, Allentown police switched to an encrypted radio system to replace its analog radio system. The new system can only be heard by listeners with the proper encryption key. The media often rely on scanner transmissions for breaking crime news and to alert residents to possible dangerous events in their area.
That's how The Morning Call and other media found out a Montgomery County elementary school was placed on lockdown Thursday afternoon. Police radio reports indicated about 1:40 p.m. there was a possible armed suspect at the West Broad Street Elementary School in Franconia Township.
Shortly after 2 p.m., police radio reports indicated the school was secure and safe and officers were searching for a possible armed suspect who may have been wearing a black sweater and black ski mask.
Those reports were followed up by tweets from Montgomery County's public safety office. Police later determined the incident was unfounded and it was cleared.
Reporter Pamela Lehman contributed to this story.
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