Friday, June 1, 2018

Boyertown Crowd Faults School's Threat Response

Photos by Evan Brandt
Despite only three hours notice, more than 200 people showed up for a Town Hall meeting about school security held Thursday at Boyertown High School.

Faced with continuing rumors about threats at Boyertown High School, the administration called a town hall meeting Thursday which, despite only three hours notice, attracted hundreds of worried parents and students.

Assistant Superintendent Marybeth Torcia made what School Board President Donna Usavage called "the command decision" to call the meeting largely "to make sure everyone has the same information" and in an attempt the stem the rumor mill rampaging on social media, texts and phone calls.

And she took her lumps, with parent after parent telling her that the district's response to a recent threat had been inadequate, particularly in the communication department.
Boyertown Police Chief Barry Leatherman addresses
last night's meeting about what his department can and
can't do in such situations.

It began before the Memorial Day weekend on Thursday, May 24, when a
student was overheard by several others to have made a threat against ninth grade students, calling them "snitches."

Principal Brett Cooper said in the information that his team received, no specific threat was issued, and there was no mention of a gun or shooting. They deemed it to be not a viable threat after interviewing the student involved.

"At no point did anyone provide information to the administration that anyone was going to shoot the entire class," Torcia said. "What we knew was student said there were snitches and he would take care of them."

However, over the weekend, rumors of an attack spread, students expressed fear about returning to school on Tuesday and parents began comparing notes.

"We were caught off-guard by information that was going around on social media," said Torcia. "If there would have been a threat made that involved a gun, that information would have gone out that day."
Boyertown junior Lindsey Scott told Torcia that
it felt like the district only communicated with
students and parents because of the rumors.
By Monday, it had become obvious to the administration that some kind of communication was necessary, but the vaguely worded, non-specific email did little to allay fears and only allowed room for more speculation, parents said last night.

Subsequent rumors about the student's girlfriend opening up a door at the high school to let him in for a June 1 ninth grade assembly finally triggered Torcia to hold the meeting in an attempt to put the matter to a rest -- a delay she said, in hindsight, was a mistake.

She said the two students involved have not been expelled, but are no longer in the district and will not be returning next year.

She and Cooper also said the student who made the threat was no under the care of a "certified counselor."
Donald Fry said the high school should have
armed guards.

"Not to be mean, but these people don't trust you," said parent Jon Emeigh.

"This isn't the first time Boyertown has held back information," said another speaker.

Torcia confessed, repeatedly, that the administration had made mistakes and was learning from the meeting what parents, students and staff need in terms of information.

There was no shortage of suggestions.

Donald Fry said the school should have armed guards, dismissing concerns about cost by adding, to applause, "come one, the price of a bullet is 26 cents, and how to you compare that to the price of a life?"

But parent Stephanie Dietrich and Emeigh warned overreacting.
Colebrookdale Police Sgt. Amy Babb listens to a speaker.

Noting that she has a "law enforcement background" and has interviewed shooters, Deitrich said metal detectors and an enhanced police presence will not stop a determined shooter.

"If they are bound and determined to kill you, they don't care if the whole SWAT team is in front of them," she said.

Emeigh said while he favors armed guards "I don't favor turning the school into a fortress." He said it may make students feel safe at first, but that studies have show it ultimately increases their stress level and is detrimental to education."

But parent Joe Fava said he had been able to enter the ninth grade section of the
This speaker said she is a survivor of a school
shooting at Upper Perkiomen High School. 
"I don't want anyone else to go through what I did."
school that night without having to identify himself and without being challenged at any point.

"You have a problem," he said, calling for an expert to help make the district's new security plan. "I trust you to educate my kids, not to secure them.

But Torcia said the district had engaged an expert, a former employee of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who had helped craft the plan which, she said, will be put into place in three phases.

She said on Tuesday, the school board approved spending more than $300,000 on the plan, which includes "physical plant upgrades" like cameras and other items she did not think it prudent to detail.

Torcia also said the doors at the high school will be fitted with alarms, to prevent students opening them at inappropriate times to let people into the building.

There will also be education for students and staff about a new reporting matrix, and better education, she said.

Here are the Tweets from the meeting:

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