School incidents cause concern, criticism
In the past two weeks, two Washington County schools have dealt with threats of violence which drew law enforcement to their buildings, and while both were found not to be credible, they drew a lot of attention as well.
In both incidents, officers were responding to calls of a potentially armed person inside the school's building.
Community members have since questioned law enforcement's protocol when responding to potential violence in schools, how school districts handle communication in such incidents and whether schools are safe enough for students, among many issues.
On Monday, Dec. 3, officers from the Hillsboro Police Department entered a Liberty High School classroom with weapons drawn after receiving a report of an armed student in the classroom. The school went into lockdown at 9:15 a.m., but quickly lifted it 15 minutes later after officers determined there was no violence nor any weapons.
Hillsboro School District spokeswoman Beth Graser said police were called to the school after two students in one of the classrooms got into a heated argument. Another student in the class reportedly texted her mother about the altercation, and that mother called 911, saying she believed one of the students was armed.
The incident was captured on video by a student. The video appears to show Hillsboro police officers carrying rifles and handguns addressing students, who have their hands raised. Some community members responded to the video, questioning whether that approach was necessary.
Police spokesman Eric Bunday said officers believed they were responding to a serious threat at the school.
"The officers were responding to a report that there was potentially someone armed in the classroom," Bunday said. "When that is the case, officers take necessary precautions to go in there. If there is something going on there, they are able to address it."
Just days before, on Friday, Nov. 30, nearby Stoller Middle School in Bethany went into lockdown after an email threat was received by several Beaverton School District administrators.
The email alluded to a threat of a firearm, and based on what was sent, deputies were concerned that a possible suspect was already inside the building and planning to do harm, according to Washington County Sheriff's Office Lt. John Bennett, who also serves as supervisor to Washington County's school resource officers. Officers quickly responded to the threat and began searching the school room by room while the school was placed on lockdown. The searches took more than four hours, and after the building was deemed safe, and each student and staff member was pat down, students were cleared for reunification with families in a process requiring each parent or guardian to show their ID before taking their student home. That took nearly four more hours to complete, and it wasn't until 8:13 p.m. Friday night that the process was over.
Last week, on Wednesday, Dec. 5, law enforcement, school officials, and parents and guardians met to talk about out what went right and what went wrong that day at Stoller. Several hundred parents packed into the commons area of Westview High School to ask questions of the Washington County law enforcement officials who responded to the incident, as well as school and district representatives.
Many parents expressed frustration over how the incident was handled, while others thanked officers and school staff for their dedication to the safety of students. Most, however, shared the same questions and concerns: whether there are any new leads in the investigation into where the email came from; what changes, if any, the school will be making to its building's security; whether a threat to students still exists; and how situations like this might be handled differently in the future.
Both school representatives and law enforcement responded to the many upset parents, admitting there were some faults, specifically in terms of effective communication and timeliness in the reunification process.
Some parents said there appeared to be little organization between officers, describing the scene from outside of the school as "chaotic." Others defended the officers.
"The reason why we did what we did and why we do what we do is for the protection of the kids and for staff," Lt. Bennett told parents Wednesday night. "We know we can improve and we know we can do better. And that's the whole purpose of us doing this. If we thought everything went perfect, none of us would be sitting here tonight. We know there is room for improvement, and we are working on it."
The investigation into where the email came from is still ongoing, according to Bennett.
For the Hillsboro Police Department and the Hillsboro School District, there are currently no plans in the works to address the community about how the incident was handled, Graser said.
While both school officials and Bunday have said they fully understand why the sight of officers entering a classroom with guns drawn was frightening for both students and parents, protocol was followed and officers did what they are expected to do, they said.
There were major differences between the threat at Stoller and the report made about Liberty which caused the two law enforcement agencies to respond differently, Bunday added.
"The way that our officers responded was largely governed too by the fact that we had a specific room that we had been told the individual with the gun was supposed to be in," he said. "It turns out that there wasn't a gun on anyone, but we did have specific information as to what room, so that's why the officers responded with such expediency.
Asked if the HPD would do anything differently if a similar event should take place in the future, Bunday replied, "no."
"No because we take every single one of these reports seriously," he said. "Given the nature of the call at the time, which was unfolding, was a report of a student potentially armed with a gun in a classroom. We knew we needed to go there. … It's absolutely understandable that it's alarming and shocking to see police officers going into a classroom with guns. We totally understand that, but we want people to know that we do take this very seriously and that's why our officers responded in the manner that they did. … We are really thankful this turned out to be a false alarm, but we take these really, really seriously."
By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
Subscribe to our E-News and get the week's top stories in your inbox