Cherry Hill Police Chief Bud Monaghan said that as trying as it is to endure the protocols of an institutional lockdown, the best thing for parents to do is to allow authorities to manage the situation.
By Matt Skoufalos | January 4, 2017
After a tense, four-hour lockdown, students, parents, and staff at Henry C. Beck Middle School in Cherry Hill were relieved to learn that a threat made against the building was resolved peacefully on Wednesday.
But because the problem of “swatting“—calling in hoax threats to authorities—is a growing trend, after the dust settles, authorities must “retool and get ready for the next one,” Cherry Hill Police Chief Bud Monaghan said.
“It is difficult,” the chief said. “It is an extremely labor-intensive and resource-intensive response, but with the way that things are in the world today, we can’t take anything lightly. If [an incident] reaches certain levels within our procedures, we have to take it to that type of response.”
Complicating that response is the outpouring of parents and family members who get pulled into such an event, energized with nervous energy and fearful of their children’s safety. Unfortunately, their presence at the scene is often another factor that complicates its resolution.
During the course of the investigation Wednesday, Monaghan spoke personally with several parents who had gathered at three different locations nearby. In those exchanges, the chief said he was grateful that parents were “open to listening to what we said,” especially because many had driven over only to learn that they were not permitted to take their children out of the building.
“That’s not always the best course of action,” Monaghan said. “We want to be sure that the kids are being released in an efficient and effective manner to make sure they’re going home with the people they should be going home with.”
Because many students have the ability to text or call their parents throughout the day, the outpouring of information in an incident such as Wednesday’s threat complicates the investigation. When parents get news from their kids within the building—like an update about being relocated within the school—and then post that information on social media, it can undermine efforts to resolve a tense situation.
“That’s not good if a bad guy is monitoring this,” Monaghan said. “We want that information confidential because we might be moving them there for a reason. As easy as it might be to tell people where you’re at, it’s not the safest question to ask them.”
— Joe Meloche (@MelocheJoe) January 4, 2017
A secondary effect of all the contact with home is that it escalates anxiety, drawing parents to the scene, where, as on Wednesday, they have few options except to wait around, unnerved. Instead, the chief asked parents “to fight that urge to respond to the location.
“The word starts to get out, and the social media hysteria takes effect, and then panic ensues, and parents want to come to the school,” Monaghan said. “When they start clogging up the roadway, they’re taking up spaces where we would want to park emergency vehicles.”
Monaghan said the best course of action for parents is to follow the school district website and social media channels. During a lockdown, police divide multiple responsibilities, with detectives interviewing witnesses and command and tactical officers securing the building. While authorities are consumed with their roles, school leadership takes over responsibility for public communication.
“We operate with a unified command,” Monaghan said. “The school will put out information once we deem it safe to put that information out. The police are there to focus on the safety issues at hand.”
In addition to not being allowed to remove students from the building during the investigation, parents’ presence on the grounds can also inadvertently disrupt their kids’ return to their routine, which Monaghan said starts with allowing children to follow their normal, end-of-day dismissal procedures.
“It’s stressful for the kids,” the chief said. “It’s stressful for the teachers, the custodians, the food service workers, the police officers, the parents. There’s so many things that go on with it that are just rapid-fire. But we need to be able, as calmly as possible in a chaotic environment, to take control of that scene, and get to the point where that environment is safe.”
Although the threat against Beck was revealed to have been unsubstantiated, the department also dispatched officers to the other schools in the township and instituted a “lockout” at nearby Joseph D. Sharp Elementary School, bringing all student activities inside while authorities secured the perimeter of the facility.
Police also redeploy other officers throughout the township during such an event to account for the possibility that the threat could be a diversion from something else.
Even those actions can be undermined by the activity within the building, as the same children who are texting their parents may also be calling 9-1-1 from within the school, talking to dispatchers, and occupying emergency resources.
“We still have to focus on providing emergency services,” Monaghan said. “Any hiccup along the way can cause more problems with the kids.”
In the meantime, the chief advised parents to take any information that doesn’t come from district or police sources during such emergencies with a grain of salt.
“Just because it’s on social media it doesn’t mean it’s true,” he said.
Monaghan said that the Cherry Hill police and school district would be working to outline formal guidance for families to be used in similar situations in the future.
Police still consider Wednesday’s incident to be under investigation, and have vowed to arrest and prosecute the responsible parties.
“As with any school threat, the incident is under active investigation, and those involved will be arrested and charged accordingly,” Cherry Hill Police Captain Amy Winters said in a statement.
“We will not tolerate any type of threat meant to terrorize or instill fear amongst members of our community.”
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