Are Schools Now Overreacting to Threats?

Imagine you are the parent of a high school student and you suddenly receive the following text from your child:

“My school is on lockdown.”

How would you react? Would you panic or do your best to stay clear headed? Would you assume the worst, that your kid is amidst a situation akin to Columbine High School shooting or the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre?

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Allow me to share the following “text dialogue” with you, which I carried on with my older daughter Jessica. She attends the highly regarded Edward R. Murrow High School, which is also my alma mater, and walking distance from where we live. This incident happened on Wednesday, January 21, 2015. She first messaged me at 1:29 p.m.. I tried to stay as calm as possible, mostly to keep her from getting upset.

Jessica: My school is on lockdown.

Me: Stay calm. What class and room u in?

Jessica: We’re in science.

Me: I bet a kid cut out and guards r searching for her or him.

Jessica: Someone says someone had a gun in the school. IDK (I don’t know) if that’s true.

Me: Don’t worry.

Jessica: Really. Do you know what’s happening?

Me: I called the school no answer at switchboard do I call police precinct?

Jessica: IDK. I hope it’s nothing bad.

Me: I’m calling the 70th now. [70th Precinct on Lawrence Avenue.]

Jessica: The what

Me: Precinct.

Jessica: Sure.

Me: Stay on.

Jessica: Ok

Me: Officers r there now u know what I drive over ok

Jessica: Don’t. We’re on lockdown and no one can go inside or outside.

Me: I bet it’s a custody issue and a parent acting out. [This happened at a Brooklyn high school where I used to teach.]

Jessica: The class near us told us to be quiet.

Me: Ugh. Many parents here

Jessica: Really. Outside?

Me: Yeah, dozens.

Jessica: What’s happening?

Me: U got power on ur phone?

Jessica: Yeah. 55 percent

Me: U sit at desks or on the floor?

Jessica: Floor

We shared more messages and then I decided that the situation seemed non-threatening, and I left to get my other daughter at her middle school. When she and I were home Jessica texted to tell us that she was walking home.

So what happened? Was there an incident or some kind of baseless fright? I checked several news sources and found out that the lockdown was due to a case of mistaken identity and a very cautious set of decisions. The phrase of the day turned out to be “In an abundance of caution.”

Apparently three students were seen by a teacher, carrying shop tools and scissors in a stairwell. A teacher mistook these for intruders with weapons, and called in a report. The school went into a Level One Mobilization, and everyone was in a lockdown for over two hours. NYPD came to investigate and found that there was no threat, so the lockdown was lifted. I was one of dozens of parents and guardians who came to the school to find out what was happening. A small news crew from NBC TV arrived and a few press photographers also came.

Students were dismissed, so no after school activities went on. At 5 p.m.?my home phone rang. It was a robocall from the principal, Allen Barge, explaining in clear detail what transpired at the school. “Safety is always of utmost importance,” he mentioned. Parents also received an email from the school’s Parent Coordinator, explaining the situation and reassuring us that things were okay.

So all is well in Brooklyn. I cannot help but reflect upon all the school shootings the United States has experienced in the past generation. Shootings have been carried out by intruders as well as by students. Too many families and communities have dealt with the heartbreak due to mass school violence. Did the administration at Murrow HS overreact, or did they deal with this in a modern way that requires such an abundance of caution?


Ellen Levitt is the author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn (2009), The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens (2011) and The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (2013), all published by Avotaynu. She is a lifelong New Yorker, a veteran public school teacher, writer and photographer. Bird lover as well.