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November 15, 2013

Back to School in Winooski the Day After a Gunman Scare

Winooski-schoolIt seemed like a normal day at JFK Elementary School this morning when I dropped my kids off for school. The only sign that today was different than any other was the larger-than-usual contingent of staff and administrators waiting to greet us as we approached. They welcomed both my kids by name — my daughter gave principal Mary O'Rourke a hug.

Looking at the scene, you’d never guess that hours before, the school was surrounded by police cars and officers with guns drawn.

About an hour after school let out yesterday afternoon, a home invasion was reported near the Winooski Educational Center, a complex that houses JFK, along with the Winooski Middle-High School. According to school officials, the Winooski Police believed two suspects fled in the direction of the school, prompting a lockdown for the students and staff remaining in the building. During the lockdown, someone inside the school called 911 to report that a gunman was inside.

Multiple law enforcement agencies responded and thoroughly searched the school. News of a possible gunman exploded on social media. Reporters and community members posted numerous updates and photos from the scene. Parents whose kids were in the after-school program raced to the scene, terrified about what they might find.


In the end, though, no suspects were found. And it appears that they may never have entered the building.

Media reports said as much by the end of the night. And in a recorded phone message that went out around 9 p.m., Superintendent Sean McMannon reassured parents that there was never a gunman in the building. He said the 911 call from the school was “a panicked response” to the home invasion and the subsequent lockdown.

I asked McMannon about that this morning when I saw him in the hallway. How did he know no one got in the building? Did he review the video footage from the cameras in the school? “Not thoroughly,” he said.

But he explained that he felt confident, after talking with the police, that there was never anyone inside the building. And, he said, he “thought it was important to say that.” He added that they’ll be reviewing the footage to be sure.

I knew McMannon was talking with reporters at 11, and I felt a little guilty ambushing him with questions in the hall. I wouldn’t have done it normally, but my kids are students there, after all. I was curious.

He was alert, energetic and gracious, though he looked like he probably hadn’t gotten much sleep. He told me he’d convened a leadership meeting at 6:30 a.m., and a staff meeting at 7. 

He seemed to have the crisis under control. Something I found on my way out of the building added to that impression. I saw a sheaf of papers scattered on the ground and bent to pick them up. I had planned to throw them away, but changed my mind when I saw what they were: Copies of a detailed agenda for the day, and a script to be read to the middle and high school students, explaining the incident.

Agenda item number one spoke of “Taking care of kids and each other.” Also on the list: a request to send press inquiries to the Superintendent's Office — which is why the teachers wouldn't talk to me on the record — and the fact that counselors from the Burlington School District and the Howard Center will be on hand to help students and staff process the experience. 

The news reports from the scene make it sound like it was pretty scary. Elementary school staffer Emily Hines told WCAX-TV that she had barricaded herself and her students in a steel closet, for example.

There doesn’t seem to have been anything to worry about in this case. No one was hurt, and police are praising the school’s response to the crisis. But stories like Hines' make me think of those teachers and students at Sandy Hook barely a year ago. I shudder at the thought.

I'm so grateful for number 8 on today’s agenda: “Penguin Plunge assembly is still on for Grades 5-12!”

Read more about the incident herehere and here

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