JAFFREY — Amid complaints from parents that they weren’t sufficiently kept in the loop about a recent alleged threat against two students, the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District released its newly formalized emergency communication protocols to the public this week.
Police have charged a 17-year-old — who the district’s superintendent said is not currently in school — with attempted criminal threatening and attempted witness tampering after the student allegedly made a threat against two of his or her peers a couple of weeks ago, according to Jaffrey Police Chief William J. Oswalt.
Police confirmed the alleged threat was not directed at Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School and Conant High School as a whole, as rumors had indicated, and found no evidence the student intended to act on it, Oswalt said.
But the incident drew frustration from parents, who criticized the district’s handling of the situation during a school board meeting and a community forum last week. Superintendent Reuben D. Duncan notified families by email the evening of Sunday, May 19, that police had investigated an alleged threat, but some parents said they did not see the email before students went to school Monday morning.
The district sent a subsequent email to parents that morning, Monday, May 20. Parents of elementary school students were not notified at all until that day.
In response to a list of emailed questions from The Sentinel, Duncan said Friday that the emergency protocols released this week did not “formally” exist at the time of the alleged threat. The formalized policy was developed collaboratively among the district’s leadership team, including principals, assistant principals and directors, last week, he said.
It outlines protocols for three tiers of events, with Tier 1 being a serious safety threat that affects an entire school and may result in “long-term lockdown, evacuation or release of school.” In such a case, emergency services should be contacted first, followed by the school’s principal and the district’s superintendent, the policy says.
Those parties should then work together to draft information to be released to the public, including the date, time, location and safety status of the incident, it states. Staff and students should be informed next and provided clear directives, followed by a robocall to families and emails with ongoing updates.
The policy does not include an estimated timeline for notifying the public.
“Depending on the situation, these processes will require varied amounts of time,” Duncan wrote in a letter sent to parents Tuesday along with the protocols. “Once the situation has been stabilized and the facts identified, official communication will be sent out.”
A Tier 2 event is described in the policy as an event “contained to a small area or population of the school” that would not require long-term lockdown, evacuation or release. That tier follows a similar chain of communication as Tier 1, with the distinction that the principal be notified first and be responsible for deciding what emergency services are needed.
A third tier of events covers more minor incidents, such as schedule changes, building concerns and school cancellations. In those situations, parents will be also be informed via robocall and email.
“This situation would have fallen into a Tier 2 approach, because the authorities investigated a situation, performed their due diligence and indicated that the report I received was mitigated or unsubstantiated,” Duncan said of the alleged threat in an email to The Sentinel. “Had the authorities indicated otherwise, it would have fallen into a Tier 1 situation and school would not have been held.”
Duncan said “many of the elements” of the formal protocols were put into practice in response to the alleged threat. But the exact chain of communication that unfolded after the incident remains unclear.
Oswalt said police opened their investigation after they received a call from school staff Thursday, May 16, notifying them that students were hearing things in the hallways about another student talking about “doing harm to others.” At that point, police were working with “vague second- and third-hand” information, he said. Police began conducting interviews that Friday and met with the suspect and his or her family Saturday.
Duncan has said, both at the community forum and again this Friday, he did not become aware of an “alleged schoolwide threat” until Saturday, May 18, after parents reached out to him.
At the forum, parents questioned why they were not notified of the situation until Sunday night, to which Duncan responded that he did not become aware until Saturday and that an attempt to send an email earlier in the day on Sunday was unsuccessful due to a technical glitch.
He said this week that he’d previously been aware of “other matters ... that did not concern a schoolwide threat” that he said school administrators had reached out to police about on Thursday, May 16.
When asked what “other matters” he was referring to, Duncan did not specify, instead writing in his email response, “The building administrators did what they were required to do under the law by reporting a general and specific threat to the Jaffrey police on Thursday. A safe school report was generated on Friday.”
Duncan did not respond by press deadline to a follow-up email asking him to clarify the meaning of “a general and specific threat.”
In an earlier email Friday, Duncan said district staff will work with local authorities to review the protocols over the summer and noted the district is in the process of reviewing all communication procedures in accordance with a communication plan developed through the winter and spring.
“Tangible steps, including putting into place a system that will make it easier for any individual to report a potentially dangerous situation, are being taken to ensure that internal and external communication will be more effective in the future,” he said.