Lesson learned: response to message about 'soft' lock down at Inter-Lakes campus in Meredith was panic, and a mess

MEREDITH — On Friday, when the Meredith campus of Inter-Lakes schools went into "soft lock-down" mode, the superintendent utilized the district's emergency alert system, which can send a message to parents via text message, recorded phone call or e-mail. While intended to inform and calm parents, the message's effect had an opposite effect.
At a school board meeting held last night, Mary Ellen Ormond told a crowd of parents that she and the district had learned much from the experience.
The "soft lock down," a measure in which exterior school doors are locked and monitored in reaction to a possible outside threat, yet during which students go about their usual school day, was invoked when police from another town contacted Meredith police and informed them that an incident in that town might have a "spill over" effect into Inter-Lakes. Ormond said that's what she was told on Friday and that last night she had no further official information about the incident that sparked the reaction.
All public evidence points to the lock down being in reaction to the murder of a mother and her adult son that occurred in the Winnisquam area of Belmont on Friday. After a short but intense manhunt, police located and detained the other adult son of the murdered woman, and the timing of his arrest — on non-related charges to the killings — coincided with the lifting of the lock-down measures in Inter-Lakes. Ormond declined to connect the dots, though.
"My job as superintendent is not to speculate," she said.
However, it was her job to inform parents of the alert, and on Friday, that's what she did, sending a message that described the lock down as a response to a situation that occurred "outside the school" and said students would be released at 3 p.m.
"I hit send, as soon as that happened, our phone system lit up like a Christmas tree," Ormond said. Given what happened immediately in response to the alert, she said she could have phrased the message better, the system itself could be designed better, and she learned how important it is for parents to provide the district with up-to-date information for their preferred methods of contact in an emergency.
"In that emergency event, I recognized how weak our alert system was," said Ormond. "We're learning lessons with every passing moment since that event happened."
One lesson she was shocked to learn was that the message she composed was dramatically curtailed when sent as a text message. The parents who received that text knew only that their child's school was in lock-down mode, and many responded in panic. Scores of parents called the schools, jamming the phone lines and preventing the district office from being able to communicate freely with building administrators.
Another lesson Ormond learned was that the first people she should inform of the situation should be the administrative assistants in the school buildings. "We didn't tell any administrative assistants. And guess what, they answer the phones," said Ormond.
In her alert, Ormond told parents their children would be released at 3 p.m. What she didn't do was explicitly tell parents not to come to the school until then. Steven Kelly, principal of the elementary school, said he had an estimated 120 frantic parents at the school. Part of the problem, Ormond has since learned, was her choice of vocabulary.
"You see the word 'lock down', it's a visceral, gutteral response. I understand that," said Ormond.
In retrospect, she wished she had instead used the term "secure campus" to describe the situation. If she could do it over again, she would have made it clear to parents that the incident in question was far removed from the school, that all students were well and safe, and that the measures were strictly precautionary.
Reed Leberman, a parent of three Inter-Lakes students, said many parents didn't receive any alert at all. Parent John Edgar said he had signed up for his emergency alert to be e-mailed to him, however, he wasn't near a computer to receive it in time. His only alert came directly from his high-schooler. "If my daughter hadn't called me, I would have been absolutely clueless."
Ormond had heard such complaints, stating that for some parents, "They found out through the Dunkin' Donuts drive-though — that's horrifying to me." She asked if she or the district should consider operating a Twitter or other social media account to more effectively communicate.
School board member John Martin suggested an emergency alert section for the district's website, or a hotline parents could call. "You need to be sure people are getting information from the correct source, and not Dunkin' Donuts drive through."
Howard Cunningham, board member, emphasized the importance of parent behavior in such a situation. The Meredith campus has traffic flow issues even during normal operation, he noted, and having concerned parents swarm to the buildings could prove disastrous. He asked, "What would have happened if we needed emergency equipment for the benefit of students and we had half the parents of the school population there?"
Board member Carol Baggaley, though, said it would be difficult to repress a parent's instincts in such an event. "In all honesty, if my child was in danger, I would go to the school," she said.
"These are all lessons learned," said Ormond, who urged others who have ideas or perspectives on the matter to communicate them to the district. She hopes to never have to respond to another possible threat to the school campus, but if she does, "I hope that we act with more forethought and poise... so we can manage it better," she said.