FBI aids cops’ probe into source of threats that triggered school lockdowns
Days after multiple threats against the town’s public schools prompted a lockdown at all 17 schools and a townwide emergency response last Friday, police are working with the FBI to identify the source of the phone calls that triggered the scare.
Investigators are also meeting with school officials to grade the response and see what could be done better if a similar emergency were to arise in the future.
“Just as we have to take the threats seriously, we have to have our analysis of how we responded seriously,” Police Chief Gary MacNamara said. He said meetings took place over the last week to gauge the effectiveness of the response. “We’re still seeking input from those who were affected to learn what we can do to improve.”
All the town’s public schools have at least two practice lockdown drills every academic year, with law enforcement personnel present. Teachers and staff have also received training on what to do during a lockdown.
“I think the men and women of the Police Department, the Fire Department, our schools, the parents, and most importantly, the students, did an outstanding job, considering the circumstances,” MacNamara said.
Parents, as well, generally credited the response to the reported threats and communication about developments as effective, and on Monday, many delivered food and handwritten thank-you notes to police headquarters.
The emergency unfolded last Friday morning with threats called in to several town schools, including a caller who said there was a bomb at Fairfield Ludlowe High School, pipe bombs planted at Fairfield Warde High School, and a man with an M16 assault rifle headed to Holland Hill Elementary School, according to police.
But by early afternoon, MacNamara was able to tell a press briefing, “All of the schoolchildren are safe,” with the primary focus shifting to reuniting students with their parents as all of the schools were dismissed early.
Police officials would not release tapes of 911 calls immediately, some of which came in to the Emergency Communications Center, while others went directly to schools.
MacNamara said assistance was provided to Fairfield police by State Police and several area police departments, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called to offer additional state assistance that might be needed.
Sgt. Dan Vanderheyden told parents gathered at a staging area at Fairfield University’s Quick Center that the schools and students were safe, and inspections turned up no credible evidence of any kind of threat.
While parents were asked not to go to their children’s schools while the lockdown was in effect, many did anyway, and Superintendent of Schools David Title said when the decision was made to call early dismissal, those parents were allowed to take their children home. “We started letting parents take kids home at a certain point to relieve some of the pressure,” he said.
Two townwide CodeRed alerts were issued during the day to let residents know what was happening at the schools.
“We’re much better prepared now than three years ago since Sandy Hook,” Title said. “We are always actively preparing for these kind of events, with the Police and Fire departments. The kids and the faculty are used to (these drills) and we’re in a much better position than we were.
“Unfortunately, this is the world right now,” the superintendent said.
Although all after-school activities — including athletics — were canceled last Friday, Title said school events and athletics planned Saturday would take place as scheduled, and the school administrators planned to meet later to determine what, if any, modifications might be made when students returned to classes Monday.
MacNamara said dealing with false threats is frustrating, but “it’s the nature of our business that there are individuals that look to disrupt communities.”
He said Fairfield should be proud of its emergency services, which quickly had to switch gears from an early hoax call about a man who claimed to have killed his girlfriend and was holding a hostage to multiple threats at the same time to the town’s schools.
MacNamara said while officials could not definitely say that the first call, and subsequent threats, are all related, it has to be considered because of the timing of the calls and the messages received. “We’re investigating the details to positively link them,” he said. “They were designed to cause mass disruption.”
The status of the school lockdown was changed to a “lockout’’ mode by 11:15 a.m. Friday, which meant no one was able to enter or leave any school buildings.
“There is a police presence at every school. The police have been unable to confirm the threats at this time,” the first message posted on the Board of Education website about 9:30 a.m. had stated.
At the Quick Center staging area, parents were reassured by a spokesman for the Fire Marshal’s office said that no “credible threat” had been found during checks at all of the town’s schools. He added the emergency services officials were trying to “de-escalate” the situation.
Gail Beauchemin, parent of a Ludlowe High student, said she was “a nervous wreck. I’m glad there is a central location to come to, otherwise it would be nerve- wracking.
“I think they’ve done a good job,” she said. Beauchemin was able to talk to her daughter, and said the students were scared, but fine.
Later, as parents waited at Sherman Elementary School to accompany their children home early last Friday afternoon, Sara Nuland, the parent of a second-grader, said she thought town, school and police officials had dealt with the emergency “brilliantly, absolutely brilliantly.
“I was so impressed with them, and I’m proud to be part of this community. I’m thrilled with Chief MacNamara, Dr. Title. … I feel grateful to be here,” Nuland said, noting that she received an email from her son’s teacher, who said students were told there was a problem at another school building. Nuland said she will take her cues from her children to determine what they might want to discuss regarding the lockdown. She said because of the regular communication about the incident, “I felt very comforted.”
Kristin Lewis was waiting for her daughter, Ella, a Sherman third-grader. She said the town and school response was handled well. “They were really on the ball.” An email from the school’s principal was just one of the many ways she was kept updated on what was unfolding. “I felt safe,” Lewis said.
“They had a very good plan in effect,” Lewis said, “and it helped to keep my mind at ease. I just want to give (Ella) a smooch.”
Another Sherman parent, who did not want to give her name, said, "I think they were perfect. Obviously, we were scared,” she said, but parents were kept in the loop as to what was going on. “Our teachers emailed us after the lockdown, and told us what they talked about and that the kids were OK.”
The first threat of the day was received by police about 9:05 a.m., when an anonymous caller said he had a pipe bomb and rifle, and was holding hostages at a lower Black Rock Turnpike address.
MacNamara said police believe the call about the alleged incident on Black Rock Turnpike may have been intended as a diversion, followed by a series of phone calls with “various threats” to town schools, which prompted the lockdown as a precaution.
The address the caller gave, 285 Black Rock Turnpike, does not exist. The location is near the Edge Fitness Center and Super Duper Weenie, and police began canvassing the area, going door to door.
Nothing appeared to be out of order in the affected area, police said.
Officials sounded skeptical of the call, though officers immediately responded and set up a perimeter. A dispatcher said the number the caller used appears to be non-traceable and that odd sounds were heard on the line, although the caller spoke clearly.
Officials believe the call may be an attempt at “swatting,” designed to trick police, fire and emergency responders to go to a location for a fake incident.
State Sen. Tony Hwang, whose district includes Fairfield, said he plans to reintroduce a bill that would increase the penalty for threats to schools to a Class D felony.
The bill was not voted on in the last session. “I want to send a message out that we live in a different day and age. I’d like to send a message that this type of behavior is unacceptable and there is zero tolerance for it.’’
Current law does not address school threats specifically and classifies threats by one person against another as a misdemeanor.
Police ask that anyone with information about Friday’s incident call 203-254-4840.
Staff writer Frank Juliano contributed to this report.