Dozens of Bangor parents have expressed frustration with how the city’s school department handled a social media threat early Wednesday morning, saying the district offered scant information about why all of the city’s public schools had been locked down or whether children should stay home.
After hearing from constituents, at least two elected officials have also raised concerns about the response.
The lockdown ended shortly before 10 a.m. after police determined that the schools didn’t face an ongoing threat. In the afternoon, they announced that a 13-year-old student was arrested on a Class C felony charge of terrorizing in connection with the alleged threat from a fake social media account.
After the lockdowns were lifted, the Bangor School Department also sent out two emails pledging to improve its future communications during emergencies.
In one of them, Superintendent Betsy Webb praised the police response and said that it was difficult to communicate with parents because of the time of day when administrators were notified of the threat. By the time it was reported early Wednesday, most of the district’s students had already arrived on school property or were en route.
One local parent, City Councilor Gretchen Schaefer, said that she first heard about the lockdown on Facebook around 7:55 a.m., after students at Bangor High School sent text messages to their own parents about the threat. It took school officials another 25 minutes to notify parents about the lockdown via robocall at 8:20 a.m., according to Schaefer.
Then, Webb announced the lockdown on Twitter at 8:43 a.m., writing that “All Bangor schools are currently in lockdown due to an alleged social media threat to the Doughty School and Bangor High. Students are safe in the schools. We are working with the Bangor Police who are on site at all schools. We will keep parents informed.”
However, those messages confused Schaefer and other parents because many parents bring their children to school around that time, but didn’t know whether kids would be allowed in or out of the schools.
“What came from the school was very unclear,” Schaefer said. “They said the schools were on lockdown, but there was no clarification of whether we can take kids to school or should take them out of school.”
Schaefer said she’s directly heard from at least eight families who were confused by the messages, along with “countless” others who have complained about it on social media.
John Hiatt, a member of the Bangor School Committee, said that he received dozens of text messages from concerned parents on Wednesday morning.
The parents would not have been so confused if the lockdown came later in the day, when kids were already in class, but the city should consider how it will communicate during times when kids are arriving at or leaving school, Schaefer said.
She has sent an email to City Manager Cathy Conlow and her fellow councilors urging the Bangor police and school departments to improve their coordination and communication in such cases.
“I think a robocall would be fine, but when it says ‘lockdown’ does that mean kids can go?” she said. “Or should it say, ‘Please keep kids home until further notice?’ … Having real strong clarification of what a lockdown means, in a true emergency, I want to make sure that’s taken care of.”
Webb was not immediately available to speak on Wednesday, but one of the emails the school department sent to parents said one step it would take in future emergencies would be to define “terms such as lockdown.”
Sent just after 11 a.m. on Wednesday, that email said that school administrators had “reflected upon this morning’s emergency and the need to communicate to parents, students and staff quickly.”
It then outlined several ways in which the district will “improve communication in the future.” In addition to clarifying the meaning of “lockdown,” the school department said future communications would include “[a]dvice for parents to consider regarding sending their children to school or keeping them home” and “[p]eriodic updates even when there is no new information.”
The email also said the department will “continue to review all procedures.”
Hiatt, the school board member, said he hopes that administrators offer a thorough accounting of what happened earlier in the day.
Hiatt said that he spoke with parents who went to pick up their children at Bangor High School in the morning, but were told they couldn’t. Hiatt also heard “that kids were leaving school in tears because they thought it was an actual active shooter situation,” he said.
Going forward, Hiatt also said the district should ensure that it offers better communication and has adequate emergency response plans.
“I think the administration owes the public an explanation,” Hiatt said. “It’s totally unacceptable how things were handled today.”