Locked down Clover schools never in danger

adouglas@heraldonline.com, jmcfadden@heraldonline.comApril 27, 2013 

— Two days after the Boston Marathon bombings, Clover parents were alerted that all district schools were on lockdown because of a “credible threat” about a potential shooting at one or more schools.

Fortunately, nothing happened, and the lockdown was lifted after 20 minutes. It turned out that no school was ever threatened. Authorities said the schools were locked down after a man in Clover threatened his mother, who works for the Chesterfield school district.

The 20-year-old man was arrested in Clover and charged with being a fugitive from justice and possession of a stolen pistol. Andrew Ross Brown is being held without bond, according to the York County Sheriff’s Office website.

Clover Police Chief Randy Grice said a miscommunication somehow caused the school alert to be issued. Fortunately, the April 17 incident ended with nobody hurt. Still, he wants to continue working on improving communication between the district and all local law enforcement agencies.

The alert was issued after Chesterfield County authorities contacted the York County Sheriff’s Office on April 17 about threats made by Brown. But the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office never said a school had been threatened, said Wayne Jordan, a Chesterfield investigator.

York County authorities were alerted after Brown’s mother told police and her school’s principal that her son had stolen guns from her North Carolina farm and had threatened her over the phone.

Chesterfield County authorities warned the York County Sheriff’s Office that Brown was probably armed, accused of stealing guns and staying in Clover.

His mother lives in Peachland, N.C., and works at a school in Pageland, S.C. — about 66 miles away from Clover.

The York County Sheriff’s Office told Clover’s school resource officers about the threat. A school resource officer then told district officials that a school threat had been made, prompting the lockdown and the alert to parents.

Three hours after the lockdown, Faris announced that no Clover schools were ever in danger. Rather, Faris said, the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office reported that Brown threatened a school in that county.

But the next day, a representative from the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office contacted The Herald to say his agency never reported a threat to a Chesterfield school.

Faris said no miscommunication happened between Chesterfield authorities, local police and school officials. Faris said the context of the situation made local law enforcement perceive a threat.

Information on the morning of April 17 was received quickly, Faris said.

About 15 minutes before the Clover lockdown, Chesterfield officials called a crime intelligence analyst at the York County Sheriff’s Office, Faris said.

The crime intelligence analyst in York spoke to a representative from Chesterfield’s sheriff’s office and a Chesterfield County school resource officer, who was with Brown’s mother, Faris said.

The Chesterfield resource officer told the York analyst about the gun theft, Brown’s threat to his mother, and the suspicion that Brown was in Clover, Faris said.

The analyst immediately got on the phone with a sheriff’s office captain and many other people to pass along the information.

The fastest way to spread the word, Faris said, was for the analyst to have a phone in both hands, listening to parties in Chesterfield while talking to authorities in York County.

But using two phones at the same time, Faris said, didn’t cause the analyst to give wrong information.

At the most, he said, the analyst may have missed a “the or and” in the conversation.

Under normal circumstances, the Chesterfield officials would have spoken to someone in the criminal investigative division – not a crime intelligence analyst, Faris said.

The school resource officer chose to speak with the analyst, he said, because Brown is believed to be affiliated with gangs.

At almost the same time the lockdown was being ordered, Brown was being arrested by Clover police.

A day after his arrest, Brown told Clover detectives that he was trying to lure his mother to Clover Park so he could shoot her, Grice said.

Had law enforcement shown up to stop him, Brown told detectives he would have shot officers before killing himself, Grice said.

A background check through the State Law Enforcement Division shows Brown has no prior criminal history.

Lockdown was ‘good practice’

From notifying parents to putting schools on lockdown, Clover schools’ reaction on April 17 was probably appropriate, said Chris Dorn, an analyst with Safe Havens International, a school safety consulting firm.

About 10 minutes after officials lifted the lockdown, the district told parents about the alleged threat and that schools were safe.

The timely notification on Clover’s part, Dorn said, was “good practice.”

“Often, parents and people in the community are going to know about these things and hear about them from their kids,” he said.

“A lot of schools will just send a letter home at the end of the day... For the school to get a message out within 10 to 20 minutes of information being verified is a pretty good response time.”

The district’s timetable was intentional, said Mychal Frost, spokesman for Clover schools.

Every situation is judged by circumstances, the level of threat and how long a lockdown may last, he said.

All those factors affect when parents will be notified and how much information will be given initially, Frost said.

On the most recent lockdown, he said, attacks just two days prior at the Boston Marathon weighed on the minds of school administrators.

Extra caution was used, Frost said, because April 17 came “on the heels of what is becoming an international event.”

The second memo to parents with additional information about Brown’s alleged threats to a Chesterfield school was also appropriately timed, Dorn said.

Safe Havens recommends that communication be limited until the situation is resolved so efforts by first responders aren’t jeopardized, he said.

More serious situations – such as bomb or weapons threats – might call for immediate communication as soon as a threat is levied, such as if parents need to know where their children can be picked up from an off-site “reunification” location.

Still, Dorn said, getting accurate information from police can be just as important as getting timely information to everyone involved.

Safe Haven suggests schools use two different types of lockdowns: hard and soft.

Soft, or low-level, lockdowns usually occur when school districts have been notified of a potential threat and they take measures to make sure the building is secure and movement inside the building is limited, Dorn said.

“Two men robbing a bank across town may be a serious situation, but it may not be affecting the school (for it) to go into a full lockdown,” he said.

More serious, or hard, lockdowns are required when schools learn there is an immediate threat to students, staff or the campus, he said.

“If (schools) had information that the suspects were headed towards the school or were on school property or were very close on the property,” then they might call for a more severe lockdown, Dorn said.

Effective communication from police will make the difference, he said.

The information initially sent to school resource officers was that a Clover man had threatened a Clover school, Frost said.

The words “credible threat” to a school don’t necessitate a severe lockdown, Dorn said, unless police have told school officials that a potential suspect had targeted the campus or was spotted close by.

“If that threat did enter the school, they can move into the more complete form of lockdown,” he said. “It is really critical that police know what type of information to share with schools and how to share that.”

1 school lowered lockdown level

Clover’s recent lockdown was considered a “full” lockdown, Frost said, but one middle school resource officer had additional knowledge during the 20-minute time span.

Once police caught Brown, that middle school officer knew immediately, he said.

Standing side-by-side with the school’s principal, the officer informed the administrator that the believed threat to Clover schools was over.

The principal made a “school-level” decision to keep doors locked but classes there resumed earlier than other schools in the district, Frost said.

For example, he said, one parent contacted that middle school’s principal regarding a child’s band class operating as normal while the rest of the district was in lockdown.

The band teacher did nothing wrong, Frost said, given that his principal knew Brown was caught and had lowered the level of lockdown.

“Whatever the scenario ended up being, our primary responsibility is the safety of our children and our staff,” Frost said.

The recent district-wide lockdown is the first this academic year for Clover schools.

When school officials lift a lockdown, district personnel call principals on a private line, Frost said. He said the district might soon evaluate whether the process for lifting lockdowns should be strengthened.

Because of the lockdown experience, the district has installed a door bell at the main entrance of schools and keeps the doors locked. Desk staff members listen for the bell and walk to the door to let visitors in.

Officials will also bolster security at two Clover schools by constructing new main entrances with a buzzer this summer – something planned before the April 17 lockdown.

In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Clover police have been in “intense meetings” with school officials to talk about safety procedures and how to deal with emergency situations, Grice said.

“We ran into some issues,” and ways to improve, he said.

The sheriff’s office has conducted similar meetings with its school resource officers, Faris said.

The confusion around the lockdown, Grice said, instigated extra protection around schools although there was never a real threat.

Just how communication faltered, he said, isn't all that clear.

In Grice's 30 years of police work, he said, he knows all too well how the lack of information can be deadly.

During a routine traffic stop more than 20 years ago, Sheriff’s Deputy Brent McCants was shot to death by two men who had stolen a car in Charlotte. McCants and Grice were both working in the Rock Hill area that night.

At the time McCants was killed, N.C. authorities hadn’t yet alerted police across the state line that two armed men were on the loose.

If McCants had more information, he might still be alive, Grice said.

A lack of information probably “cost (McCants) his life,” he added.

While the confusing information on April 17 about which schools might be threatened didn’t end negatively, Grice said, he plans to continue working on communication channels with the district and other agencies.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068, Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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