Earlier this month, a student at my daughter's public high school found a pile of .22 caliber bullets on the floor of a boys' bathroom. A day before, a threatening note was discovered in the same restroom, inside a stall. On top of the tissue dispenser. In February, three similar notes were found, three days in a row, in the same place. All talked of bombs.
When the bullets surfaced, FBI agents were called to the school to assist local police officers. The next day, someone dropped another handwritten note at the top of a stairwell. Then, after a $10,000 reward was announced, someone emailed a seventh threat to the organization that receives the tips. Twice this week, a person sent intimidating messages to individual students' telephones. One was two paragraphs long. It said that the situation is "not a hoax," we will see, but has been "building." Finally, today, while writing this piece, another round of messages hit students' phones.
When something happens, the school administrators send a text message to parents. They started doing this after the first round of notes. Numbers show up on the screen and you know there is trouble. We rush to the school to pick up our kids, in pajamas, in the middle of work. My stomach pangs when the phone rings. The morning of the bullets, it was my mom. I should tell her not to call.
I have never seen the word bullet on my phone before, or on anything having to do with my child's education. Ammunition is bad; it escalates. It makes you think that a weapon is next. It makes you think of your daughter in her seat in English class. In the morning, it makes you tell her to keep her eyes sharp, to run fast if she has to. You should be telling her to have a great day.
I call the Chief of Police. He assures me that within two days, metal detectors would be installed on campus. He sounds relieved. Without them, he says he can't know if a weapon is in the school. He "cannot guarantee the safety of anyone in the building." Two days later, when detectors are not installed, I call him to find out where they are. He tells me that he provided school administrators with detailed information about how to purchase them. "I even tried to borrow them, meantime, from other districts, the airport," says Chief Gary Adams, of the University Park Police Department, which serves the Dallas County community in which the school, Highland Park High School, is located. "We should have them. If it's going overboard, we should go overboard." Chief Adams has worked as a police officer for more than 35 years, and as Chief, here and elsewhere, for 20.
In Texas, school administrators are encouraged to consider the advice of law enforcement, though they are not bound by law to do so, according to the Texas Education Agency's legal department.
When, I would like to know, would it be a good idea for people who are not trained in public safety to ignore the recommendations of people who spend their lives keeping the public safe?
In an email message to parents, the school district's superintendent does not share the police department's advice. He says only that walk-through machines "send the wrong message." What message is that? Is it that we, in this wealthy enclave, home to AP scholars and state champions, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and inherited fortunes, couldn't possibly have a serious problem? A real world problem? Is it that those machines are for the poor schools in other neighborhoods, the ones with the transparent backpacks and minorities and actual crime? Is it that the security equipment doesn't connote the right image?
Meanwhile, despite numerous requests during the past two months, school administrators refuse to call a meeting for parents, many of whom want the metal detectors put in place. Instead, district officials send videos of themselves sitting on a couch having a fake interview with the Public Relations Director. They tell us that our children our secure, and that they have detector wands that they might use if they think someone looks as if he needs wanding. What do you look like when you need wanding? And who is going to make that determination when the police officers go back to regular duty? The lunch lady?
Finally, the school administrators tell us that the FBI is continuing to help find the culprit. They have not reported that the agents are no longer in the building. "The FBI is not investigating the threats at Highland Park High School, but will assist if asked," says Katie Chaumont, Public Affairs specialist in the Dallas FBI office. "We are waiting for our Behavioral Analysis Unit to develop a psychological profile, and we are waiting for fingerprints and DNA evidence from the notes and bullets." While they wait for tests that will likely yield nothing, according to Chief Adams, we wait, too. Not sure for what. "We haven't had a gun turn up," he says, "but you never can tell."
We have seen school violence, no one needs reminding. Often, it comes without warning. In this case, which is unresolved and ongoing, we are lucky that tangible evidence is present, now. Ten instances of it. Law enforcement departments should have free rein to act on it as they see fit, to protect students, teachers and staff as they know how, regardless of the opinions of school administrators.
A few days after the bullets were found, while my phone and computer rang panic in my belly, the school district sent along an extra announcement: it had won 32 Public Relations awards, in this year alone.