Parents call on MCPS to improve its crisis communications

Parents from two different Montgomery County Public Schools — one that experienced a shooting inside a classroom and another that experienced a lockdown after a report of a student with a gun that turned out to be false — told school board members in the Maryland county that communication with parents must improve.

Lyric Winik, president of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School PTSA, told Superintendent Monifa McKnight and members of the Montgomery County school board that a lot of things went right as staff at the high school scrambled to secure classrooms and protect their students after there was a report of a student with a gun on campus on Sept. 14.

However, Winik said, several things went wrong.

“The PA system didn’t always work. Some teachers didn’t hear [the report] or thought it was a drill,” she said. “Procedures weren’t followed, doors weren’t locked or didn’t lock.”

She said one student believed he would die when the door to his classroom opened during the lockdown.

Winik said the school system needs to do a better job of communicating directly with school staff and parents “in real time.” She added it needs to “address building safety and deferred maintenance” and hold training “on all major emergencies” for staff. Winik concluded saying that the schools need to “address how our schools respond to fighting” and safety conditions overall.

McKnight addressed the public address system problem at the end of the meeting, stating that repairs would be made right away.

Immediately after Winik spoke, two Magruder High School parents addressed the board.

Kim Glassman introduced herself as the parent of three children in the Montgomery County Public Schools system, including Magruder High School, where a student shot and seriously wounded another inside a bathroom on Jan. 21.

Glassman detailed the hours-long wait she and other Magruder parents had the afternoon of the shooting before they were reunited with their students. She said that the school system’s after-action report sent to Maryland Center for School Safety “ignores delayed reunification, ignores lockdown procedures that were not followed, a class being dismissed mid-lockdown and an alleged shooter making his way into the room” with other children.

The student accused in the shooting was found and arrested in the classroom. Police and prosecutors said components of the gun used in the attack were recovered on the floor near the desk where he sat.

Cynthia Simonson, another Magruder parent, told the board that she had no criticism of how school staff and administration handled the shooting.

“And I readily acknowledge there were thousands of things that went right that day,” she said, but added that the follow-up since by county school officials has been flawed.

“You have had eight months and one day to learn from the Magruder families on what needs to be improved in crisis response,” Simonson said.

A meeting with the families of the students who were in the room where the accused shooter was arrested along with a separate gathering for the community at large should be scheduled, Simonson said.

Ruschelle Reuben, chief of School Support and Well-Being with Montgomery County schools, responded by telling the board there had been a number of meetings with members of the community and Magruder staff in the days and months following the shooting. But there were “specific asks that were made” that the school system is working to complete, she said.

Deputy Superintendent Patrick Murphy said lockdown procedures are being reviewed with Bethesda-Chevy Chase staff, including “those who are coming into our building under substitute status,” he said. A meeting for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase school community is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, Sept. 27.

Board member Rebecca Smondrowski said that making sure parents get regular updates during a crisis is important.

She recalled an incident at her own child’s school during a response to a report of an explosive device at the school. She described her own sense of horror “and not knowing what was happening with our children.” The regular reports she got on her phone, Smondrowski said, made a huge difference.

“Information is comfort,” she said.

McKnight thanked the parents for their comments.

“Every time a student in this system experiences anything that makes them uncomfortable or at harm, then that’s a serious situation,” she said.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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