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Photo courtesy of Cristina Furlong
Photo courtesy of Cristina Furlong
Police cars in front of P.S. 89 in Elmhurst on April 24.

When Cristina Furlong arrived at P.S. 89 in Elmhurst to drop her son off for school on the morning of April 24, she came across a scene that would trouble any parent.

At 7:20 a.m. that morning, there were six police cars in front of the building along with an NYPD Queens North van a block away and multiple officers stationed at the front door and inside the building. Furlong, who documented what she experienced in an email to QNS, said that parents received no information that there was a violent threat against the school until a letter was sent home later that day.

“It was quite disconcerting to send a child into a building occupied by NYPD,” Furlong said.

The threat turned out to be the first of two received in School District 24 in the same week, and the overall response to both incidents from parents led to a stronger desire for better communication from school administrations during times of confusion and distress.

The second threat unfolded at P.S./I.S. 119 in Glendale on April 26 when the school received a social media message about a bomb. The faculty and students evacuated the school for approximately 20 minutes during the police investigation, according to a letter to parents from Principal Jeanne Fagan obtained by QNS.

In both cases, police determined the threats were unfounded. The school day began on schedule at P.S. 89, and classes at P.S./I.S. 119 resumed after the brief evacuation. After each incident, the Department of Education sent similar emailed statements to QNS, saying that the students and staff were safe and that the schools followed protocol.

Parents, however, told a different story about the P.S./I.S. 119 incident in community groups on Facebook; they posted comments claiming that, before Principal Fagan sent the letter, other school employees told them it was just a fire drill and there was nothing to worry about.

So what exactly is the protocol that the DOE instructs schools to follow when telling concerned parents about violent threats?

When asked that very question and whether the DOE is considering improving its communication during school threats, a DOE spokesperson released the following statement:

“Families are a critical part of our school communities, and schools are instructed to distribute notification when an incident affecting the entire school occurs. We provide timely and accurate updates when an incident arises, and our priority is to ensure that each incident is swiftly addressed in the appropriate manner.”

Still, parents aren’t the only ones frustrated over the protocols in place.

Back in March at Forest Hills High School (FHHS) — which many residents of District 24 go on to attend — the school went into a lockdown in response to a threat to shoot up the school made by a student that was later found to be a hoax.

The threat came one day after thousands of Queens students participated in a walkout to protest gun violence on the one-month anniversary of the tragedy that sparked the renewed alarm over school safety: the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The March 15 FHHS incident caused so much confusion within the local community that Principal Ben Sherman held an impromptu meeting that same evening to answer parents’ questions. That meeting was filled with discussion over the miscommunication between the school and the parents throughout the day, but when a student decided to speak up, it was clear that the students also felt wronged.

The student choked back tears as she described sitting “in the back of a classroom like sardines” with no idea what kind of danger they were really in.

The next day, a FHHS teacher reached out to QNS to explain the widespread miscommunication inside the school during the incident. Speaking under the condition of anonymity, the teacher explained that the misuse of terminology left teachers guessing as to what kind of lockdown the school was in.

That meant some teachers thought they could let their students out of the classroom with supervision to walk to the bathroom, while others thought nobody was allowed to go anywhere. Also, students who were in the gym at the time of the lockdown had to “urinate in pails in cordoned off areas,” the teacher said.

We’re very upset because we’re on the front lines,” the teacher said while explaining that others were too afraid to come forward out of fear for their jobs. “We’re the ones that had to calm down anxious ninth-graders who were thinking there was an active shooter outside.”

Since the Parkland shooting and the incident at FHHS, safety has been the primary topic of discussion at the monthly meetings for the Community Education Council (CEC) of District 24. CEC Co-President Dmytro Fedkowskyj told QNS that the advisory body has been advocating for simple changes to DOE policies, such as locking all school doors during the day and having more security officers.

He also offered a possible explanation for the miscommunication with parents during school threats.

“The principal cannot release anything until he gets approval from the district office and central office,” Fedkowskyj said. “Schools aren’t trying to hide anything; they can’t release anything until then. Unfortunately it’s not going to be live information, and I don’t think that’s going to change, but live information isn’t necessarily correct information.”

While the CEC continues to push for minor changes, the City Council took the first step toward significant reform on May 9 when it introduced a bill from Councilman Paul Vallone that would create a School Security Task Force. The bill was introduced as part of a 10-bill package that addresses emergency communication technologies, community collaboration and public notification for school emergencies.

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