Snafus were few and unrelated during investigation at school
Calm prevailed during a lockdown of all three schools in Valdez a week ago Tuesday after a loaded handgun was found in a student restroom at Gilson Middle School.
“It was discovered by a student,” Jacob Jensen, district superintendent, confirmed in an interview Monday.
The incident began unfolding around 2 p.m. and Jensen said the student who spotted the weapon acted properly.
“That student did exactly what they’re supposed to do,” he said. ”Tell an adult.”
The unidentified staff member went directly to Aaron Baczuk, a Valdez policeman the department had recently trained to be a DARE officer for the school district. Ironically, Baczuk happened to be on duty at the school at the time of the discovery.
The lockdown of the school began immediately at Gilson; the elementary and high schools followed suit.
“We had a brief discussion and sent out a notification to the other schools,” Jensen said.
Students were not notified in any of the schools as to why the buildings were on a lockdown status.
Students at Hermon Hutchens Elementary School were not aware the building was on a lockdown status. Reports from parents visiting the school at the time of the lockdown stated the procedure was smooth and did not disrupt normal classroom time.
Police learned the identity of the Gilson student that brought the loaded handgun to school hours later. No information was given as to why the student brought the gun to school.
District officials and Valdez police declined to verify or deny reports posted on social media sites that the weapon in question was a .44 handgun.
Students were allowed to leave school almost on schedule; the buses were running about 10 minutes late; parents that showed up at the schools were allowed to take their children home, according to Jensen.
Police searched lockers and common areas of both Gilson Middle School and part of Valdez High School in the aftermath. Jensen said two knives were found in two different student lockers at the middle school.
It is a felony under Alaska state law to bring weapons into public schools.
District policy calls for a one year expulsion from school for any student that brings a gun to school. An automatic thirty-day suspension is the penalty for bringing a knife to school.
Jensen said both penalties can be changed by the board of education.
“The board has the option to take that option,” he said.
Motivation behind the gun and knives found could mitigate the penalty, Jensen said, but at this point his office did not have further information.
“I have not talked to the parents and the student” involved with the gun, Jensen said Monday. “the police have, though.”
Alaska law also prohibits school districts and law enforcement agencies from divulging names of minors accused of criminal acts. Schools are also prohibited from releasing information on disciplinary actions, including suspensions and expulsions, taken against students. However, an expulsion hearing was scheduled by the board of education for Tuesday evening. The scheduled hearing, slated for after the Valdez Star goes to press, was to be held in an executive session, meaning the board is allowed to meet outside the public arena.
Overall, Jensen said he was pleased with the manner in which the district instituted the lockdown, but noted there were a few areas identified where the district could improve in the event another such incident occurs in the future. Some snags were not under district control.
Shortly after the lockdown was instituted at Gilson, the school lost electrical power and its generator did not kick for several minutes. Staff were at first unsure if the sudden black out was part of the lockdown or not. It wasn’t.
Also of concern was a delay that occurred with the district’s “One call now” system. The system is designed to call parents automatically in the event of an emergency to give them information about events that impact students. As an example, the same system was used last year to notify parents school was cancelled due to dangerous snow loads on the roofs of district buildings.
The system which the district uses is actually located on the East Coast, Jensen said, and when the district attempted to use the system, school officials were given an automated message saying all circuits were busy, which delay notifying parents by at least 45 minutes.
Some were not notified until close to 6 p.m. Thursday.
Jensen said he has instigated an investigation into the system’s failure.
“We’ve asked for extensive reports from the company,” that hosts the system he said.
The district began issuing press releases notifying local radio stations and the newspaper about the lockdown at 2:30 p.m.
“Overall, I’m happy with how things happened” after the discovery, Jensen said. “Kids responded well, adults responded well.”