EASTPORT – A test of Shead High School’s crisis management plan Thursday turned into the real thing when a man carrying a gun was spotted near the school.
“Around 9 a.m. we did a lockdown exercise schoolwide to check our readiness and so forth based on what was going on around the country,” high school Principal Terry Lux said.
A deadly school shooting earlier this week in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., left five girls ages 7 to 13 dead. The killer, Charles Carl Roberts IV, 32, later turned the gun on himself. That single event, City Manager George “Bud” Finch said Thursday, has made many rural communities in Maine look at their own readiness plans.
The Eastport school has had its plan in place since last year. “We keep refining it, of course,” the principal said.
That’s what the school was doing Thursday – testing the plan.
The all-clear signal had just sounded, and the more than 130 students headed to the assembly room to talk about what went right and what went wrong.
Officer Chris Gardner of the Eastport Police Department was there as part of the drill. “During that time [Gardner] received a call that there had been a report of a man walking with a rifle of some sort,” the principal said.
At that point the exercise turned real.
“One of the issues raised was what if it was somebody outside of the school; how would that change the lockdown?” the officer said.
At that moment, Gardner’s cell phone rang. It was a dispatcher. There definitely was a man with a gun near the school. Gardner called for backup. Sgt. John Preston of the Pleasant Point Police Department and Sgt. Frank Gardner of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department were there in minutes.
“I immediately returned to the assembly room and advised the students that it was no joke and they would be locked down. I also notified the elementary school,” Chris Gardner said. It, too, was locked down.
The man was seen going into the woods near the elementary school. “We went in [the woods] and were able to locate him,” Gardner said. “He was carrying a pellet gun with a scope on it. It looked exactly like a high-powered rifle.”
The man, who was not identified by police, said he was target practicing. “He said, ‘I do it all the time.’ I advised him – not anymore,” the officer said.
Gardner seized the gun and sent the man home. “If stupidity was a crime, a lot of people would be under arrest,” he said.
The school remained locked down for about 20 minutes.
The city manager said he was pleased with the way the school, his police officers and officers from neighboring agencies handled the situation. “Quick judgments were made by responsible people,” he said.
He said he also was pleased that a local resident bothered to call police to report the man with the gun. Recent events across the county have made local officials wary. “The Amish [incident] … said, ‘Hey, this could hit any town in small-town America,'” Finch said.
It is illegal to hunt in Eastport. “Discharge of firearms is prohibited on the island of Eastport,” the city manager said.
Lux said she was pleased with the way her students responded. “The kids were wonderful. They were respectful and quiet and listened to directions,” she said.
Not all schools have crisis management plans in place.
On Thursday, the Bangor Daily News ran a story about the state of preparedness of many of Maine’s schools. “About 40 percent of Maine’s 177 school districts do not have a written crisis plan as required by state law – a very disturbing statistic,” said Education Commissioner Susan Gendron, who pledged to help districts comply with the law.