By Jesse Wood
Sept. 10, 2013. Regarding the bomb threat on the morning of Aug. 27, Watauga County Schools Supt. David Fonseca penned a letter to other superintendents, noting that the uncommon district-wide evacuation “certainly tested the capabilities” of the school system and local law enforcement agencies. (See entire letter below.)
At yesterday’s Watauga County Board of Education meeting, Fonseca expanded on that letter dated Aug. 29. While Fonseca stressed that the evacuation was considered a success, noting that the teachers and students were safe the entire time and that the evacuation was conducted promptly, he itemized several procedural items learned throughout the unfortunate ordeal.
Referring to the school system’s mass communication telephone system, Fonseca said that new teachers and new students “weren’t hooked up to the new database” after a software provider change. In the letter, he wrote, “We discovered that our system did not contact any new student.” Fonseca said the problem was identified and corrected immediately.
During the evacuation, teachers and staff weren’t able to print out emergency contact lists right away because of deficiencies regarding PowerSchool, an online student information system. Fonseca noted that this problem, which is “ongoing,” didn’t not in any way prevent the kids from moving to a safe place or impede staff’s ability to ensure their safety.
Fonseca noted that while some parents and law enforcement agencies wanted the district to cancel school right away, school officials decided to evacuate to and keep students at a safe location because it was a “safe location.” He noted that a full cancellation had the potential for traffic accidents and more than 1,000 vehicles on the road and could have incited more of a panic than necessary. He also added that this allowed all schools to resume class after the schools were deemed safe and free of any explosives by at least 10:17 a.m., less than three hours after the alert was received.
“We are very fortunate it happened in mild weather,” Fonseca said.
(That statement leads to a point Fonseca noted later in the meeting about the need for students to wear weather-appropriate shoes and clothes in the winter in case this were to ever happen during bitter weather. “A five-minute walk in 16 degree weather is the longest five minutes for some of our students,” Fonseca said.)
In another bullet point, Fonseca noted to superintendents that principals may be asked to participate in sweeping of their buildings if bomb-sniffing dogs aren’t readily available. He said the closest bomb squad is 45 minutes away in Wilkes County. He said that some staff and personnel assisted in searching the school buildings. While noting that the situation wasn’t optimal, he said Watauga County Schools staff and faculty responded “bravely and appropriately.”
He also mentioned that some of the safe locations weren’t open at 7:30 a.m. or 8 a.m. He said, though, “thankfully,” personnel and students were able to gain access right away because of community support and the general good-natured character of people in Watauga County.
In another bullet point, “We realized we needed to pre-position certain specialized supplies at the evacuation sites (such as diapers for some EC, materials to occupy some children with autism, etc.) and to designate someone to ensure that certain student medications were taken from the school at the time of evacuation.”
In the meeting, Fonseca added another point that didn’t make it in the letter to the superintendents. He noted that official communication from the central office flows through WCS spokesman Marshall Ashcraft to the school’s website – not Twitter or Facebook. During the bomb scare, the website was updated very frequently on how things were progressing and when classes were planning to resume in the different schools.
Also, Fonseca said that, due to financial constraints and budget cuts, he has contacted and received a commitment from Watauga County Manager Deron Geouque to invest in new radios. He also mentioned that they were looking into GPS systems, so bus locations could be pinpointed. He said they are looking into emergency vests and district-universal name tags for WCS personnel, so law enforcement can identify official staff over onlookers. The current name tags are all different depending on the school.
The school board commended Fonseca for his in-depth letter and presentation at the meeting, and Fonseca responded in kind, “kudos to the staff” for the organized effort that ensured the safety of all the children and staff.
“I would like to say hats off to our law enforcement agencies, parents and principals [for what is] considered a success as an organization,” Fonseca said. “The principals and teachers kicked into gear and reacted the way they are supposed to keep the students safe.”