#schoolsafety | Buna ISD drill-gone-wrong was discussed weeks before

A botched intruder drill at Buna ISD that led to the ousting of the district’s police chief and promises of greater communication across the district had been discussed by administrators days before the event, according to documents recently obtained by The Enterprise through a public record’s request.

On Oct. 21, Assistant Superintendent of Finance Sharen Mosely sent an email to junior high administrator Pete Bond asking to complete safety audits of the district’s elementary and high school campuses by the end of October.

“I went in and made separate spreadsheets for each of the areas and then made a separate one for you all in regards to the intruder audit at each campus,” she said in the email. “I have attached the sheets to this email and would like for us to have them back by Oct.30 then we need to schedule a safety meeting to go over the results.”

Bond later forwarded checklists and spreadsheets, including one titled “intruder,” to the principals at the elementary and high schools, and met with then-district police chief Mark McKinley.

Six days later, a man dressed in a camouflage jacket approached Buna Elementary School just after 10 a.m., and was confronted by several teachers who asked who he was, according to an email from someone who witnessed the events.

That man, later identified to be a newly-hired school police officer Michael Henderson, reportedly put his hand over his lips and shushed a first-grade teacher when she asked if he was a school resource officer.

Some students were on the playground at the time and witnessed the apparent intruder.

Panicked teachers and school administrators began securing students and locking all doors.

Within seconds, four teachers had called principal Katie Parish, first-graders who were outside were returned to their classrooms, all doors were locked and hallways were cleared.

“Everyone did their job to make sure our babies were safe,” Parish later said about her staff in an email.

But Superintendent Donny Lee, who has since apologized for the incident, told The Enterprise the audits were not what led to the drill, adding that Mosely’s job was simply to “inform (employees) of deadlines and to stay in compliance.”

Mosely declined to comment, and Lee said only three people knew about the drill prior to it occurring.

Lee would not comment on whether Bond would be disciplined, citing district policy not to ”disclose personnel record information,” and a request for comment sent to Bond’s email was not returned.

The incident was referred to as a “breakdown in critical communication” on the day in question.

Kristy Yoes, the assistant principal at the elementary school, was meeting with third-grade teachers when the lockdown announcement came over the intercom.

“Not knowing what was happening, I ran from the planning room to the front office through the back door of the nurse’s office,” Yoes recalled in an email to the superintendent.

Alarmed staffers called 911 as Henderson approached the front of the school and attempted entry without identifying himself, according to Yoes’ account of the event.

After failing to get in touch with the superintendent and other district leaders, Yoes called the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Kelly Peck to alert her of the “critical situation.”

Unbeknownst to Yoes, or anyone on campus or in the administration office, Bond had met with then-police chief Mark McKinley to enact a live intruder drill to test elementary and high school readiness.

Peck confirmed that a drill was occurring after talking to Henderson, and asked Yoes to open the door to let him into the school.

“My first response was we are not opening the door to anyone until the police arrive,” Yoes recalled in the email. “Mrs. Peck continues to persuade me to let him in. I walk out into the foyer and I can clearly see the Buna ISD logo on his shirt and the camo jacket wadded up under his arm.”

As Henderson entered the office, he told the assistant principal that he “was doing what he was told to do” before apologizing for the incident.

Minutes later, officers from various local law enforcement agencies responded, some with their guns drawn.

“I threw my hands up in the air because, when they heard the door open, they turned around and one officer had his gun out,” Yoes recalled. “I threw my hands up in the air and repeated who I was and tried to quickly explain that the new (school resource officer) had been the ‘intruder.’”

This “visibly upset” the law enforcement officers on scene, according to the documents

When the Police Chief Mark McKinley arrived on scene, he allegedly told Yoes, “I can’t believe y’all called 911.”

He was removed from his position several days later, leaving Henderson — the “intruder” from the drill — as the acting police chief.

But in the hours and days after the drill occurred, emails poured in calling for him, McKinley and “anyone else involved in the drill” to be terminated. The emails came from the spouses of teachers, angry parents and concerned community members.

“The safety of our children and the public were endangered by the foolish and arrogant acts of these officers,” one parent told Lee in an email. “They are not fit to protect our children or the public. I believe their act is criminal and they should be charged and held accountable.”

Henderson, according to Lee, has been cleared of any wrongdoing and is currently the only officer in the Buna ISD Police Department.

Lee also told The Enterprise that the intruder drill was done based on guidance from the state.

“School districts have required drills to complete each year: fire, safety, bad weather, etc. These come from the state,” Lee said in an email. “That is what informs us. The enforcing portion comes from the campus (fire) and district/campus (safety).”

But the Texas School Safety Center, the organization that develops safety guidance for the Texas Education Agency, told The Enterprise that no guidance calls for the actions taken at Buna Elementary School.

Jeff Caldwell, the associate director over school safety and readiness for the center, said the official term most associated with an intruder is a lock down drill, where students are secured in a “hard corner” of a classroom, and all interior doors are locked and lights turned out.

“We just advocate that you learn the skills of what the lockdown is, turn off the lights, lock the door, and move to the hard corner,” he said. “Again, it is a local decision but we don’t advocate a type of drill where you have an actual threat entering the school and terrorizing people.”

Caldwell said the concept is similar to other types of drills that often occur on campuses.

“You don’t set the school on fire to practice a fire drill,” he said.

Communication across the board also is recommended.

“That is a local decision, but we highly encourage that not only teachers but parents be made aware that, ‘hey, there is a drill coming up, this is what we are going to be doing,’” Caldwell told The Enterprise. “Having no notification is not recommended as a best practice in drilling at all levels … particularly when there’s not that notification, you really stand the chance of one causing some harm physically and two potentially causing some emotional trauma or harm as well.”

While Henderson did not return a request for comment, he took to Facebook the day of the drill.

“This was a planned event,” Henderson said in a post to a Buna community page. “I was notified by a school administrator last week that it would be taking place some time this week. I wasn’t aware of the date or time, only that I was asked by this administrator to ‘show up in plain clothes’ and check the exterior doors of the elementary and high schools.”

Henderson, who said he left his weapon in the car due to the nature of the exercise, said “in order to test the effectiveness of any system, you need natural reactions.”

In addition to firing the police chief, Lee said the district is taking a number of actions to increase the district’s safety practices, and is in the process of searching for a new police chief.

One short-term goal is to provide better communication equipment. Some of the emails obtained said when the elementary school went on lockdown, it was difficult to gain cell signal and alert the high school, which is about a quarter-mile away.

“We are purchasing two-way radios that are better than what we currently have,” Lee said.

In the future, the district plans on working with the Jasper Emergency Operations Center to secure a grant for purchasing upgraded communications equipment.

“Anytime something like this happens, you always look at how you can do better,” Lee said. “We are taking a long look at our safety policies and procedures.”

Meetings took place in early November with principals and district leadership, as well as with the school health advisory committee, on what can be done to increase security and communication.

“We certainly have tightened up our intruder drill as far as who gets notified when these things are happening,” Lee said. “Which will include me, and the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office.”


isaac.windes@hearstnp.com
twitter.com/isaacdwindes



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