Parents wait for their kids at Hillside

Publisher’s Note:  Click on any picture to enlarge it.

While Friday night’s lockdown of Central High because of a shooting that took place three blocks away is awash in the praises of the officials who ordered it, many questions remain and must be asked.  However, in today’s environment, where just about any police action in the name of school safety is sacrosanct, one has to wonder just how many people will actually ask.  I decided to write this because Police Chief Carlo Capano, in a follow-up article published in the New Hampshire Sunday News, unapologetically said he’d do it again.  It seems odd to me that he would say that rather than reserve comment until after an “after action assessment report” was conducted to determine what went well and what needed to be better, before concluding that nothing needed to change.

( NOTE:  An official statement from the police department and school district was released as I was finishing this article.)

Thousands of people wait for their students.

I first want to commend Central’s students and staff for how they handled themselves while confined within the school.  I also want to recognize and thank the parents and family members who both gathered outside of Central and eventually at Hillside to regain possession of their kids.  The only thing that kept the thousands of people gathered around Hillside from becoming a mob was their good conduct and cooperation.  Many of them had been prevented from taking their children home directly from Central.

Central families wait for their students at Hillside.

To start, I received so many calls from parents who were at Central that I actually left work and went there.  From two different parents at two different times, I heard of students climbing out of windows on the Lowell Street side.  Others told me of students who walked out of the building only to be turned back inside by police officers.  Multiple parents who were there to take their students home were told they could not “for safety reasons.”  

Buses coming down Reservoir Ave.

What I knew at the time I started to get calls was that there had been a shooting above the corner of Maple and Hanover streets late Friday morning.  A wounded victim had died.  The police department had dispatched its SWAT team and surrounded a building where they believed, wrongly as it turned out, the shooter was holed up.  News reports told of a “standoff” between the armed suspect and police. 

Bus entry obstructed by parked vehicles

Frustrated parents were calling me from Central looking for answers to very simple questions, including:  

  • “Communication was great until about 2:50 PM.  Since then, we’ve received nothing.  What’s going on?” asked one parent in a phone call at about 6:00 PM.
  • “If the situation in the neighborhood is so dangerous, why am I and all these other people being allowed to stand around the building?” asked another.
  • “Why can’t I take my kids home where they’ll be even safer?” queried yet another.

Bus runs the gauntlet behind Hillside

Once I arrived, I discovered the many questions and concerns I received had merit.  Pedestrians and parked cars lined the sidewalks all around Central, where people walked up and down and around the school freely.  Bicycle and vehicular traffic on Maple, Concord, Lowell and Beech streets proceeded unfettered.  Dominoes Pizza was doing a brisk Friday night business.  Multiple police officers were guarding exits around the school not just to keep students and staff in the building but also to keep unauthorized people, like parents who wanted to take their kids home, out.   Looking south on Maple St. from the corner of Lowell St., one could readily see dozens of spectators gathered along the sidewalk and at the corner of Concord St. and beyond looking toward the area police had cordoned off.

Central bus continues through  gauntlet at Hillside

The questions were obvious:

  • If it’s safe enough for all these pedestrians, cyclists, people in parked cars and motorists to be around Central, why was it too dangerous to release students?
  • If parents were there to take their children home, why were they not allowed?
  • If the police, as reported, believed they had their suspect cornered in a building three blocks south of the school, why could Central not have been evacuated from its northern and western exists?
  • Why was it “safe” to release those held inside after police stormed the suspects hiding place only to find it empty?
  • Why was it necessary for an armada of buses to take 1,400 kids to Hillside, a site ill-suited for the influx of thousands that came,  before they would be released to their parents

Parking lot jammed to the right of Hillside.

While en route to Central, I spoke with Chief Capano and asked some of these questions.  He said he’d look into whether or not kids were escaping through windows (which I doubt, but don’t dismiss) and that he “heard and understood the concerns” I was raising from parents unable to take their kids home.  He also said I’d made my points, but offered little by way of explanation as to why things were as they were.  The only thing of substance was that, because they could not guarantee that every student who left the school wouldn’t head toward Hanover St., they decided to keep everyone in the building.

Intersection of Belmont and Reservoir looking south

Officers at Central confirmed that the areas the police didn’t want the public to be in were cordoned off and that officers were present to ensure members of the public didn’t go where they could be harmed.  If their concern was kids who either lived in that area or had to walk through that area to get home, wouldn’t avoid that area, why not contact their parents to bring them home or move them off campus to a safe location where the parents could retrieve them?  Did everybody need to be stranded in the school for hours on end?

Traffic headed south on Reservoir Ave. It was almost a one lane road in some places.

The irony here is that the MPD declared it was “safe” to release the students only after they stormed the house where they believed the armed perpetrator was and found it empty.  This means they released the students only after they were faced with the reality that they didn’t know where the suspect was.  Would it not have been safer to release them when they thought they had him surrounded?

Reservoir Ave. looking south. Note the traffic on Bridge St. to the left of the picture

Before the evacuation started, I left Central and went to Hillside because of all the calls I was getting from people there.  The site was simply not ready, nor could it ever could be, for the huge onslaught of people who went there because they had to.  Cars clogged both sides of Reservoir Ave.  Bridge Street was backed up from Belmont beyond the line of site toward Mammoth Rd.  Belmont St. was packed with parked cars from Reservoir Ave. past Myrtle St.   Somehow, cars were allowed to stay parked along the entryway used by the buses to the south of Hillside, which made it a harrowing access point.   Some buses clipped the cars bottlenecking their access.  Departing parents who had received their children drove their cars at buses entering that access point.  Those buses, which had to exit through the parking lot to the north of the Hillside, faced a similarly difficult path given where cars were parked and the parents trying to access parking.  To say there was an insufficient police presence to handle the surge of traffic and people would be the understatement of the year.

Reservoir Ave. looking north

Before leaving for Hillside, I’d learned that the police were going to escort the students to their buses.  I didn’t realize that meant they were actually going to go to each classroom and bring the kids from their classrooms to the buses waiting outside on Lowell St.  I heard that on Monday morning from a mom who was very upset by that.  She said her daughter and her daughter’s friends had weathered the event well until a police officer came to their classroom to escort them out.  The mom said the presence of the officer and the hurried manner in which they were removed unnerved her daughter and other kids who, as a result,  now believed they were in actual danger of being harmed by someone with a gun.  Why could not the teachers have led their classes to the buses when called?  Would they not have been under the watchful eye of the police as they exited the building and entered the buses?

Belmont St. looking north from Reservoir Ave.

Given the circumstances at the time and what’s been learned since, it is legitimate to ask why those who normally ride buses home at the end of the day couldn’t have done that, by alternate routes if need be, and why arrangements for those who normally walk to or through the affected area could not have had more timely arrangements made for their safe dismissal.  The spectacle of countless dozens of parents waiting outside of Central to bring their kids home while their children were being kept “safe” inside the building provided a paradox that begs to be reconciled.

Capano: Defends decision. Would do it all again.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I wrote this because the powers that be have already concluded that they would do it all the same way again if the situation re-occurred.  (NOTE:  In response to school board Vice Chair Arthur Beaudry’s question about whether or not there would be a formal debriefing to review the event at Monday night’s meeting, Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Gillis, the district’s point person on safety matters, said several had been planned.)  Given the neighborhood, it’s not a stretch to imagine it happening again so the questions raised here and elsewhere need to be answered.  I am no expert but the idea that questions should be withheld from those experts or considered a sign of disrespect towards them is wrongheaded.  The chief and all those involved in these decisions should be caused to explain, even justify, them  so that the public can learn why these things were believed necessary and what the decision makers determined will be different and better if there is a “next time.”  Many in the public have legitimate questions that deserve forthright answers if future confidence in such decisions is to be had.   “Because we’re the experts and we said so” should never be accepted as justification.  It won’t maintain the confidence that was shaken in many because of how Central’s late-night lockdown came to pass.