Before a sniper shot a student on its front lawn, Benjamin Tasker Middle School was known for its wins at science bowls and spelling bees. That changed on October 7, when a sniper fired outside the school in the suburban community of Bowie, Md., wounding a 13-year-old boy.
Since then the suspects have been apprehended, the injured student has recuperated, and the school has returned to business as usual. In the weeks following the shooting, leaders of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Organization played an important role in keeping parents informed. The story of the Benjamin Tasker PTSO is a story of coming together, of forgoing the usual roles as dance chaperones and fundraisers to become security officers and crisis counselors.
Residents are on edge because of a string of shootings in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Police search for a skilled marksman suspected of shooting eight people in the last five days as they pumped gas, carried groceries, and cut grass.
At Benjamin Tasker Middle School, a 13-year-old boy arrives early for school. Before he can enter the building, a single bullet hits him in the abdomen at 8:09 a.m. The boy’s aunt, a nurse, rushes him to a local hospital.
Before PTSO president John Bertran can hear about the shooting on the news, he sees that something is wrong. Driving his eighth-grade daughter and a classmate to school, he finds the campus crawling with police cruisers. School buses continue to arrive with students, on time for classes at 8:55 a.m.
When Bertran makes it to the school office, he finds principal John Lloyd talking with police officers. As parents arrive at the school panicked by news reports, Bertran and PTSO vice president Charlotte Zarate help calm parents and process the student pickups.
“On the news they just said it was a 13-year-old,” Bertran said. “They didn’t say if it was a boy or a girl.”
When PTSO treasurer Janet Woolery learns the victim is a boy, she breathes a sigh of relief that her daughter is safe, but begins worrying for friends with sons at the school.
Parents must wait in line and show ID before their children are called from classrooms. Within half an hour the line grows to about 200 parents, and officials from the Prince George’s County School District arrive with disposition paperwork.
In news footage captured that morning, parents scurry across the campus with their children, avoiding a crush of investigators and journalists.
As more details about the shooting become known, Bertran becomes more alarmed. He had routinely used the front entrance in the mornings to check his school mailbox. He becomes more frightened around 3 p.m., when he learns the shooting was sniper-related. He and his wife will not let his five-year-old daughter go out in the front yard to play.
“We were scared to drive,” Bertran said. “We were scared at stop lights, looking around for a white van.”
PTSO secretary Jackie Young stayed home with her daughter, an eighth-grader. She left a message offering help at the school and exchanged emails with other officers.
“I felt the same sense of sadness and dread on the day of the shooting that I felt on 9/11/01,” Young said. “I wanted to be at the school to comfort others and lend support to the principal, but there was just too much chaos.”
Students had little exposure to the shooting, because few were on campus when it occurred. But many were overwhelmed by the media presence when they left the building.
That night Lloyd went on closed–circuit television in Bowie, asking parents to send their children to school the next day if they felt comfortable doing so.
The school reopens, but stays in a semi-lockdown. One-third of the students stay home. “Good Morning America” broadcasts from outside the school building, while countless security officers and counselors are on duty inside.
The monthly PTSO meeting goes on as scheduled that night, but the agenda is scrapped. Around 100 parents pack the school’s media center, according to Young’s estimate. Although the school has an enrollment of 1,390 students and a PTSO membership of 300, it’s rare for more than a dozen parents to attend a meeting.
“It was clear that the PTSO was the place to be to know what was happening,” Zarate said.
As Principal Lloyd briefs parents on the shooting and the events of the previous day, many parents speak up, raising questions about the school’s security measures. Lloyd presents a plan to close the front entrance of the school and to use the back door as the main entrance. However, the new entrance is not near the school office, and a staffed visitor check-in desk is needed. The door will remain unlocked so students in nearby temporary buildings can access the main building.
Parents support the plan, and many sign up to help with visitor check-in. But despite assurances the school is safe, the parents remain fearful, knowing the shooter can strike at any time.
Lloyd also asks the PTSO for help in buying six two-way radios so the staff can communicate throughout the day. He had requested the radios the year before, but now they are a top priority.
“The PTSO was able to say ‘Buy them. We will pay for them,’” Zarate said. “It was an enormous help to school staff to be able to be in touch with each other at all times across the campus.”
Parents whose children walk to school express concern for their children’s safety. One says that on the way to school every day her child walks past the very spot where the sniper hid in the woods.
Before the meeting adjourns, the PTSO takes up a collection to buy a get-well gift for the injured student.
Through its on-line newsletter, the PTSO asks parents to indicate their interest in forming a carpool for walking students.
The police presence at the school is continuous and dozens of satellite trucks still sit on the edge of campus, where reporters wait for their live stand-ups. The latest development is a news story about a tarot card found outside the school. A handwritten message on the card reads: “Dear policeman, I am God.”
That night there is another shooting. A man pumping gas in Manassas, Va., is killed.
“It brought back what had happened, and it was tough,” Lloyd said. “It was like taking two steps forward, four steps back.”
Still working to recruit parents to monitor the school entrance, the PTSO issues an appeal on the on-line newsletter, which has become an important way for parents to keep informed after the shooting.
For the last few days Bertran, who owns his own business, has been at school monitoring the door and communicating with the security staff through a two-way radio. He hopes to have volunteers lined up at the end of the week so he can go back to work. Not only is he president of the middle school PTSO, he serves as a vice president for Bowie High School’s Parent Teacher Student Association.
From a list of 130 parents who are available to help out during the day, Bertran recruits about 50 to take half-day shifts at the entrance. The PTSO plans to monitor the entrance for the rest of the school year. Although the security measure would not have prevented the shooting outside the building, it eases parents’ minds to know the school is more secure.
A man is shot and killed at a gas station in Fredericksburg, Va.
A week after the shooting in Bowie, parents and administrators are weighing how much to restrict school activities. Today they announce that a dance planned for October 17 is canceled.
Later in the day, a woman is shot and killed in a Home Depot parking lot in Falls Church, Va.
Almost two weeks after the shooting at Benjamin Tasker Middle School, the snipers leave behind another terrifying message. A man is shot outside a Ponderosa restaurant in Ashland, Va. Police find a note demanding $10 million with a terrifying message: “Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time.”
This morning a bus driver is shot in Aspen Hill, Md. Although he receives the same abdominal injury as the Tasker student, the bus driver dies.
In the afternoon, the Prince George’s County Police task force investigating the shootings moves its command center to the school for four hours. Believing there is a continuing threat, authorities want to move the bus pick up and drop off area from the front of the school.
Although the school has implemented tougher security measures, parents remain concerned as the shootings continue. One mother volunteers to buy tarps to cover the school walkway. Before she can implement the plan, police make a breakthrough in the case.
Police arrest two men in connection with the sniper shootings. They are suspected in 13 shootings that killed 10 people. The next day, Benjamin Tasker resumes normally scheduled outdoor and after-school activities.
The injured student is released from the hospital.
The PTSO holds its regular meeting. Although the crisis has passed, the attendance of 45 parents is way above average. A hot issue in the school district, redistricting the areas served by the high schools, may keep parents involved, Woolery said.
“We are back about the business of trying to get things for the school that the school system does not supply, like adequate photocopying, novels, and dry erase pens,” Zarate said.
Tonight’s agenda includes the group’s scrip fundraiser selling gift certificates to local stores and restaurants, which was delayed after the shooting and will begin later in the week. The PTSO also raises money by sponsoring dances, which typically net $3,000. Two dances were cancelled this fall after the shooting. The PTSO planned to have raised about $9,600 by this point in the school year, but its treasury has only the $3,600 raised in the student Walk for Education in November.
The PTSO had already been on a mission to grow its membership base. Bertran hopes parents who got involved after the shooting will stay involved now that the crisis has passed.
“It brought us closer,” Bertran said. “Those first few weeks after 9/11 and those first few weeks after the shooting, people really came together.”
A Safety Plan in Action
When the first sniper shooting occurred on October 2 in Aspen Hill, Md., about 20 miles from Bowie, Benjamin Tasker Middle School’s vice principal advocated locking down the school.
“I looked at him and said ‘Are you crazy?’” principal John Lloyd recalls. “It’s not going to happen in Bowie. No way.”
Five days later one of his students became a target.
As it happened, a school lockdown would not have prevented the shooting, which occurred outside the school. Because Tasker’s School Safety Committee had reviewed its emergency response plan in August, the school was able to respond quickly.
“It can happen to anybody, and my school is proof,” Lloyd says. “Just because you think you live in an idyllic community, it doesn’t mean that you are immune to the nonsense.”
Lloyd and members of the Benjamin Tasker Parent Teacher Student Organization offer these tips for preparing for an emergency.
1. Review your school district’s emergency plan.
Ask your principal for details on what will happen in the case of an emergency, and find ways the PTO can help in advance.
The plan should designate staging areas for parents, students, and the media.
To prepare for a crisis, lists of school employees and students should be kept, together with contact information for emergency responders and instructions on how to shut off utilities and alarms.
“You want to have a plan, even if you never use it,” Lloyd says. “We did have a plan, and it worked to perfection.”
2. Gather emergency supplies.
At Tasker the PTSO equipped three safety boxes with cell phones, orange vests, clipboards, and other supplies. The safety boxes were not used on the day of the shooting, but could prove valuable in future emergencies.
In addition to first aid supplies, the National Education Association recommends keeping a “go box” with a bullhorn, two-way radios, a laptop with attendance lists, and orange badges or vests to identify school officials.
3. Find willing volunteers.
Have a list of parents you can call on for help. Divide the list into parents who are available during the school day and those who can help in the evening. Be sure to ask parents for specific ways they can help. Parents who work as therapists can offer advice on coping with crisis, while many others may be able to solicit donations of needed items from their employers.
4. Establish a communications plan.
Organize email lists and telephone trees of parents you can call on to help in the event of an emergency.
The Tasker PTSO emailed members with information after the shooting, but also relied heavily on its online newsletter to get messages out to a school-wide audience.
“We were able to update parents on the status of the school and solicit help with monitoring doors,” Zarate said. “Many parents found this very comforting.”
Center for Safe Schools
National Education Association Crisis Communication Guide
California Dept. of Education Crisis Response Resources