TEWKSBURY — Last Thursday started off as a normal morning for most students at Tewksbury Memorial High School. Students proceeded to their first-block classes, dispersing from the cafeteria. Halfway through the period, at approximately 8 a.m., Principal Kristen Vogel announced over the public-address system that students were to observe the “shelter-in-place” protocol.
Typically, during routine ALICE active shooter defense drills students are informed that they are participating in a simulation but, this time, Vogel did not make such a statement. Immediately students and teachers understood they were not in a drill. Students were instructed to stay in their classrooms and lock the doors.
ALICE training kicked in and students moved away from the doors, out of view of the hallway, shut off lights, and piled chairs and desks in front of the doors, all according to their training. Shortly thereafter, though, Vogel announced to the school that there was no immediate danger and teaching was to continue as usual.
Many classrooms, distracted by the whirlwind of information (and misinformation) being passed electronically from student to student, spent the day piecing together the facts of what was going on beyond their locked doors. Many teachers tried to calm distressed students with movies or board games.
Teachers typically have one or two preparation periods built into their schedules so those who weren’t teaching at the time formed a squad of hall monitors and bathroom escorts to shepherd students safely to the facilities or to the main office. Some students were eventually dismissed by their parents, though everyone was required to pass through metal detectors before leaving.
Students were kept in their classrooms mainly to keep people out of the way of investigating NEMLEC officers and safe from any additional threats. Any teacher who came to escort students for dismissal were bombarded with questions, mostly about the status of lunch, but answers were limited. It is understandable that next steps couldn’t be shared until the entire incident was processed by school officials.
Near noontime, classes were dismissed one at a time, floor by floor, to the cafeteria. Students, along with their teachers, were instructed to bring all their belongings as no one would be allowed to return to classrooms at the end of the day. Bags were x-rayed and all passed through metal detectors in a setup that closely resembled an airport security checkpoint.
NEMLEC officers worked swiftly and were kind and professional, putting students at ease. Students were able to purchase lunch and proceeded to the gym where they spent the rest of the day in the stands, trying to make sense of the day’s events.
Junior Pat Dunn spoke about his experience: “I was a little scared; obviously to be in the lockdown was something that was not normal, something we’re not used to. We were kind of kept in the dark and we didn’t know much, but as the day went on more information came out, and we figured out what was happening, so then it wasn’t scary.”
Senior Rachel Sessa, sitting with a group of fellow track athletes, was optimistic about moving forward.
“I never don’t feel safe in school,” she said. “Maybe that’s a little naive of me to think, and I know that’s not the case with some of my classmates, and I try to be empathetic to that.”
Before dismissing students for the day, Vogel addressed the school: “I want to thank all of you for your patience today, and for doing what we needed you to do. I know you’ve been in your classrooms and the gym for a really long time, and I know that’s been very hard, and we want you to know that we appreciate how patient and cooperative you’ve been.”
Students left school in relatively good spirits; the TMHS math team even took second place in the division finals later in the day. Superintendent Christopher Malone took time to chat with students while waiting for a press conference to start, asking insightful questions to understand the experience of the school population. He also accepted constructive criticism to bring back to the district security team.
The Class of 2019 (@tmhs2019) posted a message on Twitter that night: “Tomorrow is a new day and a new opportunity to make change. Take what happened today and use it to grow stronger and focus on what’s really important in your lives.”