Metropolis: Wednesday, May 16, 2002
Failing the Bomb Drill

A teacher almost got fired for her cool response in a tough spot.


Picture this: A public school is in a lockdown following a bomb threat. Police and firefighters surround the building. Bomb-squad dogs are roaming the halls sniffing for explosives. Frightened kids are huddled together at the back of their classrooms away from windows, and teachers are under orders not to open their doors or use cell phones under any circumstance until they get the all-clear. To do so might get students killed. If a teacher violates these rules, he or she will be fired. Suddenly, in one class, a kid doubles over in pain, hit with an uncontrollable need to do número dos. “I can’t hold it,” he cries.

The restroom is only steps away. But even if she wanted to risk it, the teacher can’t take him there because during a bomb scare, its doors are also locked.

What’s a teacher to do?

Unfortunately, this is no abstract workbook exercise for teachers in some crisis management seminar. This was a real-world dilemma faced by a Riverside Middle School special-education teacher in late March, when she found herself locked in her room during a two-hour bomb scare with a kid in desperate need of the toilet. When she improvised a way for the child to relieve himself in private and keep his dignity intact without endangering her students’ lives, her colleagues applauded. “The district was inundated with calls of support for her,” a Riverside teacher said. Her employer, the Fort Worth school district, was not impressed. In fact, it tried to give her the boot.

“This case highlights the no-win situations teachers find themselves in today,” said United Educators Association head Larry Shaw, who took up her case and forced the administration to back down on its initial decision to fire her. Shaw said he also suggested strongly that the school district implement policies that would allow teachers in today’s violent world plenty of flexibility in crisis situations that were “unimaginable” to teachers of a decade ago.

For Sandy Scholls, a 26-year teacher who moved from the Hurst ISD to Fort Worth only this year, the “unimaginable” happened on March 29. According to Shaw and teachers who were there that day, Scholls was midway into her fifth period special-education class at Riverside when one of her students ran up and told her he had to go to the bathroom “in a big hurry.” At almost the same moment, Principal Kathleen Richardson’s voice came over the loudspeaker announcing a “Code Red B” alert, signaling teachers and staff that the school was in an emergency involving a bomb.

It was not a test or a drill, the principal emphasized. A bomb threat had just been called in, and Fort Worth police and firefighters were en route. Soon space-suit-outfitted members of the city’s bomb squad would arrive. Scholls was not alarmed, Shaw said. She and all the other teachers in the building had been through the drills. They knew what to do: “Lock our doors, pull the shades, and under no circumstances are we to open our doors for any reason or for any person until the all-clear signal is given,” a Riverside teacher said. If anyone breaks the rules, she said, “it’s a firing offense.”

Keeping kids locked inside their rooms following a bomb threat has been district policy, teachers said, since the elementary school killings in Arkansas several years ago in which two students called in a bomb threat and then ambushed kids and teachers as they left the building. Shaw said that doors of non-classroom spaces are also locked. “Bathrooms and closets are hiding places for shooters,” he said.

Cecelia Speers, head of student affairs and the office of special investigations, would not discuss specific security plans for the schools. “They vary from school to school,” she said, “and they wouldn’t be very safe if I gave out details.” She did confirm that if a lockdown is called because of a bomb threat, teachers are under strict orders not to open their doors or allow anyone to leave until the principal, or someone acting on her behalf, gives the all-clear.

According to Shaw, who took a detailed statement as her representative, Scholls told her students about the bomb threat and the lockdown, and explained to the child who needed to use the toilet that she couldn’t open her door. Scholls assured him it shouldn’t last long. “No one anticipated a two-hour bomb scare,” Shaw said. “This one turned into a real crisis.”

About twenty minutes passed, and no one had come by Scholls’ room or any of the other teachers’ rooms on her floor to tell them what was going on, Shaw said. There were no announcements over the loudspeaker. The student, getting desperate, began to cry.

Another ten minutes later, the kid was rolling on the floor and holding himself, trying to keep from soiling his pants, Shaw said. Teachers in nearby rooms could hear him crying and yelling for help. Scholls’ other students were upset and were begging her to do something. Scholls couldn’t use her cell phone to call out because it might trigger the bomb. “She’s between a rock and a hard place now,” Shaw said, “with no procedure for a situation like this and no one to turn to for help.”

Not knowing how long the bomb threat would last, Scholls decided to act. According to Shaw, she told her students that they were in a crisis and were “going to have to make do.” She told them the emergency could go on for a while and that any of them, including her, might have to use the bathroom before it was over. They all agreed, Shaw said, that a temporary toilet was the only solution. Around one corner of the L-shaped room, the kids helped her make a privacy divider fashioned from a portable blackboard and the kids’ coats. She put a plastic liner in a trash can, placed it behind the divider where it couldn’t be seen, sent the other students to the other end of the room, gave the kid some tissue and let him relieve himself safely out of sight of his fellow students.

The bomb threat, which turned out to be a false alarm, kept the school in lockdown for another hour and a half.

Scholls saved the student’s dignity and his clothes, Shaw said. There have been no parent complaints, and her fellow teachers praised her for helping save a kid from being humiliated by soiling himself in front of his classmates. A plastic-lined trashcan was imminently preferable to that, Shaw said, especially since the child would have had to sit in his soiled clothes for almost two hours.

“She should have been commended,” Shaw said.

In the district’s administrative offices, however, reaction to her solution was swift and punitive. Scholls reported what she had done to her principal, who reported it on up through the ranks until it ultimately reached the superintendent’s office. Scholls was suspended, pending an investigation by the Office of Special Investigations, a three-year-old, little-known department made up primarily of ex-Fort Worth cops. Following the investigation that found her in violation of district policy — even though there was no policy the district could point to that she had actually violated, Shaw said — she was given two choices: resign or be fired.

Superintendent Tom Tocco was set to take a recommendation to the school board in April not to renew her contract when Shaw and UEA took up her case. “I asked Bobby Whiteside (head investigator for OSI) and Tom Tocco one simple question: ‘What would you have done?’ ” Shaw said. Their answers, he said, were both the same: “Let the kid leave to go to the restroom.”

“And be in violation of your own [crisis] policy?” Shaw said he asked. “And put all those students at risk? And what about those locked bathrooms?”

“It took about a minute to get Tocco to see that the teacher didn’t have any other choice,” the UEA leader said. Tocco withdrew his recommendation to fire her.

She returned to her classroom this week after being off for more than a month.

“This was not a good message to send to her kids,” Shaw said. “She’s gone right after the incident, with no explanation, but kids are smart. ... So what are they to think? That their teacher did the best she could, followed all the rules, and still got into trouble.”

Speers, the OSI head, declined to comment on Scholls’ case. She did say that the district was taking a look at its crisis management policies to see if changes are needed following the Scholls investigation.

“I think the administration learned a very valuable lesson in this one,” Shaw said. But the veteran teachers’ rights advocate said it’s just one more battle. “Teachers are under the gun every day,” he said, facing decisions that are neither popular nor easy. Too often, as in Scholls’ case, he said, officials overreact, fearing bad publicity or lawsuits. “These administrators need to come down from their high perches every once in a while,” he said, “and get down in the trenches with their teachers.”

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