Washougal school administrators and staff are reeling in the aftermath of a seven-hour lockdown last Wednesday.
The lockdown was in response to a fire, explosion and suspect with a gun at 3275 “F” Place. The location is near Hathaway Elementary, Gause Elementary, Washougal High and Excelsior High schools.
Bruce Stanton, a chemistry teacher at WHS, said he was in his first period class when a student said, “Mr. Stanton, there’s a big cloud of smoke over there.'”
The lockdown was announced right after first period. Stanton was not surprised.
“I knew this was no drill,” he said. “I put the fire and lockdown together instantly.”
Stanton added that from his windows, which face the west side of town, the fire looked much closer than it actually was.
“It looked as if it were right near the football field,” he said.
Social Studies teacher Jim Reed, whose classroom windows face east, had a different experience.
“The students were asking a ton of questions when we went into the lockdown,” he said. “Then their cell phones started going crazy with parents and relatives trying to call and text.”
Reed spent 15 minutes of class time answering questions and trying to find out more information about the incident.
“I think for the most part, most of the kids were pretty calm,” he said. “The district did a good job of calling and keeping us up-to-date, and I shared the information with students as it came in.”
Reed spent 5 to 10 minutes of each class period answering questions, then tried to proceed with business as usual.
“I tried to make it as much of a normal day as I could and focus on class,” he said. “At the end of the day, when we were still in lockdown, I had my sixth-period students take out their cell phone and call their parents.”
Freshman Karina Miller said she was worried about having to spend the night at school.
“Since they kept us here for an hour (after school) I was wondering when it would be over,” she said. “I was also a little worried the guy (suspect) would come here.”
Sophomore Brooke Croeni recalled being “very frightened.”
“But at the same time, I felt very safe at school,” she said. “They (teachers) did a good job of keeping us calm and controlled.”
And that was the overriding goal, school and district administrators said.
“We tried to treat it like, ‘Business as usual,’ WHS principal Aaron Hansen said. “I am so impressed with the students and staff and how they responded to such an unfortunate situation. Our school was locked down for seven hours. That is the longest time I’ve ever seen in my time as an educator or administrator.”
Hansen said he appreciated classroom teachers allowing students to call or text family members who were trying to reach them.
“We have a ‘no cell phone’ policy during class, but there are times when communication is needed,” he said. “I supported and appreciated that staff members allowed the kids to communicate.”
Hansen said his greatest fear was students sneaking out of the building to check out what was going on.
“I was afraid that if I told them everything, they’d want to go down and take a look,” he said.
As school ended and it appeared as if they might have to stay overnight, Hansen was concerned about the food supply getting low.
“I was worried we’d have to eat the food we’d collected for Stuff the Bus,” he said. “We weren’t really prepared to have students all night.”
Excelsior High School, which is on the same campus as WHS, had to get into some of the donated food in order to make lunch, as it does not have a kitchen in the building.
However, despite all the stress, Hansen said there were relatively few problems.
“The staff and students were phenomenal,” he said. “We had a few parents come by, and I had to tell them they couldn’t pick up their students. That was hard.”
Hathaway Principal Laura Bolt had a similar experience.
“Parents were concerned and calling the school, but I admired how nicely they handled it,” she said. “Some came to the school, read the note posted to the door and left. Everyone was pretty pleasant and grateful their kids were safe.”
Wednesday was an early release day for the elementary schools, which meant class was over three hours early.
“We tried to continue with different classroom activities, and put on a video for the kindergartners, and let them run around in the gym for a bit.”
With the rumor mill running wild, Bolt had school social worker Molly Hayes talk to the students right before lunch to ease their fears.
“We told the kids to look around and asked them if they saw all their friends, if they felt safe, and if they saw adults around who would help,” Bolt said. “They all nodded yes. Molly eased their fears and let them know it was going to be OK.”
Superintendent Dawn Tarzian, who began her job in Washougal in July, said she has been involved in many emergency situations during her years as an administrator, but never a lockdown that lasted seven hours.
“There was a lot of stress experienced because of an armed, non-located suspect pretty close to the schools,” she said. “But the fact that we got through the crisis with all the students and staff safe and sound made it a success.”
Tarzian added that in the aftermath, the district is focusing on refining what it does in emergency situations.
“I don’t ever want to get good at this,” she said. “But with that said, there are changes to consider if this happens again.”
A few of these include having parents and guardians include their cell phone numbers for the district’s automated phoning system, so that those at work will get alerts in a crisis. Another consideration is having a stockpile of non-perishable food at schools in the event of another emergency.
Tarzian added that she was pleased with how well administrators, staff and students handled the crisis.
“I was just incredibly impressed by the quality of teamwork and skills at the school sites,” she said. “When you have to put a sign on the school door that basically says parents can’t pick up their children, that really requires a relationship of trust. Most of the parents were calm and appreciative. That’s a direct reflection on the schools.”