"We will continue to take these threats seriously and investigate them and apprehend anyone involved," said DPD Chief Art Heun.
The threatening phone calls came on the heels of the largest elementary school shooting in the nation's history at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The massacre, which took the lives of 28 people including the gunman, has rocked the nation and the world. The death toll included 20 children, who were 6 and 7 at the time of their death, and has caused parents everywhere to question exactly how safe their children are at school.
At approximately 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, a phone call was received at DPS where an unidentified caller indicated that the school needed to be evacuated because it was going to explode. The call was treated as a bomb threat by first responders and triggered a number of safety procedures that according to City School Superintendent Neel Durbin are constantly under revision and scrutiny by his staff, police and state and federal authorities.
"School security is constantly being looked at," said Durbin. "It is a constant, ongoing process."
The DPD responded within minutes of the call and began working with staff, teachers and administrators to thoroughly search the school. Five to 10 minutes after the initial call and while the search was still being conducted at DPS, a second phone call came in, this time to DIS, stating a similar threatening message. DIS staff, teachers and administrators were mobilized to search the school, as Durbin coordinated efforts at DIS, while Lyn Taylor, director of school systems, coordinated efforts at DPS.
"We take all threats seriously," said Durbin. "The call triggered a series of school procedures that our staff could not have followed any better."
As a security measure, DPS and DIS were placed on lockdown, while the DPD investigated the campuses for anything suspicious. After conducting a thorough search of both campuses and determining that there was no danger, the lockdown was lifted at the two schools and classes resumed.
The State Gazette sent out a text alert at around 10 a.m. confirming the bomb threat and the lockdown at DPS and DIS. The text alert confirmed that all children were safe and that the police were investigating the incident. Despite being reassured of the safety of the students, many parents came to the schools to pick up their children.
"I'm scared for my kids," said an unidentified mother, who spoke to the State Gazette at DPS. "I'm ready to take my kids out of school and home school them. They are supposed to be safe at school."
"We choose not to disclose details of our emergency plans for fear that knowledge of our procedures could possibly enable an intruder to be more destructive," said Durbin.
The procedures that the Dyersburg city schools follow are partially based on lessons learned from previous school tragedies, such as the March 24, 1998 incident in Jonesboro, Ark. where two classmates, Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden, pulled the fire alarm and waited in the tree lines for their fellow students to exit the buildings. Once students gathered in front of the school, Golden and Johnson began shooting, killing five people and wounding 11 others.
For school administrators, part of the challenge is ensuring school safety while meeting fire codes, which oftentimes seem to contradict one another. For example, locking classroom doors during the day may seem like a great idea to some, but students have to be able to leave their classrooms quickly in the event of a fire when seconds may mean lives.
"We will never be perfect, but we will continue to do the best that we can," said Durbin.
Durbin says that everyone in the community can play an important role by being vigilant and that includes parents and students.
"Parents will oftentimes hear things before we do," said Taylor. "It's important that they know they can come to us if something doesn't seem right."
Durbin commented that there have been a number of situations just in his year-and-a-half tenure as superintendent where potential threats have been diffused quickly and calmly because someone alerted school officials. He added that the community needs to have faith and he reminds everyone that statistically speaking schools are safer than any other area in the community.
"We cannot get so caught up in this that we destroy education," said Durbin. "I believe our teachers would be every bit as sacrificial as the teachers were in Connecticut."
In a prepared statement, Durbin addressed the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and its effect on the city schools:
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the students, the families and the educators involved. What can be said is that all accounts indicate that the school's heroic principal and her staff had safety measures in place and had practiced their emergency procedures but were unable to avoid disaster. We do know that due to preparation and sacrifice, numerous lives were saved and an even greater tragedy was averted.
"The truth is that we will never prevent all tragedies. Our schools have prepared to prevent and to react to crisis. We continue to refine our processes and to learn from others. We continually strive to make improvements."
City school officials, the DPD, Dyersburg Emergency Operations Manager Mark Grant and Dyersburg Mayor John Holden gathered together on Tuesday afternoon for a meeting to discuss the successes of the morning response as well as to discuss opportunities for improvement. Although the details of the meeting will not be disclosed in order to ensure student and teacher safety, the meeting produced good results as city officials continue to work together to provide a safe environment at the city schools.
"The city wants to ensure that our response is immediate and that the appropriate measures are taken to ensure teacher and student safety," said Holden. "I have all the faith and confidence in the city school officials and the emergency plans they have in place. Any suspicious activity will be given the highest priority and we will do whatever we can to ensure the safety of our students."