Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A sign posted inside the Riverside neighborhood campus of the Putnam Avenue Upper School and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. elementary school in Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Putnam Avenue Upper School and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. elementary school experienced a “secure and hold” safety protocol Thursday due to a possible threat outside the school building.

The alert was due to a likely hoax call, but the unnerving experience showcased the speed and efficiency of school district and police protocols when a campus is threatened.

PAUS principal Phanenca Babio-James and assistant principal Michelle Calioro emailed upper school caregivers just before 2 p.m. to tell them the safety protocol had been activated due to police activity in the neighborhood. The schools share a location at 100 Putnam Ave., Riverside.

During a “secure and hold” protocol, students stay inside the school and continue scheduled activities while staff secure entrances and monitor the situation.

A “lockdown” protocol applies when a threat comes from inside a building. Students are instructed to hide and remain silent in their classrooms.

No drunken, armed man

The incident that set the “secure and hold” protocol into motion was summarized by Jeremy Warnick, director of communications and media relations for Cambridge police.

“There was a report of an intoxicated male verbally threatening the caller and in possession of a possible firearm at Putnam Gardens” at approximately 1 p.m., Warnick said. “It was later determined to be a domestic situation and the allegations were proven not to be true.” The woman who called wasn’t found, and the man was not drunken and did not have weapons.

“As a precaution, the nearby school was notified and a secure and hold was briefly put in place until officers investigated the report and determined that the allegations were not credible,” he said. Warnick estimated the alert as lasting approximately 10 minutes.

Sujata Wycoff, the district’s director of communications, said her office and district operations are in regular communication with the public information office. “We have a long-standing and strong partnership with the Cambridge Police Department, and when a situation arises that may impact the safety of our school community we communicate quickly and effectively,” Wycoff said. “We have made a great effort to ensure a seamless flow of information so that we can get accurate and timely information to our families.”

Police told the public in close to real time as the incident progressed over 30 minutes, tweeting at 1:10 p.m. of an alert from nine minutes earlier: “Report of possible PERSON WITH GUN at 0XX PUTNAM GDNS.” An update posted 20 minutes later said officers were “on-scene for a report of verbal threats. Dispatchers have not been able to connect with the original caller.”

Ten minutes later, “all involved individuals have been identified and there is no threat to the public,” police tweeted.

No lockdowns for years

This is the first secure-and-hold protocol of the school year, and there has not been a lockdown in Cambridge Public Schools in the past five years, Wycoff said.

The district holds frequent training sessions to ensure that staff know how to secure classrooms and communicate with police when a threat arises. Every school conducts two lockdown drills a school year and provides a safety office with an emergency evacuation plan that is reviewed and approved.

“All of our schools engage in situational awareness protocols multiple times per school year,” Wycoff said. “They also work closely with both the Cambridge Police Department and our Safety & Security Office to ensure that our school communities are aware of the protocols and prepared to respond accordingly.”

The district provides a guide, “Information for Families in the Event of a School Emergency,” in multiple languages on its website.

Handling emergencies

The guide asks caregivers to ensure that their contact information is current, defines the procedures for different threat types and levels and lists evacuation sites for each school.

Caregivers are asked not to come to a school during a crisis, since additional traffic may impede emergency vehicles. They are told to check the district website, the internal communication system ParentSquare and local media for updates.

The district presented its protocols in depth at a special meeting of the School Committee on April 11, 2018.

John Silva, the district’s director of Safety and Security at that time, noted in the meeting minutes that the “police and the schools have coalesced to be the best team possible” and that “they trust each other and they work together very well.”

The department had “one of the fastest response times in the state,” Silva said.