Move to Basement Prompted by Students’ Sighting of Armed Person

The corner of 46th and Davenport streets in American University Park. Photo by Simon Kessler.

Since a shelter-in-place on Nov. 18 following a shooting in Tenleytown, new details have emerged, including that two GDS students encountered a person with a gun two blocks from campus. No one has been able to confirm the identity of the armed individual or any information about their connection to the shooting that day outside Jackson-Reed High School.

Students who drove themselves to school were released at about 4:30 p.m. Seniors Lucy Perl and Ally Brangham told the Bit in an interview that they left in Perl’s car after being dismissed by Director of Student Wellness and Student Life Bobby Asher. They said that on the 4500 block of Davenport Street, a person holding a rifle emerged from in between two parked cars. According to Brangham, the person was wearing all black and had a helmet on, with a hand on the trigger of the gun. 

“We were thinking that he probably was trying to cross the street when no one was there, but Lucy drives an electric car, so you can’t hear it coming,” Brangham said. 

The seniors said they immediately called MPD, and then GDS, and officers were shortly dispatched. Director of Security Shelley Harris confirmed that the security team was contacted and also got in touch with MPD. 

The two students spoke with the police multiple times, and according to Brangham, who lives nearby, “there were like 50 police cars driving around my neighborhood, going through the alleyways. There were helicopters…it was intense.” The two stayed at Brangham’s house for the next few hours.

The shelter-in-place order was issued at about 3:07, and the school began letting students leave about 40 minutes later. At 4:50, all remaining students in the high school were brought down to the turf room in the building’s basement. Harris told the Bit that Brangham and Perl’s call prompted the location change. The final email sent to families that day reported at 5:40 that there was no longer a threat.

Harris said Nick Prout, the high school director of security, was in communication with an MPD dispatcher who immediately informed him when police confirmed there was no threat in the area, which was around 5.

Assistant Principal for School Life Quinn Killy told the Bit that the security team notified high school administration with an incident update and instructed them to bring all students to the lower level.

Yom Fox, the high school principal, told the Bit that moving students also allowed the school to organize in anticipation of the fall production of The Odyssey and the Consent Summit.

Students gather in the turf room on Nov. 18. Photo by Olivia Brown.

Students in the turf room were not told about the reason for the location change as it was unfolding, nor after. 

“I think I would have liked to have that information,” junior Joshua Reynolds said after being told about the sighting of an armed person on Davenport. “I feel like a lot of the time, GDS likes to keep that kind of information from us, but I think if I had had that information, I would have had a completely different attitude.” 

Reynolds said that he would have gone downstairs quicker if he had known about the potential threat posed by an armed person in the neighborhood. “I would have been more content with staying there instead of asking, ‘When can I go back?’”

After the school learned about the incident from Brangham and Perl, students were brought to the basement within five minutes, and were allowed by the security team to leave within another ten, but teachers and administrators in the turf room only let those participating in the play or Consent Summit and those leaving campus do so. In those ten minutes, the security team was focused on communicating with MPD and directing people in the building.

“When we communicate a message to you, that message may be limited, meaning we may simply just say to you, ‘Shelter in place,’” Harris told the Bit. “What we do not want to do is create a whole lot of panic.” She also said that when the students called the school, MPD had not been able to confirm any information about the armed individual, which informed the security team’s decisions.

Multiple students interviewed during the shelter-in-place felt that the order had gone on for too long, given the fact that Jackson-Reed students had been sent home while GDS students were not permitted to leave the building.

Acknowledging that the shelter-in-place ran slightly long, Harris told the Bit that “when it comes to an emergency, we don’t watch the clock to see how long it takes us to make sure that everyone is safe.”  

Fox echoed that sentiment: “It is our job to try and ensure student safety. And that may take 30 minutes more because we want to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can.”

Since last year, the GDS administration has been instructing students to use the app SchoolPass to sign in when they are on campus. One of the functions of the app is to send out notifications in the event of an emergency, such as a shelter-in-place. According to Harris, the school did not use SchoolPass to notify students of an emergency on Nov. 18 but may in the future. She said she could not say at the time of the interview why a notification was not sent out.

On Dec. 1, Harris wrote in an email to all high school students and staff that “starting with tomorrow’s fire drill we will begin using the SchoolPass emergency app to send drill/emergency alerts.” The next day, students received emails and push notifications when the fire drill started and ended.

GDS families were first notified of the shelter-in-place at 3:40. No communications went out to families in the time students were in the turf room. According to Harris, all communications sent by GDS must be approved by GDS’ communications team, headed by Alison Grasheim. “We basically cannot send out any information, or cannot approve anything without her knowledge,” Harris said. 

Harris told the Bit that when the security team conducts a formal review of the incident, she wants to look at improving internal communication, specifically between the security team and all GDS’ divisions. 

In response to the school’s communication efforts, sophomore Arden Manson said, “There could have been more clarity and less just moving people around without giving a reason. But other than that, I think it was fine.”