EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 25, 2013

Manhunt forced security steps at schools

By John Toole

---- — Schools in Salem and Derry went on alert yesterday, tightening security within the hour police launched a manhunt for Thomas George.

George had ties to schools in both communities.

Spokesman Chip Underhill confirmed George had attended Pinkerton Academy for three years before withdrawing last year.

Superintendent Michael Delahanty said George was a participant in the Salem district’s evening program and has a brother who is a freshman at Salem High School.

Salem police issued a bulletin looking for George at about 8 a.m.

Salem schools initiated their “shelter in place” protocol shortly after police notified them about 8:30 a.m. they were concerned George might go to the high school.

But with the manhunt on in Salem, Delahanty said, officials decided to expand the security precautions to all eight schools.

“Shelter in place” is a step down from Salem’s most serious security alert, a lockdown.

School activities continue indoors, but not outside. Only parents are allowed to enter the building.

“This limits access for visitors,” Delahanty said.

Students in portable classrooms were kept inside and not allowed to travel between them and the main building.

There was still a heavy police presence at Salem High, with as many as a half dozen officers observed at the school.

Meanwhile, with the manhunt unfolding in both Salem and Derry, police in Derry notified schools about the situation.

“At no time did we have information he was headed for a school,” Derry police Chief Ed Garone said.

Police were just playing it safe.

“It’s best to err on the side of caution,” Garone said.

Pinkerton Academy announced a lockdown at 8:55 a.m., Underhill said.

That meant students stayed behind locked doors in buildings and classrooms, with shades drawn. No one traveled between buildings.

It was lifted within 20 minutes, as police concluded the area was safe, Underhill said.

The Derry police search was concentrated in the area of Gamache and Kendall Pond Roads, across town from Pinkerton.

Some parents, commenting on the Derry News Facebook page, were upset Pinkerton ended the lockdown so soon.

But Underhill said the school only would do so with assurances from police that students were safe.

“They said it was OK,” he said.

Other Derry schools also took precautions.

Superintendent Laura Nelson said she learned of the situation at about 8:30 a.m. and within 40 minutes had placed seven schools in modified lockdown and notified parents.

“Hallways are cleared and students stay in their classrooms,” Nelson said.

Parents still can have access to students during a modified lockdown, she said.

Parents received notices via phone calls, email or text messages.

The Derry district also used social media.

“Derry Schools have been placed in lockdown,” the school district said via its Twitter account about 10:17 a.m. “There is no imminent danger. This is strictly a precaution.”

The Twitter announcement came after the district first sent a phone alert to parents.

“Phone alert was sent to families,” the district said via Twitter.

Less than 25 minutes later, at 10:41 a.m., Derry had ended the security precautions.

“Derry schools have lifted the lockdown at all schools,” the district said via Twitter. “Police report a suspect was taken into custody.”

In Salem, Delahanty said officials had advised parents about their security precautions within an hour via email messages.

They also turned to social media.

“We sent out a message via Twitter,” he said.

Salem learned of George’s capture about 10:25 a.m. and lifted the “shelter in place” measure.

“Our students and staff can also be commended for managing to adhere to a sense of normalcy despite a slight change in protocol and routine,” the Salem School District said in a press release. “Our parent community is owed a debt of gratitude for not overreacting to news that appeared across social media.”

Underhill said Pinkerton’s lockdown came during a week when the school was scheduled to drill in lockdown procedures.

“Everything was executed so well, we were really, really pleased,” Underhill said.

Londonderry also took precautions.

Superintendent Nate Greenberg said schools used their “stay in place” policy for about 20 minutes until police informed officials the search for George was over.

The procedure means elementary students don’t go outside for recess and high school students are escorted when they go outdoors to travel to the gym.