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Nichols Middle School Reopens

Back to School. Again.

Thursday morning at 9 a.m., Nichols Middle School parents were briefed by multiple City and School District 65 staff about the pipe bomb incident earlier in the week.  Speakers included the Superintendent and Asst. Superintendent and Communications Director and Head of Buildings & Grounds of D65, Police Chief, Fire Chief, Mayor, School Board members, 4th Ward Alderman and School Principal.

I'm not a reporter, but I scribbled notes as best I could.  I know many parents and neighbors are wondering what people are saying about the incident.  Here's what I gathered at the meeting in the Nichols Middle School library this morning.

The tone of the meeting was one of anxious anticipation to get answers.  WHAT happened?  WHY here?  WHAT'S still being done?  WHAT are our kids being told?  HOW are they being helped? 

Hardy Murphy, Superintendent, led the meeting, first letting everyone know the D65 administration did the best they could "on the fly".  Most of the communication was happening via cell phone as school administrators were driving into work that morning. 

The Police Chief stated his department is working closely with the FBI & ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), looking for evidence proving the incident was, in fact, a suicide.  It's not known if the detonated pipe bomb was intentional or accidental.  The issue is #1 on the FBI's analysis task list; they plan to have Colin Dolebraux's computer analysis finished by the end of day Friday.

The police received several calls about an explosion around 4 a.m. and investigated a 10-block area.  Because there had only been one sound, because there were no signs of fire or smoke, and because it was still dark, the police chief said it was difficult for officers to locate the scene from which the explosion came. 

Once the deceased body was discovered near school property, a Code White Plan was instituted (which assesses whether a school is threatened);  the conclusion was made to organize arriving students, then evacuate them to another location so as not to witness the crime scene.  That plan was in place before students began to arrive.  A perimeter was set up to guide students around the crime scene and into an organized staging area until they could be relocated. 

However, when a live bomb was discovered (next to the deceased), the decision was THEN made to close the school, thus delay and/or confusing messages to close Nichols.  Pat Markham, Communications Director for D65, added that in her rush to post the closing on the school/district websites, she unintentionally sent a message that all D65 schools would closed.  She corrected that error, but it took 5 minutes.  Families were also emailed and phoned (on home/cell phones) with a message read in English/Spanish message. She was coordinating this communication from her home.

One angry parent pointed out that, upon arriving with his son at the school Tuesday morning, they were informed by a Nichols staff member that "school's closed because someone blew their head off with a pipe bomb." The parent demanded to know why they were informed in this manner.  Principal Mendez apologized for that employee's lack in judgement, hoping it was an isolated comment.  Several parents in the back of the room mentioned they'd received  similar directives.  My own son was asked by a police officer, "Do you have a safe place to go?  If so, you need to go there.  School's closed today."

Wednesday was a day of professional development for teachers and staff, and the decision was made to talk to students upon arrival Thursday in classrooms rather than in a large assembly.  In this manner, teachers could read a prepared script, confirming and clarifying known facts.  In this small setting, teachers can also inform the students that the school itself was never approached by the deceased (police confirmed this though surveillance videos),  that it is a safe place to be (no forced entry was found), and that students are under the care and safety of teachers/staff when they are in school. In this intimate setting, teachers can more easily identify students who might appear anxious or struggling with issues.  Principal Mendez herself walked through the entire school with the bomb squad and bomb-sniffing dogs. 

There will be professional help if needed throughout the year, and we were reminded of D65's 26 social workers, 14 school psychologists and several community mental health services which have volunteered to help.

The Fire Chief informed us there were 3 "grid" searches conducted of the property, the playground equipment was disinfected, wood-chips replaced, one tree and several limbs removed.  A sweep of 50 individuals, arm-in-arm, was conducted several times across the property to ensure all evidence was removed from the scene. 

When asked when the students would regain access to the outside fields, the Principal mentioned that today, students would remain on the blacktop (plus, it's raining today). 

Our Alderman pointed out that throughout the investigation, police have and will conduct it in a "worst case scenario" approach. 

Parents asked what's being done at other schools to help younger children who've heard or been exposed to the news.  The Superintendent said the District feels it's better not to incite more hysteria by introducing a subject, better to deal with issues as they present themselves.  Several parents, including me, disagreed on this wait-and-see approach and let our opinions be heard.

Parents also commented on the following items:

--How do we avoid something like this happening in the future?

--How can we speed up response time, even if an incident occurs before the School Administrators are in their offices?

--How can we improve communication between Emergency Services (police/fire) and the Superintendent of Schools?

--Can we communicate with students directly via text messaging to get word out about things (such as the availability of the YMCA, libraries, Robert Crown Center, Fleetwood-Jourdain Center, etc.)?

--How should we talk to our kids about this matter?  Please give us some guidance.

One parent suggested emphasizing all the safe measures being taken, including the police presence and the sweeps made to ensure everything back to normal.

--A parent pointed out this is a vital opportunity to talk to our kids about depression and mental health issues.

The parents and speakers generally thanked each other for their support through this tragedy.  Dr. Murphy commended the Principal and staff of Nichols for their organized leadership and also acknowledged he'd been prepared to be on the defense at this meeting; he emphasized his appreciation for the open discussion about the matter. Principal Mendez thanked the parents and especially the children, who handled themselves in a calm manner in uncertain times.  She stressed how proud she was to be part of a community and school administration that worked together, ensuring that not a single child was hurt in such a potentially dangerous situation.

I know I haven't addressed every issue discussed at the nearly two hour meeting; if you were there, please clarify points I might have missed in the Comments Section below.

Kate Lauderbaugh September 17, 2010 at 07:47 PM
Christine, thank you for this helpful information. I have a child at another Evanston Middle school, so we are not getting the kind of detailed information that you are getting from Nichols. But we are just as concerned!

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