Incidents at UAHS increase safety awareness among students and administration.
by Dylan Carlson and Sophie Yang, ’19
Sept. 30 was a rainy, stormy Friday.
“You could hear all that lightning and thunder. I had students jumping in their seats because it sounded so close,” history teacher Kim Brown said.
Nearing the end of fifth period, students were finishing their lunches or cramming in an extra study session. Suddenly, a cracking boom cut through the halls. Lights flickered and twitched, setting the stage for what was about to happen.
A soft crackling was heard as assistant principal Jaclyn Angle announced over the PA system for all students to evacuate. Eighteen hundred students poured out of the building and into the cold and rain.
They stood outside for ten minutes, then 15 minutes, then 20, waiting for the signal to go back to the school. Teachers texted each other, trying to understand the situation, just as confused as the students.
Then a wave of fire trucks appeared, followed by three UAPD police vehicles and two ambulances, as reported by the Upper Arlington Fire Department. Students started to panic as some teachers ushered them to Tremont Elementary School, but just as soon as the students left, they were told to return.
Once they were back in their sixth period classes, everyone was left in suspense. School was let out early and rumors of a gym fire circulated for the rest of the day.
The breakdown in communication during the fire evacuation on Sept. 30, along with revelations about the school’s physical condition and an alleged plan to harm the student body, have raised concerns about safety and security at UAHS. In the past weeks, administrators have revised plans and policies to ensure the safety of students, and as the district pushes forward with plans for a new school building, many hope that these concerns will be addressed.
During the evacuation, students exited the building efficiently. Principal Andrew Theado said he was impressed with the rapid response.
“[The staff was] able to get about 1800 students cleared out of the building in just over two minutes,” Theado said. “However, once outside in the rain, communication quickly broke down.”
The procedure UAHS employed in previous fire evacuations was a relay system that relied on several essential personnel to make the all-clear.
Each person on the staff was responsible for one certain area of the building; they had to ensure there was nobody in any of the classrooms, bathrooms or hallways of their assigned area. Then, once the area was completely evacuated, these staff members would send a message to the front of the building to give the “all-clear.”
However, several situations that transpired during the building evacuation led to the breakdown of communication.
“First, the fire alarm didn’t work since it was hit by lightning: the surge shorted the system,” Theado said. “With the rain and cold weather, there was more sense of urgency. So, due to all these events, several key people were not in their areas such as myself, Mr. Vasquez and others… The communication did not circulate as well, so [information] kind of spread by word of mouth.”
Guidance counselor Matt Biedenbach agreed with Theado.
“It was the perfect storm of events,” Biedenbach said.
The administration met the week after Sept. 30 to revise the fire drill procedures, which now include more specific designated areas and a Remind.com system that sends updates to students and teachers.
“We could send out a message through Remind, and you would know exactly what the message is [and] what is going on.”
Principal Andrew Theado
“In order to streamline communication, we need everybody in the same area. That was why in our last drill, we moved everyone to the north end of the building. We have everybody there, so the chain of communication can flow a lot smoother and efficiently,” Theado said. “As well, we just signed up for a Remind account… in any event that takes place, we could send out a message through Remind, and you would know exactly what the message is, what is going on.”
A Remind.com system would allow everybody to understand what is going on at the moment and prevent a communication breakdown in the future.
During the evacuation, no one from the student body or teacher faculty knew exactly what was taking place. Instead, whispers here and there spread about the severity of the situation. Brown heard several claims as she led her fifth period history class out of the building.
“There were rumors flying left and right. I heard students saying things like ‘Oh, the building’s on fire,’ ‘The gym burned down’ and other stuff like that. But no one really knew… none of us,” Brown said.
According to the official scene report written by the Upper Arlington Fire Department’s Unit-2 Captain Lyndon Nofziger, who was the instant commander during the emergency, there no fire in the gym. Rather, it was a reported smell of smoke in the girls’ locker room that led to the evacuation.
“[Battalion command vehicle #72] on scene of reported smoke in the girls’ locker room,” the report said. “Light smoke and odor of electrical smell in locker room. Maintenance on scene found motor burned up in air-handler to the affected area.”
UAFD Fire Prevention Captain Ben Anders, who was on the scene as well, said that problems with several electrical components led to a motor’s failure. This caused the sudden evacuation.
“The electric [system] going in the high school is what is called three-phase electrical service. There are basically three ‘legs.’ One of those three legs was knocked out,” Anders said. “It caused a motor to overheat, which caused the smell of smoke.”
Anders went on to address why students were sent home after being allowed to gather their items and backpacks.
“Due to the electrical problems, the fire alarm system was not working. Until that was resolved, we could not have the student body occupy the building,” he said.
Anders also commended the school for its response to the emergency.
“The administration did a great job with handling the situation. The fire alarm system wasn’t working, and it was very good on their part to come up with the idea to communicate through the PA system. Fortunately, all the students were evacuated and there was no instance of any danger,” Anders said. “The school can take this as a learning experience.”
On Oct. 13 and 14, less than a week after the evacuation, rumors swept through the school of an alleged plan by Troy Smith* (anonymous source) to harm the student body. Widespread panic ensued as unsupported rumors circulated, the most prominent being the existence of a hit list, the possession of weapons and Smith’s arrest.
Throughout the security incident, large groups of the student body planned to skip school on Tuesday, Oct. 18.
Sophomore Andrew Mastruserio considered such action; however, he decided against it once the dust settled down.
“I heard many rumors, and while many of them were probably untrue, it still unnerved me and made me feel unsafe. It also did make me consider skipping school on Tuesday [the 18th], but that was probably unwarranted, given that [the rumor] likely wasn’t all true,” Mastruserio said.
Sophomore Ethan Stickler, who has known Smith since eighth grade, said he didn’t believe there was any real threat.
“People would say [Smith] had ‘shooter face,’” Stickler said. “People say he would do that, but he wouldn’t. He’s not that kind of guy. He wouldn’t do that.”
Administrators addressed the rumors about the security incident with an email the following day, clarifying that no safety or security threats had been found. The Upper Arlington Police Department then performed a full investigation, and on Oct. 17, principal Andrew Theado followed up from his initial email and further addressed the rumors.
“I know many of you have spent this long weekend hearing rumors about safety and security concerns at our school,” Theado wrote. “Many of the rumors seem to surround the idea that a student was arrested at the high school last week and found to have weapons and a hit list. I can tell you that this is not true.”
“Many of the rumors seem to surround the idea that a student was arrested at the high school last week and found to have weapons and a hit list. I can tell you that this is not true.”
Principal Andrew Theado
Smith agreed, saying that the events had originally been misinterpreted.
“As far as what went down on Thursday [Oct. 13],” he said, “I’m just going to say this: it was a misunderstanding. It was a huge misunderstanding.”
On Oct. 14, some students came to school resource officer Jon Rice with concerns about a second officer walking with him during fourth period lunch. Rice clarified that he was showing fellow Upper Arlington D.A.R.E. officer E.J. Windham around the school.
“It was [Windham’s] first time at the high school… as we were walking through the lunch room, I pointed several parts of it out. Later, I had several students… thinking that we were investigating a bomb threat. There was any never any threat.”
According to Smith, he was suspended from UAHS with intent to expel. However, he does plan to return to the high school.
During his time away from UAHS, Smith said he felt cut off from the high school community.
“I feel like I’ve just been watching things from the sidelines. I get filled in on what’s going on by close friends of mine, but I feel very left out of everything,” Smith said. “I really do wish to come back [to school]. It’s not really fun when you feel this isolated.”
However, Smith does have some mixed feelings about the reception he will receive when he comes back to UAHS.
“I’m a little nervous, because I feel like the minute I walk in the doors of the school, I just think it’s going to be crazy with people asking me all kinds of different questions,” Smith said.
Smith also said he hopes that students can be understanding about the situation and focus on facts rather than rumors.
“Don’t make any judgment based on the things that have been said and going around,” Smith said. “When people come to assumptions about things, it’s not always true.”
While this alleged security threat emerged to be non-dangerous, it has brought valid concerns to light about whether any dangerous events could possibly occur.
This realization comes alongside a threat at nearby Hilliard Davidson High School. On Sept. 22, Hilliard Davidson sophomore John Staley III was suspended for planning a school shooting along with several accomplices. The plot was stopped after a student overheard Staley talking about his plans of the shooting and told the school resource officer about the possible threat.
“The positive I take from this situation is that somebody came forward with a concern that was investigated properly, and fortunately, it turned out not to be an issue.”
Counselor Matt Biedenbach
Counselor Matt Biedenbach encourages UAHS students to be proactive and responsible regarding their safety and security.
“The positive I take from this situation is that somebody came forward with a concern that was investigated properly, and fortunately, it turned out not to be an issue,” Biedenbach said. “If students don’t come forward to us, we won’t know if there’s a security threat.”
Junior Skye Malcolm was among the UAHS students who came to administrators with concerns regarding the alleged security threat involving Smith.
“If we take this instance, where students told authorities there was a threat, and the threat was stopped, and we hold that as a precedent, then yes, I think this school is a safe place, considering students are willing to stand up for each other,” Malcolm said.
Repair, Renovate, or Rebuild?
The school district has been considering options for repairing, renovating or rebuilding UA schools. Out of all the Upper Arlington facilities, UAHS was found to need the most urgent attention.
At a school board meeting on Oct. 10, superintendent Paul Imhoff suggested two rebuilding plans for UAHS. Of the six possible plans, the recommended ones included creating an entirely new facility on the current athletic fields. Both options include a four-story tall academic area and two- or three-story tall arts and athletics areas. Sports fields, including those for baseball, would be relocated near Ridgeview and Mount Holyoke Rd.
All plans are currently rough; exits and specific classrooms are not planned out and would be decided in the spring of 2017. However, regardless of the option chosen, the updates could strengthen safety at school.
According to assistant principal Louis Vasquez, UAHS has an outdated entryway system. Recently-built high schools typically have entry areas at the front door.
“ You [first] enter a room or an entryway that is locked to the rest of the school,” Vasquez said. “From there, you have to speak to someone who buzzes you in.”
UAHS currently has a system where visitors pass through the main office, but with an updated entry system, visitors would need to show ID to enter any part of the building.
The current UAHS facility also lacks a sprinkler system that could protect against small fires. In addition, if the school is redone, video cameras could be built in to identify people who harm students or the facility. Less exterior doors could provide for higher security as well.
It’s too early to tell if these measures would be incorporated in the renovation or rebuilding to come. The Board of Education is expected to make the decision if UAHS will be rebuilt this November or December.
This November or December, the UA Board of Education is expected to announce a decision that will determine whether there will be a new and rebuilt UAHS, or if it will remain in the same building that has stood since 1956. As the community leans toward completely reconstructing the school building, current building safety concerns are looking to be addressed in the construction of the possible new high school.
One current issue is that there are more than 30 exterior doors at UAHS. Brown finds that this could present a safety concern to students.
“One thing that is truly an issue in keeping this building safe is we have too many exits. Even though the majority of them are locked during the day… I just don’t know how you watch that many doors,” Brown said.
Custodian Terry Peterman agrees with Brown. While working the afternoon shift from 3 to 11:30 p.m., Peterman often notices students in hallways after-hours.
“[Students] put magnets on the lock or put little rocks underneath [the doors],” Peterman said. “That way [students] can come back into the school whenever they want to. Definitely, if there is a new school, it should not have so many exterior doors.”
One winter break evening, when UAHS was closed down, Peterman saw a parent in the school hallways.
“His daughter was at home, they were FaceTiming each other, and she was walking him through the high school, guiding him to her locker to get a book that she needed,” Peterman said. “He said [he] had to try [around] four doors until [he] found one that wasn’t latched.”
“One thing that is truly an issue in keeping this building safe is we have too many exits… I just don’t know how you watch that many doors”
History teacher Kim Brown
In addition to concerns about exits, the school’s physical condition is also deteriorating. Theado noted several current building concerns.
“This is a very old building, around sixty years old. There are several issues. There are leaks on the roof, water in certain areas of the basement [and] some problems with the AC. However, we hope the new high school will be approved, so we can provide the best to our students,” Theado said.
Upper Arlington High School has faced a trying start to the 2016-2017 academic year after the evacuation and rumors of a safety threat, as well as continued work towards a new school building as the current one gets older. The administration is hard at work to keep the student body safe and secure from these issues and from those in the future.
Background: Sophie and I completed almost all of our interviews and reporting in the span of three days, and managed to write all of it in one night. Though that was a consequence of our procrastination, what it showed me was that often stories do not take too long to report (depending on how much original investigation one must do) or to write either. Rather, journalism can be fast-paced, and while Sophie and I wrote the story, it was like improvising off of each other. This story proved to me the power of collaborative work in journalism and how much information one can attain by how persistent they are in seeking out their interviews.