When Is a School Lockdown Needed?

Oct. 30, 2007
Recent gun incident at school near Chicago splits principal, cops

A student using a bathroom at Morton West High School thought he saw another student in a stall drop a gun, so he told two other students, and word soon spread across campus at the Berwyn school.

Later that Oct. 15 day, the three students were questioned about the incident by Berwyn police in the principal's office. Again, the student recounted witnessing a student drop what looked like a gun in the bathroom before placing it in his waistband and walking out, said police and school officials.

Police suggested locking down the school. But District 201 Supt. Ben Nowakowski decided against it. According to police reports, Nowakowski thought the student's account was unreliable because the student was enrolled in a program for emotionally disturbed students.

As it turned out, a student brought a real gun to school that day. And unbeknownst to police or school officials at the time, he was one of the three being questioned in the principal's office.

Three days later, after receiving a tip from a teacher who overheard a conversation, authorities arrested Morton West student Fernando Aguilar, 17, who police say admitted to bringing a semiautomatic handgun to school Oct. 15.

Six months after the Virginia Tech shootings, and just days after a student in Cleveland shot four people in his downtown high school, the incident at Morton West underscores the ongoing debate over campus security and the judgment call that school officials are forced to make following a gun threat.

Nowakowski still defends his decision not to lock down Morton West, which has 3,400 students and no metal detectors. In an interview, he said the witness couldn't confirm whether the gun was real or give a detailed description of the student carrying the weapon.

"The details were so sketchy and the story kept changing," he said. "We didn't feel it was a reliable enough account."

But even if a report of a gun on campus can't be confirmed, school officials should err on the side of caution, said Cmdr. Bill Evans, who heads the Cook County Sheriff's Police Hostage and Barricade Team.

"Any time a student sees something that even resembles a firearm, the best bet is to go into lockdown," Evans said.

Berwyn Police Chief William Kushner said officers recommended locking down the campus but that it was the school's decision to do so. With few details to go on, Nowakowski said locking down the school would not have helped officials find the gun "and might have made the person with the gun feel cornered and forced to do something."

"It's better to just allow him to leave," Nowakowski said.

But Evans said a lockdown could contain a student with a gun to one building and prevent him from moving around campus and firing indiscriminately.

"The quicker that you can contain a person like that the better off you'll be at resolving the issue," he said.

Schools in the Chicago area have reacted in different ways in response to gun threats on campus. Last month, Dundee-Crown High School officials chose not to lock down the school after a student was found with an unloaded handgun. On Friday, officials at Prairie Junior High School in Alsip evacuated the school after finding gun ammunition in a bathroom.

At Morton, the witness told police his view from the bathroom was obstructed by a stall, and he chose to tell his friends but not school officials because he was not sure if the gun was real. All three students were enrolled in a special education program at the school, but Nowakowski denied police reports that he rejected their credibility for this reason.

A few days after the incident, a Morton teacher overheard a student say he brought a gun to school, and that led Berwyn police to Aguilar. Authorities recovered a semiautomatic pistol from Aguilar's home.

Aguilar was charged with three misdemeanor counts of unlawful possession of a firearm and released on bail. His father, Juan Aguilar, was charged with having an unregistered weapon, said Assistant State's Atty. Alan Lynn.

In his confession, the student told police that the gun was unloaded. He said he brought the weapon to school to "show it off" and keep it from his two brothers, according to police reports.

"My brothers do not get along and always fight, and I did not want either of them to find the gun and shoot the other," he said in a police report.

It is unclear whether the student was carrying the weapon while being interviewed Oct. 15, but Nowakowski said that not searching the three students was a mistake.

Nowakowski said, school officials are considering increasing security measures at the school, including metal detectors -- a measure that Nowakowski insisted was unnecessary.

"Most students act very responsible every day, and intruding on their personal freedoms becomes a concern," he said. "We don't want to turn the building into a prison for students."

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