Norwich Free Academy lockdown prompts call to address student violence, bullying
Norwich — A 70-minute lockdown at Norwich Free Academy in response to an unspecified possible threat Monday morning later prompted parents and students to demand the school take action in response to what they said are increasing incidents of bullying, violence and threats at schools throughout the state.
Youth and mental health advocate Marcela Lee led a group of parents in a 30-minute meeting with Norwich police Monday afternoon. Lee also is organizing a “Rally against School Violence and Bullying” at 11 a.m. Saturday at Chelsea Parade green at the junction of Broadway and Washington Street.
Lee said the rally will provide “a microphone and a soapbox” for students, parents and mental health professionals to address the problem of school safety and student violence and suggest solutions. Lee is asking that mental health and other agencies that work with youths attend the rally and offer to help students suffering from bullying or experiencing violent tendencies.
For information about the rally, contact Lee at email@example.com.
“This is not just for Norwich,” Lee said. “It’s Norwich, New London, East Lyme, Montville, Colchester, Griswold. “The focus will be on solutions.”
NFA and Norwich police officials released few details of the incident that prompted the lockdown at 10 a.m. Monday. Campus security was made aware of a possible threat from a student, NFA and Norwich police officials said late Monday morning after the lockdown was lifted.
“NPD Officers and NFA Security quickly located the alleged suspect and are currently investigating the incident to determine if criminal charges are appropriate,” police Capt. James Veiga wrote in a news release on the incident. Officers remained on campus continuing the investigation after the lockdown was lifted.
Rumors and speculation about the nature of the incident spread swiftly on social media, including Facebook posts from a website based in Nigeria.
NFA Head of School Brian Kelly sent a letter to parents Monday afternoon explaining that after receiving “some potentially concerning information,” school officials initially called for a “stay put” order for students and staff to stay in their current locations.
After a few minutes, “in the utmost interest of safety and security,” the school went into full lockdown. Students and staff were to remain in classes. Any physical education classes outdoors were to go to Alumni gym. Any students outside were to go to the closest campus building, and security did not allow vehicles to enter campus, NFA spokesman Michael O’Farrell said. The lockdown was lifted at 11:10 a.m., NFA officials said.
“While I can’t comment on specific actions or rumors,” Kelly wrote to parents, “I can assure you that our processes were followed in order to protect our students and staff at all times.”
O’Farrell said the regular lockdown drills practiced on campus worked very well in practice Monday, and the campus was secured, with quick campus security and police response to the alleged possible threat.
But parents posted numerous comments and questions on NFA’s Facebook page Monday, complaining they learned from third parties or from frantic texts by their children about the lockdown and rampant rumors. Some complained that NFA resumed a normal school day, including after-school activities, Monday, rather than send students home early.
Norwich police Lt. John Perry told the parents who attended the afternoon meeting at the police station that students and parents should feel safe at the NFA campus on Tuesday when he said police will have enhanced presence at the 2,000-student regional high school.
According to state media reports Monday, schools in New Haven and Hamden also went into lockdowns or canceled classes Monday in response to alleged or possible threats.
During the meeting with parents and students at the Norwich police station, three NFA students and their mothers described repeated bullying incidents and said student violence is worsening. They were not satisfied with the school’s response.
NFA freshman Miah Rivera, 15, of Baltic said she has been absent or late to school more than two dozen days this school year out of fear of bullying. She said students have been urging her to kill herself and she feels she has no safe haven on campus. She said someone took a video of her crying at one point and posted it with taunts that called her a “cry baby,” and saying she should kill herself.
Miah’s mother, Wandali Rodriguez, said she has raced home or to the school from work multiple times after receiving frantic texts or calls from her daughter. The two complained that school counselors and teachers have expressed more concern about Miah’s frequent absences than her complaints.
NFA spokesman O’Farrell, who did not attend the parents’ meeting with police, later said he could not address specific student issues. O’Farrell said NFA is aware of “a variety of scenarios” involving bullying and is investigating possible disciplinary action and ways to provide support for the students involved.
Pluto Pollard, 15, a junior from Norwich, said bullying and student violence are getting worse. Freshman Jaelyn Leanna, 14, said it might start on social media and then escalate when the students meet in person.
“There’s a lot of talking behind people’s backs,” Jaelyn said, “and then you see each other in person, and it spirals and spirals and spirals.”
Lee repeatedly asked the group and Lt. Perry for possible solutions during the meeting.
Perry suggested the NFA students start a peer support group to help direct victims of bullying with information on how they can seek help from the school or outside sources.
Megan Langford, Jaelyn Leanna's mother, said school officials cite student privacy when parents request to meet with the parents of alleged bullies to try to resolve issues. Langford suggested the school create an “opt in” process in which one parent could be told that another parent wants to meet to discuss issues or incidents involving their children.
Asked by Lee if the students and parents knew how to file complaints about bullying, most said they vaguely knew about complaint forms and how to find them. Lee said she will have copies of the state standard form at Saturday’s rally.
“My kids have been in Norwich Public Schools for 11 years,” parent Mary Pollard said, “and I found out about it two weeks ago.”