SHERBORN — State and local police, with assistance from K-9 units and a helicopter, searched the woods and cemetery this afternoon near a locked-down elementary school after two first-graders reported seeing a man with a gun behind the building.
After 2½ hours of searching, a few anxious moments, and a group of teachers and administrators going through the checklist of things they had been trained to do in just this kind of situation, the all-clear was sounded and the kids were sent home from the Pine Hill Elementary School.
“We’ve practiced this as part of our emergency protocol,” said School Superintendent Steven Bliss.
“You just don’t know how everyone will respond, but we practiced, practiced, and practiced, and it paid off. I’m so proud of how the school, the town, the kids, and the community responded.”
The school was immediately put on lockdown with classroom lights turned off and doors locked, and doors to the outside secured, as soon as the students reported that, while they were at recess, they saw the man with the gun, said Bliss.
Bliss was outside with the fourth- and fifth-graders for Field Day, celebrating the end of the school year, when the report was made at about 12:44 p.m.
Bliss said teachers formed the kids into orderly lines, took a head count, and walked into a nearby fire station, where the group waited 2 1/2 hours to be dismissed.
Police Chief Richard R. Thompson said as soon as the 911 call from the school was received, he and the two other officers on duty sped to the school.
On the way to the school, about a quarter-mile away, he said, he was just thinking about “doing what I’ve been trained to do.”
He and Officer BenJamin Stickney immediately went to the back of the school where the students had said they saw the armed man, while Lieutenant David Bento stayed in front of the school until officers from Dover and Natick arrived as backup.
“We wanted to make sure there was no immediate threat,” Thompson said.
In the meantime, Bliss said, he walked through the school, making sure all classroom and office doors were locked and everyone was calm and quiet.
He also notified parents through an emergency system, letting them know about the lockdown and that the children were safe, and asking them “to please stay clear of the campus.”
He made two more notifications, he said, updating the parents about the search, and ultimately, at 3:15 p.m. telling them the lockdown was over.
“It’s certainly not how I thought I’d spend the day,” he said. “But there was no panic, and I think keeping the parents informed was a key.”
Thompson said the town’s K-9 team unit the woods by the Pine Hill Cemetery in back of the school near where the students reported seeing the suspicious man, and then State Police K-9 units and the State Police helicopter continued the search of the entire area around the school, finding nothing.
Thompson said once he was confident that there was no one in the area, the lockdown was lifted and the students dismissed.
He said the department would continue the investigation Thursday.
Bradley Peterson an 11-year-old Pine Hill fifth-grader said he was never scared, even after he heard that someone had been near the school with a gun.
“I was just hungry,” he said.
Bradley’s mother, Paula Peterson, was volunteering at Field Day when the lockdown occurred.
“They made an announcement that there was would be a lockdown, and that everyone was safe, but that they would have to do as the teachers instructed,” she said.
Peterson said the kids started to get bored at the fire station, but the teachers played games with them, sang songs, and kept them calm and occupied.
In addition, she said, some parents went and got pizzas, and the snow cone machine that was to have been part of Field Day made its way to the station so the kids could have a treat while they waited for the all-clear.
Peterson said teachers focused on making sure all the kids were OK, spending time with some who seemed more upset than others. She also praised Pine Hill Principal Barbara A. Brown, who, she said, made sure everyone knew what was going on.
“The teachers and Dr. Brown were just wonderful,” she said. “Everyone kept calm, they kept the kids calm, and they just knew exactly what they were doing. I can’t say enough how well they handled everything.”