Heights High principal memo: No attempts made to cover up gun incident

01/26/2013 6:54 AM

01/26/2013 7:06 AM

A Wichita principal opted not to notify teachers or other school employees that a student was arrested with a loaded gun on campus last week because he was concerned that the information would be shared with media.

In a memo distributed to Heights High School teachers on Wednesday – five days after a weapon was discovered in a student’s backpack and the 16-year-old was arrested – principal Bruce Deterding said the “issue was handled very quickly” and that “at no time was anyone in our building in danger.”

“No attempts were made to ‘cover this up’ but the decision was made not to have a mass email blast to staff as it has become apparent that my emails have been previously forwarded to the media,” Deterding wrote in the one-page memo.

“I regret not getting notice out to everyone earlier and am looking into ways other than email where this can be done. For this please accept my apologies and at the same time thanks for all that each of you do to keep our school safe.”

Deterding did not return calls Friday.

A teacher who did not want to be identified said “there was a considerable amount of concern” among some teachers that they weren’t informed of the incident last week.

A phone message written by the district’s communications office was sent to Heights parents and guardians at 6 p.m. Jan. 18, the day the weapon was discovered, but no similar message was sent to school staff.

“I definitely want to know, from a safety standpoint,” said the teacher, who did not want his name used because he wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters.

“But another concern was, when teachers were out and about over the weekend and parents called or talked to them at games or in stores or wherever, they had no idea what happened. They were caught off guard … or they learned about it on the news” or on social media.

“I’d just say it was bad organizational communication.”

Wendy Johnson, spokeswoman for Wichita schools, said the district continually evaluates how it shares information with parents and others.

“We look at every situation, and this is one where we stood back and said, ‘We need to do it better the next time and make sure the staff gets the same message,’ ” she said.

Principal’s discretion

No district policy dictates how, when or even whether parents, students or school employees are informed when a weapon is discovered on campus.

When a gun and ammunition were found in a student’s locker at East High School in August, officials did not notify parents or employees of the weapon or subsequent arrest. The Eagle learned of that incident from a Wichita police report.

School board president Lynn Rogers, whose district includes Heights, said he had not heard concerns from school employees but that “in this case, probably, staff should have been notified about it sooner.”

Rogers said he supports school principals having the authority to decide whom to notify and when, based on the severity of each incident.

“I do think it’s important that we communicate with parents and staff as soon as we can,” Rogers said. “The problem with making a hard-and-fast rule is that … a weapon can be a lot of different things, and what and where and when you find it can mean a lot of different things.”

‘No secrets’

In the memo left in Heights teachers’ mailboxes Wednesday, Deterding said the weapon discovered last week “was found while investigating another issue.”

“The student in question had no issues here at school but mentioned that they did have some issues on the streets of our city,” he wrote.

The student, who had a previous felony conviction, has been charged with two counts of criminal use of weapons. According to court records, he had a Ruger Mark II .22-caliber handgun. Police said the gun was loaded.

Randy Mousley, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said Heights teachers may have talked to building union representatives about concerns over not being notified, but he wasn’t aware of any calls to the union office.

“My personal preference would have been to inform the teachers when you inform the parents,” Mousley said. “We think they should be notified on most things going on in school.”

E-mail is efficient but might not always be the best way to communicate, depending on the situation, he added.

“We advocate face-to-face conversations whenever possible because we think those personal relationships are important,” Mousley said. “That’s not always possible.

“But I think there’s always a way to improve communication.”

Johnson, the district spokeswoman, said Deterding’s concern about e-mails being forwarded to reporters before parents are notified does not necessarily mean he will stop using e-mail to communicate with employees.

“I hope you know that in terms of informing parents or staff, reaching out and sharing information is our modus operandi,” Johnson said Friday. “We know there are no secrets in our world, and we don’t want there to be secrets.

“We want people to be informed and have the information they need.”

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