Armed mental escapee causes district’s first Code Red lockdown

It is a parent’s worst nightmare. Your child is at recess at their elementary school when an armed mental patient escapes authorities within walking distance of the playground. This scenario played out at Belmont Elementary on Wednesday, March 10. For the first time in district history, a Code Red emergency procedure was called, and Rockford proved prepared for the emergency.

PREPARED—Belmont Elementary Principal Bill Armitage shows off the cards that are used in Code Red situations.

At approximately 2 p.m. the Kent County Sheriff’s office received a mental pick up order for a 22-year-old Grand Rapids resident. Deputies received a tip that the individual was at a friend’s house in the Belmont area, a residence to the north of Belmont Elementary. When Deputies arrived at the residence, he fled out a back window. The individual was reportedly armed with a knife.

According to Rockford Public Schools head of security, Charlie Brown, within two minutes of the incident he was notified. Half of Belmont’s students were outdoors on recess on the playground. Within one minute more, said Belmont Principal Bill Armitage, the students and staff were in full lockdown in classrooms and offices.

This was a Code Red procedure that Rockford designed and implemented half a dozen years ago after one of the first nationally-publicized school shootings. The then-director of security for RPS, Bob Goethal, a former police officer, developed a response procedure in cases where students and staff may be threatened. “We developed this before Columbine,” said Rockford’s Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Michael Shibler. He said at that time Rockford had one security officer at the high school.

“I felt we could do a better job ensuring a safe environment for our students and staff,” he said. He said Goethal was a captain with the Grand Rapids Police Department who was retiring. Shibler approached him and asked if he was interested in developing a procedure to respond to a Columbine-type situation. Goethal came up with the Code Red process and during Wednesday’s emergency it worked perfectly.

“Practice makes perfect,” said Brown, who has been head of security at RPS since Goethal retired. He said all schools in the district practice Code Red twice yearly, in addition to by-law drills for fires and tornados. Rockford’s Code Red calls for all students and staff to be in locked rooms with shades drawn and lights off. Each room in the district is equipped with two cards to be used in Code Red. One is green and one is red. Slid under the door where staff and students wait quietly for the all-clear, they tell if everyone in the room is safe and secure or if there is an injury or other problem.

“You could have heard a pin drop in the school,” Armitage said of his staff and students rapid compliance with Code Red procedure. The district also informed parents with a bulletin on the district website explaining that the elementary was in lockdown. “I was as nervous as could be,” Armitage said, noting that at first he didn’t know exactly what the emergency was. “We had a few tears [from the students], but everyone did exactly what they were supposed to do. It was amazing.”

Sheriff’s Deputies attempted to locate the mental patient by using a K-9, but were unsuccessful. At around 3:30 p.m. they were confident that the individual was not in the area and the school was no longer threatened.

“I was really impressed with our officers who went with our walkers to their homes,” Armitage said, explaining that students who usually walk home from school were all escorted by police. In addition, bus drivers dropping students watched their charges to make sure they reached their doors before continuing. Armitage said he also cancelled all evening activities to be on the safe side.

Shibler said the incident proves the value of an emergency response system. He was out of the district when the incident happened, speaking on the steps of Lansing for school reform. Nonetheless, the process worked perfectly. “It is a benefit to all of our schools in the district to have a plan in place when dealing with a situation like this that was out of the blue,” he stated.

Brown said his department is in daily contact with area law enforcement and works closely with them on safety and security. The RPS policy of hiring former law enforcement for security has made for a very qualified staff for that department. Practices are a vital part of emergency preparedness. “We take them very seriously,” he said.

“It was our first lockdown and it went without a glitch,” Brown stated. He said to his knowledge the individual sheriff deputies were looking for was still not in custody but believed to be in the southern half of the county.

As for the successful first Code Red for Rockford Public Schools, he said, “It makes you feel good when things go just the way you hope they would.” Rockford has a combined 135 years of law enforcement experience in its security officers. “That’s a lot of experience.”

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