PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is calling on a middle school principal to be fired after the mayor claims administrators did not immediately call 911 after a report of a possible gun in the school.
Nathanael Greene Middle School was placed on lockdown last Thursday after an administrator thought they saw a student with a gun, the district said last week. No weapon was found, though the lockdown delayed dismissal from the school.
But both Elorza and an internal police memo say Providence Police were not informed for more than an hour after the Nathanael Greene administrator thought he saw a gun.
“In light of the climate throughout the country and what’s happening right now, the fact that they wouldn’t act immediately and they wouldn’t call the police once they decided to act, is simply unacceptable,” Elorza said in an interview with Target 12. “There is no answer or justification for that.”
The incident came two days after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which has had school leaders on edge across the country. An unloaded gun had also been found at Nathanael Greene Middle School just a month earlier.
According to the police memo, written by Sgt. Michael Wheeler of the Youth Services Bureau and sent to Major David Lapatin the day after the incident, school administrators first saw about a dozen students running out of the cafeteria at Greene at about 12:35 p.m. They believed there might be a fight about to break out.
“After approximately 25 or 30 minutes (1305-1310 hours) an administrator began viewing the cameras to see if a fight had taken place,” Wheeler wrote in the memo. “An administrator observed what he believed was one student passing a gun to another student.”
The report says at about 2:30 p.m., Nathanael Greene’s principal Dr. Demetri Sermons called Jason Menard, the district’s director of operations, to inform him the school was being placed on lockdown.
“No call had been placed to the PPD,” the report states.
Menard was at another school — Juanita Sanchez — with two police officers that were overseeing dismissal. One of them, a lieutenant, radioed to another officer to send him inside Nathanael Greene. The lieutenant also went to the school, where the report says three students suspected of having a firearm were secured in the principal’s office.
No gun was found in the school, and students were dismissed around 4 p.m when the lockdown was lifted.
“School administrators determined at about 1:05 or 1:10 that there might be a gun in the school,” Elorza said. “Yet they did absolutely nothing for about an hour and 15, hour and 20 minutes. That’s unacceptable. They put our kids at risk, they put our administrators at risk, they put our teachers at risk.”
“Once they did decide to alert the authorities, they didn’t call 911,” Elorza said. “Instead they called a school administrator who just happened to answer his phone, just happened to be with police officers.”
Dr. Javier Montañez, the superintendent, said Wednesday the lockdown was called out of an abundance of caution, and the administrator was not sure what the object was that he saw.
“They’ve been having problems with phones, so they didn’t know what it actually was,” Montañez said. “In an abundance of caution … they were trying to figure out what was going on.”
Montañez did not dispute the timeline of events in the police report. He said during the time between 1:10 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., when police finally learned of the incident, administrators were following up on the possible suspicious object before calling for the lockdown.
He also said administrators were focused on keeping the students safe because it was almost dismissal time, and there have been fights breaking out after school.
He said human resources is reviewing the incident.
Elorza said he met Tuesday with Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré, Chief Hugh Clements, R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and Montañez about the incident.
Afterwards, he sent a letter to Infante-Green calling on her to terminate Dr. Sermons, citing what he called an “egregious breach of protocol.”
“It is troubling that this action has not already been taken and that the necessary investigation has
not already occurred,” Elorza wrote in the letter, noting that Infante-Green disagreed with his position at the meeting.
“It is apparent that school safety protocols are either unclear or being disregarded by leadership within PPSD,” he wrote.
Montañez, who met with Nathanael Greene teachers for roughly an hour and a half Wednesday afternoon, said he has full confidence in Dr. Sermons. He declined to comment on Elorza’s accusations of a breach of protocol, citing the HR review.
Major Lapatin, who leads the investigative division at the Police Department, declined to comment on the incident because of the ongoing investigation into what happened.
“We’re investigating … to see if there were any mistakes made, and if so how to correct them,” Lapatin said.
Infante-Green’s office did not immediately comment. The R.I. Department of Education controls the Providence Public Schools.
Maribeth Calabro, the Providence Teachers Union president who teaches at Nathanael Greene, said there have been an increase in fights and incidents at the school, including the gun found in April.
The school was also vandalized overnight, apparently by teens who broke into the school. Calabro said she saw broken glass, destroyed computers and other damage in the front office area.
“In my estimation in 28 years of being at Nathanael Greene, this is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Calabro said. “We have teachers who are afraid to come to work, we have students that are afraid to come to school.”
“It requires a full court press of all stakeholders being involved in trying to come up with plans in trying to support our students, who are clearly acting out due to trauma and not having their physical, social and emotional needs met,” Calabro said.
Montañez said no decision has been made on whether to station a school resource officer at Nathanael Greene full time, though police officers do come to the school at dismissal time.
Parents voiced their concerns during a virtual meeting to Infante-Green and Montañez Wednesday night.
“In Texas, people are burying their children,” parent Ashley Perry said. “What if that was our kids? … these are the people that I’m supposed to trust with my children, and obviously they can’t be trusted.”
“My child will not be attending school for the rest of the school year,” she concluded.
“I could not be more outraged by what happened,” Elorza said during the meeting. “An hour and 15 minutes went by from the time they determined that there might be a gun in the school to when anything was done about it.”
A 12 News reporter was kicked out of the virtual meeting partway through by the host. But prior to that, Infante-Green defended those who responded to the scare.
“I have to say that everybody has gone above and beyond,” she said. “Every single teacher in the building and every single administrator.”
Parents are planning to host a demonstration outside the middle school Thursday morning to ensure their voices are heard.