“Left traumatized”: Marfa schools reel from nerve-wracking lockdown

Rowdy Dugan, a parent at the school, has found himself frustrated by what he sees as inaction by school officials. “Nothing’s being done,” he said in an interview Friday. “I just strolled right into the school through doors that were supposed to be locked two days after the lockdown happened.” (photo by Maisie Crow)

MARFA — When a secretive multi-agency operation tore through Marfa last week, triggering more than an hour of lockdown and shelter-in-place orders at Marfa public schools, one first- through third-grade class of 12 children did exactly as trained: They shuffled into their classroom, turned off the lights and hid.

But for eight minutes, school officials say, no adults joined them. And parents say they first learned this detail from their own kids — not school administrators.

Left to their own devices and imaginations, the children (some as young as six years old) prepared to fend off what they assumed was a gunman on campus. One girl reportedly offered to act as a human shield, while others comforted one another and looked for rudimentary weapons.

“One of my boys was a lookout for a gunman,” said José “Joe” Grajeda, who has two second-grade boys in the class. “My kids were left traumatized.”

“It was so upsetting on so many levels,” he said. The school had “completely failed.”

The situation in Room 115 at Marfa Elementary is perhaps the most troubling story to emerge from last week’s lockdown, which school officials admit exposed gaps in planning, security and communication.

At least two classrooms were left with no adult supervision for part of the lockdown and shelter in place. Sixth-graders helped herd younger students into the school, and third-graders fended for themselves.

Several parents and one teacher told The Big Bend Sentinel that school employees were walking the halls during the lockdown and shelter in place because they did not know where one class was — but Superintendent Oscar Aguero has repeatedly said that, to his knowledge, administrators never lost track of classes. (Amy White, principal of the elementary school, and John Sherrill, principal of the high school, declined to comment for this story. The Big Bend Sentinel is only aware of allegations relating to the elementary school campus.)

Even in classrooms with teachers, some children were left terrified and fearing for the worst. Sam Watts, an art teacher and parent who attended a regularly scheduled school board meeting in the wake of the lockdown, told The Big Bend Sentinel that the transition from a lockdown to a shelter in place seemed to his students like going from “very scared to still scared.”

“[Students] would see people walking outside the building, and they would duck and try to get back under their desk as a natural reaction,” he said.

The mood in his classroom, he said, was sad and scared. And it stayed that way for over an hour.

In conversations with parents, school officials said the district was trying to cope in an era of frequent mass shootings and dwindling public-school funding.

“It comes down to money,” Katie Price Fowlkes, president of the Marfa school board, said at a school board meeting.

But officials admit they could have done better. “My daughter is one of the ones that was crying,” Aguero, the superintendent, told The Big Bend Sentinel. “I had it on both sides.”

His daughter wasn’t in Room 115 but was nonetheless left shaken by the lockdown, he said.

The scare at Marfa schools unfolded on September 10, when a deputy with the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office reportedly tried to pull over a truck driver and the driver failed to yield.

That failed stop, authorities later said, prompted a manhunt involving at least five agencies, in search of the driver and 10 undocumented migrants. Border Patrol agents sped through town and a Customs and Border Protection helicopter swooped over neighborhoods.

But as everyday Marfans wondered what was happening — and school kids feared for the worst — some local officials were also not initially informed about the operation, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported.

“I’m hoping that we can work on our communication skills with Border Patrol,” Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez previously told the paper. “If [a law-enforcement operation] is involving the city, I’d like a heads up.”

After receiving calls about the helicopter, Marquez called Border Patrol, who told him about the operation. He then contacted Marfa Independent School District, who put its schools on lockdown at 11:22 a.m., according to a document provided Tuesday by Marfa ISD.

The schools then shifted to a shelter-in-place order at 11:30 a.m., which was finally lifted at 12:25 p.m., the document shows.

Aguero, the superintendent, said lockdowns are more serious than shelter-in-place orders. During a lockdown, students are supposed to hide in locked rooms with the lights off and with no movement through the school.

During shelter-in-place orders, doors remain locked but classes can proceed. Movement around the school is allowed in some circumstances, including if a kid really needs to use the bathroom.

In both cases, Aguero said, communication with teachers remains limited to keep a potential intruder from spreading misinformation. These are part of national safety protocols established after the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, Aguero said.

Teachers also aren’t allowed to move through the school — which is why no one immediately checked on Room 115.

And yet, in a meeting with parents, Aguero admitted that he and other officials had been entering and exiting the building during the shelter in place, breaking with protocol. Doing so was necessary, Aguero said, because officials needed to check on both the elementary and high schools.

Still, details like this help explain why some parents are so angry: Since protocol was not fully followed, some parents resent officials using it as an explanation for why their children came home scared.

Some parents were upset that their children were left to fear for the worst. “[Officials] knew what was going on. They knew this was just a chase,” said Rowdy Dugan, whose six-year-old son is a first-grader in the class. “These poor kids were led to believe there was a shooter in the building.”

But in public meetings — and in his interview with The Big Bend Sentinel — Aguero defended his decision to follow this protocol.

“We walk in and we say, ‘There’s a high-speed chase chase, everything’s fine,’” Aguero said, speaking hypothetically. “Worst-case scenario, [the suspect] gets out, has a gun and starts shooting. Then it becomes an active shooter and we just told them everything is okay.”

He said he understands parents’ concerns and grapples with how best to keep students safe without needlessly scaring them.

“It’s hard to say how you balance that,” he said. “My teachers struggled with that, [because] every teacher wants to make sure their kids are okay.”

But in plenty of other cases, protocol was not followed — if teachers even knew about it at all.

At a school board meeting, Sam Watts, the art teacher, said he was unaware that he was allowed to let children use the bathroom during a shelter in place — or even allow them into an adjoining room to get their lunches.

“Let’s get that term to everyone,” he told officials at the meeting. “‘Shelter in place’ means X, Y, Z.”

The lockdown could not have happened at a worse time, officials say. Classes were on the playground — a situation the school had not prepared for. And since some teachers were on lunch break, supervisors were watching multiple classes, which went separate ways during the lockdown.

Aguero, the superintendent, put it bluntly at a school board meeting. “The regular plan does not work,” he said.

The school has developed new lunchtime protocols, he said, including having multiple classes go into one room to make sure they are supervised.

That could prevent situations like in Room 115, where the teacher — Eliza Barton — was on lunch break during the lockdown.

Barton had been off campus for around 10 minutes when, she says, “I got a phone call from Marfa ISD.”

The phone call was from her daughter — one of the students in Room 115. “Immediately, that was a red flag,” Barton said.

Barton said she entered through an unlocked door and returned to her class. She was reprimanded by another teacher, who reminded her that she shouldn’t enter or exit the campus during a lockdown.

“I probably shouldn’t have done that,” Barton said. “But all I heard was, they were alone. And I came running.”

“I’m so sorry this happened,” she added, her voice breaking. “I take a lot of it on myself.”

Parents who spoke to The Big Bend Sentinel were not angry with Barton, who they said deserved a lunch break.

But the door — the one Barton says she was able to enter without unlocking during the lockdown — has caused headaches for school administrators.

In a way, the door has become a metaphor for what some parents see as poor communication or even outright deception on the part of school administrators. Superintendent Aguero had suggested to parents that Barton was able to get back into the building with a key. But that version of events has been contradicted by others, including Barton.

“It makes us feel, as parents, that either they don’t want us to get involved because they’re hiding things, or they don’t want us to know the truth, or they don’t want to lose their jobs,” said Becky Dugan, a Room 115 parent. “That’s how it appears.”

But what some see as lies could have another explanation. It’s possible officials themselves are still figuring out exactly what happened and how to respond.

When pressed about the door on Wednesday, Aguero said he now believed, based on an investigation at the school, that Barton had been able to get into the class without a key.

“All teachers have a key,” he told The Big Bend Sentinel. “So when [Barton] is coming into the building, I assume she has a key.”

“We’re looking at how we can do better,” he added. “That’s why we went and checked every door.”

Barton thought officials were well-intentioned.

“I would not work here if I did not think everyone had the kids’ best interests in heart,” she said.

Officials, for their part, have seemed genuinely concerned about parents. “Please don’t think we take this lightly,” Amy White, elementary school principal, told parents of children in Room 115. “We were very upset about it.”

And like many parents, Aguero himself has grown increasingly frustrated with the controversial door. It’s an exterior door, and while it locks, it needed to be yanked shut. (School officials have previously asked The Big Bend Sentinel not to publish information on the door and its issues for fear that publicizing these details could jeopardize student safety. We believe it is now in the public interest to report on the door, which has been discussed at multiple public meetings.)

On Tuesday afternoon, Aguero allowed The Big Bend Sentinel to inspect the door, which he said had been repaired that morning. At first, the door seemed to be fixed. But with another few tries, the door swung shut but didn’t quite latch.

Visibly frustrated, Aguero called maintenance crews, who arrived within minutes. After workers sprayed down the doors hinges with WD-40, the door finally appeared to be fixed.

A sign on the door said: “Make sure doors are locked.” But administrators had already printed new signs with another demand.

“Do not [enter/exit] through these doors,” the signs read.

“I’ve checked [the door] three different times today and it’s working,” Aguero said in the follow-up interview on Wednesday. “I’m checking this thing every hour, if I can.”

The lockdown controversy was bad enough that teacher Eliza Barton, Superintendent Oscar Aguero, and principals Amy White and John Sherrill held an emotional gathering with parents of Room 115 last Thursday.

Then, at a school board meeting on Monday evening, officials opened the floor to parents and teachers during a public comment period.

At both meetings, parents said that — more than anything — they wished the school had better communication before, during and after the lockdown.

“For me, it’s been a lot of confusion,” Faith Melgaard, a parent, said at the school board meeting. She wanted to understand “how these things happened and what the plan is in the future.”

Kelly Ramsey, who has a third-grader in Room 115, felt the same way. “I thought a big mistake on the school’s part was not coming to us and saying, ‘This thing happened,’” she told The Big Bend Sentinel after the Thursday meeting.

“Is that about ego? Is that about politics?” she said. “You need to own it right then and there — especially if our kids are involved.”

Communication doesn’t just mean telling parents what had happened, though. It also means helping children process and make sense of last week’s events. “It seems like things just went on as if nothing happened,” Board President Katie Price Fowlkes said at Monday’s meeting.

“There’s gotta be something” that could help teachers guide kids through traumatic situations, she said.

On security, Marfa Independent School District may be at a crossroads. Both parents and teachers expressed appreciation for the small town familiarity of the school, which meant (in some cases) letting a familiar father casually stroll into the building. But in an era of mass shootings, very few teachers or parents seem to think those small comforts are worth it anymore if it means sacrificing even an inch of safety for their children.

Senate Bill 11 — passed by the Texas legislature this year — requires Marfa schools to set up a “school safety committee,” which will “provide recommendations” to the school board. At both meetings, parents told officials they’d be happy to join.

When it comes to security, though, Marfa’s smallness could prove an advantage.

At the meeting on Thursday in Room 115, parents were anxious to pitch in in any way they could. Rowdy Dugan, a father, said he could fix a door. Several others said they’d be happy to watch over kids in the hall or during recess.

Before long, the mood in the room — initially somber — had cheered up a little, as ideas flew. Maybe the volunteers could get uniforms, the parents said. Something with school spirit.

Kirk Anders, who has a second-grade girl in Room 115, left the meeting feeling better.

“I thought it went well,” he told The Big Bend Sentinel on Friday. “I thought the school officials and teachers were genuine and felt that they had responsibility and had erred.”

“But,” he added, “maybe they don’t have a clear sense of what needs to happen, as solutions. And I totally understand that. It’s a very complex problem.”