EXCLUSIVE: Key School community reeling from reportedly botched response to written, racist threat of gun violence

(Updated on 2/3/23 at 11:55 a.m.) Many parents of children at Key Elementary School are outraged at the way a possible threat of gun violence by a student was handled by administrators.

The mother of the child who was targeted told ARLnow what happened the day the threat occurred, on Jan. 19, and the fallout. Parents say school leaders took too long to involve the police and are now providing piecemeal updates that raise more questions than answer them.

“They just really didn’t know what to do in this situation,” the mother, Katherine, said. “No one can tell me their threat response… It’s a lot of blanks.”

Arlington Public Schools says it has identified those involved and “taken steps to provide appropriate consequences and to protect the safety of all students,” spokesman Frank Bellavia said in a statement.

Meanwhile, it is reviewing the decisions that administrators made to determine if protocols need to be re-evaluated, per emails shared with ARLnow. On Tuesday, Acting Principal Iliana Gonzales took over for Principal Marleny Perdomo, a personnel matter on which APS said it cannot comment.

Katherine and other parents say they do not know why the the police were not immediately called and whether gaps in local and state statutes contributed to the delayed involvement of law enforcement.

APS says school leaders are instructed to “immediately call 911 or law enforcement when there is an imminent threat to student or staff safety.” State law and School Board policy, however, only require principals to call the police if a student is found with a gun, and APS maintains it did not have sufficient evidence to search students for one after the Jan. 19 threat.

The seemingly cautious approach at Key Elementary contrats with lockdowns and large police responses over reports of a potentially armed trespasser today (Thursday) at Wakefield High School as well as prior school shooter threats that later turn out to be false reports.

“A lockdown is determined based on established procedures and training that every staff receive at least annually. Lockdowns can be initiated by any staff member or law enforcement based on conditions at the school,” Bellavia said. “Searches are conducted when there is reasonable grounds and reasonable suspicion of a student or group of students. In this case, there was no search conducted.”

Principals are required to immediately notify parents of minor students who are the target of written threats, but Katherine alleges that many hours passed between when the note was found and she was called.

Parents say the decisions not to search for a weapon and not to immediately call the police are concerning following the Jan. 6 shooting in Newport News, Virginia. A 6-year-old boy was able to shoot and seriously injure a teacher because school administrators never called the police, removed the boy from class or initiated a lock down, despite multiple warnings from staff, a lawyer for the wounded teacher alleges.

“I’m so thankful it didn’t end in gunshots like it did in Newport News, but the school didn’t know it wouldn’t and the school didn’t do anything to make sure it didn’t,” a Key School mother told ARLnow, requesting anonymity for fear of retribution.

Administrators have admitted to parents that there were missteps.

“There were some misactions that happened in terms of the response to the threat and subsequently what took place in terms of communication. We acknowledge that,” said Chief of School Support Kimberley Graves during a meeting with Key parents last week, per a recording provided to ARLnow.

“We can’t go back and change what happened,” Graves continued. “There are going to be things that we do to help support this community and things we’re going to do to make certain every effort in place to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

What we know 

After winter break ended, students at the dual-language, Spanish immersion school, also called Escuela Key, began noticing “bad words,” or “malas palabras,” on the bathroom stall. Katherine says her child and a friend formed a detectives club to figure out who wrote them.

On the morning of Jan. 19, a few third-graders discovered a note written in Sharpie on a bathroom stall directed toward Katherine’s child. The writer called Katherine’s child a racial expletive and said “I’m coming for you… My parents gave me a gun. I am not kidding.”

The mother — who says it is believed the child who wrote the slur also wrote the threat — got a call from the school at 3:19 p.m. summarizing the threat but omitting mention of the racial slur.

After the school call ended, she texted parents in a third-grade group chat, urging them to secure any guns they may own. Then, she called Arlington County Police Department. APS did not say if or when Principal Perdomo called the police, but police arrived on the scene at 4:37 p.m. and a detective is still investigating the incident, according to ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage.

Perdomo emailed parents about incident around 5:30 p.m.

The next day, 54 students were absent from school, apparently out of fear of their safety. Katherine kept her daughter home until a return-to-school plan was approved by administrators.

Bellavia said staff and school administration are doing the following to step up security:

  • Providing additional supervision of students and monitoring student interactions to prevent unsupervised contact between students.
  • Reviewing class assignments transitions between classes, lunch and recess, and making adjustments if needed.
  • Reviewing assignments of staff monitoring third-grade common areas and monitoring recess.

School support staff are also available to meet with students feeling anxious or concerned and providing ongoing check-ins. Meanwhile, police temporarily maintained a presence at the school.

“Members of ACPD have spoken with parents and school staff related to the incident and, in response to community concerns, ACPD had a visible police presence at the school for a number of days following the incident,” Savage said.

Piecemeal information

While the initial call to Katherine allegedly did not mention the racial slur, emails to parents left out some details about the threat. The first two emails to parents — sent on Thursday, Jan. 19 and Friday, Jan. 20 —  described “threatening and racist messages” but did not mention the threat’s author claimed to possess a household gun. The emails assured parents there was no “indication of a credible threat to the school community.”

In a subsequent email to families on Monday, Jan. 23, the principal wrote that over the weekend, she “received several questions regarding the status of the investigation and our protocols for responding to threats of gun violence.” This is the only reference to a gun in the email.

“APS shared information verified as quickly as possible and did not intentionally omit referenced to gun violence,” Bellavia said.

A community meeting was convened a week after the threat was found so parents could ask questions. It was heated and emotional at times, with parents pushing for more specific answers, per meeting recordings provided to ARLnow. At one point, a mother can be heard describing the terror her daughter experienced sitting in a classroom after finding the note.

“She went back to her classroom and sat there until the end of the day, scared. She’s now having nightmares about people killing her. How long was she in that position?” the mother can be heard saying.

Graves said she understood the mother’s frustrations but couldn’t answer the questions, saying that information is “part of the investigation.”

The exchange ends when the woman says it was likely a few hours, based on anecdotal information she pieced together.

The second mother ARLnow spoke to said she is still waiting on written answers to follow-up questions she submitted during the meeting.

“How do we know our kids are safe? How can we reassure kids the school is doing what it should to keep them safe? We want answers to why the response was what it was,” she said. “I don’t think the school could’ve screwed this up any more, to be honest.”