(NECN: Jack Thurston, Winooski, Vt.) - Reports of a possible gunman forced a lockdown and evacuation of a school in Winooski, Vt. late Thursday afternoon. After repeated sweeps of the Winooski Educational Center, police found no suspect, and by the evening, told reporters they could not even confirm if an armed man was ever inside the school. No one was harmed in the incident.
Donna Kirby waited frantically on the sidewalk for her little grandson to be removed from the school. "I've never had the amount of fear I had," she told New England Cable News. "I just prayed to God he was going to be okay."
Shortly after 4:30 p.m., a massive police response, made up of agencies from the local, state, and federal levels, swarmed the building that houses elementary, middle, and high school ages. A 911 call came in that a man possibly armed with a gun or some other weapon was inside the school, according to the Winooski Police Dept.
Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen said his officers had been investigating a report of a home invasion on a nearby street, and that a suspect was reported to have fled in the direction of the school.
Cathy Burbo was inside and in charge of an after-school program. "It came over the intercom to be in a lockdown," Burbo explained. "Our kids all followed us. We knew the drill, and stayed in the closet quietly. We dug for some books quietly to keep them entertained."
Police repeatedly swept the school, but found nothing inside; no suspect. "We cannot confirm anyone actually entered the school," McQueen said.
McQueen told reporters in a briefing Thursday evening that the home invasion investigation continues. He said he believes the public is not in immediate danger, because the suspects in the case that sparked the large police response knew each other. That implied they were not targeting strangers. "Even though we wound up not finding anybody, which is good, it was an opportunity for all of us to work together and we will learn from it, as well," McQueen said.
McQueen suggested that even though the original reports about the suspect were murky at best, after tragedies like the Sandy Hook massacre, police couldn't afford not to treat this incident as deathly serious.
Sean McMannon, the superintendent for the Winooski School District, said he disseminated the following message to families and staff regarding the activity at the school:
"Dear Winooski Families & Staff, tonight there was a home invasion on Weaver Street. Evidence indicated that two assailants had left the home and headed in the direction of the school. Winooski Police went to the school and ‘Clear the Halls’ & ‘Secure the Building’ procedures were immediately initiated. Shortly thereafter, Winooski Police received a phone call alleging there was a shooter in the school. Multiple police departments responded to the Winooski Educational Center, secured the premises and began searching, and eventually clearing the building. All students and staff were evacuated safely without incident. It appears that the 911 call about a shooter at the school was a panicked response to the home invasion coupled with the school lockdown. Winooski school staff responded and followed our emergency procedures perfectly. The Winooski Educational Center is safe and will be open for school tomorrow, Friday, Nov. 15. Counselors from Burlington School District and the Howard Center will work with our own counselors to support students and staff tomorrow and as long as needed."
Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt., issued the following statement following the conclusion of the incident:
"I was kept updated tonight on the situation at Winooski High School by Vermont State Police. Although we are still awaiting all of the details, I am thankful that this incident ended as it did and it appears that no armed individual actually entered the school. This was a scary situation for the students, staff, and families involved. I appreciate the swift response from law enforcement officers throughout the region. I am proud that the adults and students in the building reacted calmly, followed protocol, and were safely escorted from the building. I thank all of those involved for their response to this potentially chaotic and difficult situation."