Warren Elementary principal apologizes after children dismissed during tornado warning

Warren Elementary School Principal Lisa Dingle apologized to parents Monday for how the school handled dismissal on April 26 during an afternoon tornado warning.

“While at the time I made my decision based on the information I had, I have since learned that changes need to be made in the future, specifically if an alert coincides with dismissal,” Dingle said in a letter to parents. “I am sorry for any concerns this caused our community.”

The principal is under fire from some parents who are angry that students, many of whom walk home, were dismissed around the same time a tornado warning was announced for the area. Some parents say the principal should have kept students in the building until the warning passed.

Dingle did not return an emailed request for comment.

Baltimore County Public Schools spokesman Brandon Oland said the administration told the school system they got an alert on their emergency weather radio about the tornado warning “a couple minutes after they started dismissal” at 3:15 p.m. But some parents said the alert came in before Dingle announced dismissal on the school intercom.

According to National Weather Service meteorologist Christopher Strong, the tornado warning was released at 3:13 p.m. Emergency weather radios broadcast the information almost immediately, he said, confirming the alert came out at either 3:13 or 3:14 p.m.

Oland said the dismissal started at 3:15 p.m.

One staff member who was in the building at the time and who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that the phone alerts came in before any children had been released from the building.

Unlike a tornado watch, which just indicates that tornadoes could form in an area, the National Weather Service says a tornado warning indicates a tornado has been sighted or indicated by radar nearby and there is “imminent danger to life and property.” Those under a tornado warning should move to an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building and avoid windows, the agency says.

The staff member said the school has an emergency weather protocol, but that the protocol was not followed.

A tornado with 90 mph winds touched down at 3:19 p.m. in Monkton, about 7 miles from Warren Elementary.

Jenn Reedholm, a parent of two children at Warren Elementary, said she was at the school to pick up her children when the alert came in. Reedholm said she was in the main office when Dingle told staff over the intercom to dismiss bus riders to the cafeteria and gym, around 3:17. Then she asked Dingle if she would be delaying dismissal. She said Dingle replied, “It’s just a warning.”

Reedholm said she told Dingle that warnings indicate imminent danger, but that Dingle replied, “We just need to get the students home.” Dismissal then carried on as usual, Reedholm said.

Parents said as children were being released, a fierce thunderstorm blew in with rain and lightning. Shari Malowitz, a parent who was inside the school to teach an after-school recreation class, called it a “torrential downpour.”

“No one wanted to go outside,” Malowitz said. “There were little kids crying, small kids screaming. It was absolute mayhem.”

Janet Wehner, who has children in second and fourth grade at Warren Elementary, said it was not until she picked up her children from the bus stop that she realized “it had been that traumatic for them.”

“My daughter was so upset,” Wehner said. “They were soaking wet, and she’s like, ‘I was praying the whole time.’”

Wehner said her oldest daughter was around people with cellphones who had gotten the alert, a warning to shelter in place, and was confused when she was then told to go outside.

“I think a lot of the kids were just very confused and scared,” Wehner said.

Oland said all principals were sent an online notification about the tornado warning after it had been issued. He said other schools with later dismissal times received the alert before starting the process and delayed letting students outside until the warning had passed.

“Principals can delay a dismissal for localized inclement weather conditions,” Oland said. “Other elementary schools in the area who dismissed later in the afternoon did that with the tornado warning in effect.”

In her letter to parents, Dingle said that moving forward, during severe weather the school will follow severe weather protocols and shelter anyone on school grounds.

“Additionally, I am in the process of reviewing our school-based safety plan with Baltimore County Public Schools, including the Department of School Safety and other stakeholders,” Dingle continued.

She said those reviewed policies will be incorporated into six drills for weather, fire and other emergencies, which will be conducted before the end of the year.

The school’s PTA president did not respond to a request for comment.

The staff member said Dingle sent that letter to staff members but has not addressed the incident with staff as a group. That incident, the employee said, reflects a broader concern about culture: that teachers and other staff do not feel comfortable speaking up.

“There’s definitely a fear among staff to talk to [the administration],” the employee said. “Because you’re never right for the first part, and you’re usually blamed for anything that happens in the building.”

Oland said of the employee’s concerns that “staff do have several avenues where they can share concerns about any issue.”

Malowitz said in her opinion, the principal’s decision to dismiss was a mistake. “I think the trust is gone,” she said.

Wehner, however, said with how fast everything happened the confusion was understandable. Still, she wants to make sure the school has policies in place for when emergencies happen during dismissal. She said she complained to the school and received a call from Dingle with what she said sounded like a sincere apology.

“I definitely was not happy about this and she did call me and apologize, and I accepted it,” Wehner said. “I didn’t think she intentionally did it. I just felt like it was bad timing.”

asolomon@baltsun.com

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A previous version of this story said that all principals had been warned ahead of time about the potential for inclement weather.
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