As students entered ASL’s Waverley Place and Loudoun Road entrances on the morning of January 8, Head of Security Barak Favé was calling the Metropolitan Police to report a suspicious car that had been spotted outside the Loudoun Road entrance that morning during a routine security check.
At 8:06 a.m. police arrived to check the suspicious car, and by 8:30 a.m. they determined it was enough of a risk to warrant further investigation and the calling of a bomb squad.
As the bomb squad arrived, the administration was asked to evacuate the school. Over the public announcement system, Head of School Coreen Hester said, “We have been asked by the police to evacuate all students, faculty and staff from the school at this time. All students should exit through the Waverley entrance.”
With the announcement, 1,350 students as well as faculty and staff flooded out of the school and began walking to safe havens.
High School and Middle School students were asked to evacuate to the St. John’s Wood churchyard, which is not their usual area in the case of an emergency. Because Lord’s Cricket Grounds were closed, the security team had to find alternate areas where students could wait at until they were allowed back into school.
However, Hester believes that during emergency situations, nothing ever goes smoothly no matter how prepared the administration and security team is. “Administrators plan and plan and plan for emergencies and when it actually happens you often have to improvise. I’ve never done an emergency that went according to the plan we’ve made,” she said.
Favé and his team identified the car as being suspicious as a result of their training. “There are certain things that were in the car and around the car that my security team have been trained to stop and [for which they are trained] to raise a certain internal alarm in the Security Department,” he said.
Favé feels heavily invested in the safety of ASL students, and does everything he can to ensure the safety of the school. “I have a general duty of care towards students but also anyone who is in the school,” he said. “We take every means necessary to make sure that everyone is safe. We work with the U.S. Embassy, Scotland Yard, and the MI5 to make sure everyone is safe on a daily basis.”
Hester also places a great deal of importance on the welfare of students. Like Favé, she holds herself responsible for the school and students. “I think the bus stops here with responsibility, but we have a great team. There are many eyes and ears and hands helping with security, but usually the chief executive of the organization is blamed if we are not ready and don’t perform,” she said.
Although Grade 11 Dean Meg Bailey worries about the general welfare of the students attending ASL, she does not see the school as being a potential target. “I think there are many more things to worry about than the school being a target for anything. I think we have all the possible good systems in place that allow us to have a pleasant atmosphere. I think we have a good balance and I don’t think we’re a specific target,” Bailey said.
Hester agrees with Bailey on ASL’s risk of being a target for various organizations. She explained that levels of security have increased for all schools furthermore events, and that it is not solely schools that are raising their security levels. “Unfortunately, there are lots of organizations that have to worry more about security than they did in the past. Most schools 20 and 30 years ago did not have the levels of security that they have now,” she said.
Hester was pleased with the students’ reaction during the evacuation. “What I thought was astounding was that this was a true threat and somehow the students knew it because everyone was entirely quiet and cooperative, cheerful, and responsive.”
Notified before Hester’s announcement, Principal Jack Phillips quickly made his way upstairs shortly after the bomb squad was called to lead the evacuation. Working in an orderly manner, Phillips calmly ushered students and teachers outside of the building. “Until we know it’s not real we assume it’s real, and that part’s always a little scary,” he said.
Phillips admitted that his primary concern during a potentially life-threatening situation is students and adults getting hurt. “My worst fear is that someone actually gets hurt someday due to the acts of a sick person,” Phillips said.
Evacuating students, faculty, and staff out of the building efficiently also falls into the category of safety. “Then there’s the making sure that everyone is safely getting to our destination in an orderly and cautious manner,” Phillips added.
While Phillips stresses the importance of safety and coordinated communication throughout the school, at the same time he does not believe there are any serious or credible threats to ASL specifically. However, Phillips acknowledged that ASL’s large diplomatic presence and internationality impacts security to a certain extent.
Phillips believes the media can be a great tool for disseminating information but can quickly spread false and fabricated information too, such as when multiple news outlets reported that the police carried out a “controlled explosion” on the suspicious car. “I also think that oftentimes in an emergency situation you really want to coordinate communication and social media can allow for that communication to be disorganized, meaning students or even teachers are out with their phones and they’re posting, texting, taking pictures on Instagram. While that transparency is good, it can sometimes work against an orderly process,” Phillips said.
Despite minor room for improvement, Phillips praised the School’s overall handling of the evacuation and response from the students. “The important parts of the evacuation were handled really well. There are some things that can always go smoother in terms of how we communicate with each other,” he said.
Taking attendance and holding lines of communication open whilst addressing students and teachers and keeping them as informed as possible are also aspects essential to an effective evacuation. “There’s always the follow- up. What are we doing to make sure everything worked well? What are we doing to make sure that we can do better? How are we communicating with different constituencies? What’s the appropriate follow- up?” Phillips said.
Bailey sees students’ behaviour during the evacuation as being a result of the perceived seriousness of the situation. “I think the students were fabulous. I think maybe because it was so different from a fire drill, people took it really seriously and they were quieter. They were great and positive and weren’t moaning; they were cheerful. I actually think it was good being outside.”
Bailey explained that the primary duty of everyone during a life-threatening situation is to get themselves and the people around them out safely and efficiently. Once the students, faculty and staff arrive at the secure location the task is to ultimately gather the grades, take attendance or see if there’s anyone in the grade who needs something, or if they are feeling sick.
Reflecting upon the announcement itself, “I think you could tell from Ms. Hester’s tone that it was serious and everybody responded immediately, so it clearly wasn’t a practice drill,” Bailey said.
Zubin Jotwani (’16) was sitting through his usual period seven Harkness discussion when the announcement to evacuate was made. Jotwani admits, “I didn’t know what was going on after the announcement was made, and that put some immediate fear in me.”
During the evacuation itself, Jotwani recalls feeling both apprehensive and nervous about the situation. “…There was a lot of speculation about what had happened and was currently going on,” he said. “I eventually fit all the pieces together and figured out what was really going on.”