It was a difficult few days for the Cedar Crest High School community – to say the very least.
On Thursday, April 20, the high and middle schools were roiled by a false alarm of the high school’s intruder alert system, which saw students and staff plunged into chaos while those in the high school evacuated or sheltered in place, fearing the very worst – followed by a second false alarm hours later.
On Saturday evening, April 22, Cedar Crest High School junior Michael Rivera was fatally injured in a single-vehicle crash in Cornwall. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Rivera – a football player remembered as “Big Mike” by his coach Rob Wildasin, who described him to the Daily News as a “friends with everyone” type person – was 17. A funeral service for Rivera was held Friday at the Lebanon Valley Expo Center.
LebTown spoke with Cornwall-Lebanon School District superintendent Dr. Philip Domencic on Wednesday, April 26, about the aftermath of two traumatic events for the Cedar Crest High School community occurring so close together.
“I don’t feel like I’ve left here much over the last 5-6 days,” said Domencic.
Domencic discussed the events of the false alarm, as well as Rivera’s death, and how the district was drawing upon internal and external resources to support students and staff as they dealt with the two unrelated, but both shocking, events.
He also discussed the process he went through on Thursday when the intruder alert system malfunctioned.
“The No. 1 priority is safety,” said Domencic. “The No. 1 thing is to take all actions to make sure that people are physically safety, and to make sure that people know people are safe. That is No. 1. And then it’s to assess the situation to gather all the information and input to determine where we are.”
He said that another vital requirement was for the district to not escalate the situation with its statements. Domencic described this as a particular challenge of our culture today – that bits and pieces of information can be reposted or distorted (unintentionally or not) and go viral, and perpetuate fear beyond the initial statement.
Domencic said it was a priority to make sure the district’s statements were not likely to be misrepresented or spread falsely.
Although students were given the opportunity to leave the school following the first false alarm with parental approval, a mandatory dismissal was enacted following a second false alarm. Units from South Lebanon, North Lebanon, and North Cornwall township police departments, along with the Lebanon County Sheriff’s office, arrived at Cedar Crest High School within minutes of the first alarm.
Domencic said that he could not discuss the exact cause of the false alarm but said the district has a “very good understanding of what caused that.” He characterized the cause as a system failure, and said that the district does not believe the false alarm was an intentional act from the vendor or anyone else, such as an outside contractor or malicious actor.
The superintendent said identifying the root cause of the alarm system malfunction is just part of a comprehensive incident review the district will undertake in which every piece of that day’s events will be dissected.
“We intend to use this as a learning opportunity,” said Domencic. “Our hope is that – as challenging as this is – our hope is that it’s a learning opportunity for everyone.”
The district and Domencic received some criticism about their communication following the false alarm. PennLive and the Lebanon Daily News both published articles in which students shared criticism of the district’s handling of the event, and specifically its internal and external messaging.
“In any situation like this, everyone is going to have their own unique experience, and there is no statement we can issue that is going to speak to everyone’s experience,” Domencic said.
He said the immediate priority with messages sent on Thursday following the incident was to make it clear that everyone was safe.
Domencic described Thursday as “a very real situation” with “very raw emotions.”
“How can we make sure everyone is safe, and there is no misinformation that is spread that will make people feel unsafe?” he asked.
Domencic said that after everybody was home safe, the leadership team’s attention turned toward making a plan for next steps.
The administration’s goal with its messaging on Friday was to let students know that “we’re here, we care for them, we know people have unique and different experiences, and we want to support them in that,” he said.
On Friday, Domencic addressed Cedar Crest High School students via the morning announcements.
“We recognize that this was a very traumatic situation for our students, staff, and families,” he said in the video message.
“It is painful to hear about the feelings of trauma that you experienced yesterday. There is real fear in these types of situations about the unknown and what might happen.” (See below for the full message.)
Domencic said that attendance on Friday, the day after the incident, was “very good” in his opinion – just slightly below normal in both the high school and middle school. Domencic said that administrators were pleased to see that, as it reflected the fact that students did feel safe at the schools.
Rivera’s death on Saturday sent a second shock through the high school community.
“This is the tragic death of a young man,” said Domencic. “Our prayers go out to all of his family, his friends, and his loved ones.”
The tragic death of any young person is a traumatic event for students, he said – “very real and very raw.”
Domencic said that he was very proud of Cedar Crest’s student, staff, and community for everything they’re doing to support Michael’s family.
Domencic said that administrators were able to activate resources from both within and without the school district to help support the school community.
Domencic said he was proud of all the high school staff, teachers, principals, and especially counselors and psychologists. In addition to drawing staff from across the district to help with grief counseling on Monday, Cornwall-Lebanon also requested and received additional support through Intermediate Unit 13’s crisis support “Flight Team.”
Susan Billy, administrator of the IU13 Flight Team, said that the program has been activated for 16 to 17 days of deployment so far this school year. A “deployment” consists of two to four Flight Team members, requested by an IU13 member district, with a mix of school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists who have special training in grief counseling and can come into the requesting district to facilitate a grief support room.
Some of the Flight Team members, including one who supported Cedar Crest last week, even bring along therapy dogs to help students process traumatic events.
“This a service the IU provides in our member districts,” said Billy. “All of our superintendents are really supportive about releasing their staff to provide this support during times of tragedy.”
Domencic said he was very grateful for that support. “It helps our staff here,” he said, also crediting the district’s own staff for doing a tremendous job.
“There’s a lot of needs there. They’ve been great.”
CCHS Video Message from Dr. Philip Domencic (Friday, April 23)
Good morning CCHS students, parents, and staff.
I want to take some time today to discuss the events of yesterday.
Our immediate priority yesterday was making sure everyone was safe.
We recognize that this was a very traumatic situation for our students, staff, and families.
The fact that we need to have these protocols and measures in our schools is a sad statement on the society we live in today.
It is painful to hear about the feelings of trauma that you experienced yesterday. There is real fear in these types of situations about the unknown and what might happen.
In a situation such as this, as soon as we know accurate information, we will disseminate it immediately.
Our challenge with statements and sharing information is that we are limited in what we can say to the media publicly, as it could divulge our protocols for any sick individual who wishes to plan to hurt people. We also know that everything we share may not always be shared by media and is not always shared accurately on social media, as pieces can be taken out of context or misrepresented. In the immediacy of an emergency situation, this is not prudent.
In our messaging with Skylert and other communications, we are very careful about providing factual information while we are in the middle of an active situation. We know how too many comments can do more harm than good, create confusion, or potentially compromise a police investigation.
We also cannot share the specific details of the commendable responses of our students and staff. This is frustrating, as we know that our students and staff did exactly what all of you have been trained to do and we wish to commend you for your efforts.
We have many other measures in place that worked extremely well in yesterday’s events. Some of these include tactical measures and coordination with law enforcement. While I wish I could share more details, doing so could compromise school safety.
Yesterday was a very frightening situation for everyone. Please know that we are taking immediate and active measures to prevent a false alarm such as this from occurring again. We will continue to work with our students and staff as you process this traumatic event. Counseling resources will be available, as necessary.
We are very proud of our students, staff and law enforcement in how they handled themselves. Thank you for listening.
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