COLUMBIA — The atmosphere of Grant Elementary School on Thursday afternoon was one of routine. Students were scattered around the playground as their laughter floated across the wire fences. Inside, teachers taught their scheduled lessons.
The only disruption from the students’ regularly scheduled day was a visit from principal Beverly Borduin to discuss Wednesday’s robbery at a First National Bank that occurred several blocks away.
Questions arose as to whether Columbia police had properly notified the school that police officers were chasing a suspect on foot near the school as Grant students were being dismissed from classes.
Before school Thursday, Borduin met with teachers and school staff to debrief and instruct them to encourage concerned students to talk to adults, specifically school counselors.
Additionally, Borduin told staff that she would visit each classroom to explain to students what happened and answer any questions they might have.
“Talking to children (is important). They need to feel safe and that they are listened to,” Borduin said of her decision to speak to each class. “We need to listen to the children. If they saw something or if they are worried, we want them to talk to a counselor. Sometimes they just need to tell someone what they saw.”
At around 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, a man entered a branch of First National Bank, located at Broadway and Garth Avenue, holding a gun and demanding money. Someone inside the bank pushed a button to activate a silent alarm and alert Columbia police that a robbery was taking place, Columbia police Capt. Brad Nelson said.
Soon after, roughly 40 officers responded to the call, and the suspect was apprehended after a 30-minute chase.
As of 6:20 p.m. Thursday, Johnny Dale Miller of Pinellas Park, Fla., was being held at Boone County Jail on one charge of first-degree robbery and one charge of armed criminal action. His bond, cash only, was set at $200,000.
Although the chase took place near Grant, Columbia police Lt. Dianne Bernhard expressed confidence that students remained out of harm’s way.
She said that witnesses told police that the suspect was running away from the school. But when police found him hiding in some bushes he darted back toward the school, where students had already been dismissed and school officials had been notified.
“Generally, if our officers are responding to an incident and they believe the school is in any kind of danger, we notify the principal as quickly as possible,” Bernhard said.
Borduin said a parent noticed police cars on Broadway at approximately 3:40 p.m. and notified her. Since Borduin was preparing to leave for a meeting at another school, she and a few other teachers surveyed the neighborhood to see if there was any immediate danger.
In regards to whether a school is locked down, Bernhard said that the decision is not made by the police.
“The school makes the general decision whether they are going to lock down or not,” Bernhard said. “We do not make that decision for the school. We just try to notify them as timely as possible and give them as much information as possible.”
As she spoke to Beth Kinney’s kindergarten class, Bourduin explained the facts and events from Wednesday and praised the students for being good listeners and being safe. She emphasized the importance of listening to adults and teachers.
The process of notification during an emergency is a topic of concern and consideration for both school and police officials. Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Jack Jensen said he plans on meeting with the Columbia Police Department in order to discuss current notification procedures and what both parties can do in the future to increase communication.
“The police department is very cooperative. They make sure procedures are in place,” Jensen said. “Timely notification is important so we can react appropriately.”
On an average school day, Grant begins its dismissal procedures at 3:40 p.m. Students involved in the Adventure Club go to the gym; others are on their way to the buses; while other students are walked out to the playground by teachers by 3:45 p.m.
Borduin said the Columbia Police Department notified Grant Elementary of the robbery at 3:46 p.m. — after students had left the building. Teachers and staff corralled students back inside, or ensured they were safely on their school buses. By 3:50 p.m., the school had been alerted that the suspect was in custody.
“The timing was really unfortunate. It was very calm for us (at the playground), but kids across the street were crying,” said Jackie Verdun, mother of two students at Grant Elementary.