Maryland photojournalism student's tripod mistaken for gun, prompting school lockdown

MARYLAND — What a child thought was a gun inside a Baltimore-area school turned out to be a piece of photo equipment that a journalism graduate student was using.

A report of a “possible intruder” triggered a lockdown at two Baltimore-area schools — KIPP Ujima Village Academy and KIPP Harmony — Thursday morning. After questioning the journalism student, officials determined that the school was safe and there was no weapon.

“We believe that one of the students mistook a graduate student with a camera tripod as an intruder,” KIPP Baltimore Executive Director Kate Mehr wrote in a letter sent to parents the day of the incident. “The graduate student, who was authorized to be at the school, was working on a school project.”

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, said two journalism students — a male and a female — were on campus to report as part of a visual storytelling class. She was unable to identify the students involved because of FERPA, she said.

When Dalglish first heard about the situation — around mid-morning Thursday — she knew only that a lockdown was in place in response to a possible threat. She said the journalism students were in a classroom, and upon learning about the lockdown they immediately alerted their professor to let them know what was happening and that they were safe.

At the time, neither Dalglish nor the students knew what prompted the lockdown. As they waited for additional information, she said, the students remained in the classroom — even passing the time by showing the children how to use their camera equipment.

A few hours later, Dalglish said the female student reached out to say that the police escorted the male student away from the classroom. As a media lawyer, Dalglish said her immediate reaction was, “Oh my god, they’re seizing his video.”

She then tried calling the Baltimore Police Department but had little luck getting through to someone. As she was on the phone trying to reach police, she heard from someone who receives Baltimore Sun text alerts with a new development: Officials said the situation was a false alarm, believed to have been prompted by a student who mistook a tripod for a weapon.

(Dalglish said the male student, who was carrying the equipment, later told her that a young girl approached him early in the day and asked him whether he was carrying a gun. The student said no and explained that he was holding camera equipment, Dalglish said.)

From there, Dalglish “doubled down” trying to contact law enforcement — both to find out more about the students’ status and to confirm that the students were there with permission.

“I was trying to say, ‘Look, I have some information you might find helpful,” Dalglish said.

The handful of people she first talked to at the police department weren’t particularly responsive, she said, and a few told her they weren’t authorized to speak to anyone outside of the students or their families. When she did eventually get through to a public information officer, he was very polite and responsive, Dalglish said.

Dalglish said that based on her understanding of the male student’s interaction with police after he was escorted from the classroom, it was “not an antagonistic interrogation.” Instead, she said, police told the student that one of the kids might have mistaken his equipment for a weapon and asked to look at it more closely.

Both students involved were released later in the day, she said.

Anne Fullerton, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Public Schools, said the school and authorities acted appropriately and followed the protocols in place during their response.

“We handled the situation as we do any situation when there is even the chance of a safety and security issue for the children,” she said.

Dalglish said she doesn’t fault anyone involved. The college took the appropriate steps to arrange the students’ visit, the students followed school procedures during their visit, the police and the school responded appropriately when they heard about a possible threat — and the child who thought he or she saw a weapon did the right thing by letting someone know, she said.

“The important thing for everybody, students and professors, to understand is that in today’s environment we are dealing with a new reality,” she said. “I think what this shows is that we’re going to have to be increasingly communicative amongst everybody when you have journalists in schools.”

National Press Photographers Association attorney Mickey Osterreicher echoed Dalglish’s assessment. To him, the situation was “really an awful statement about the times in which we live.”

“It’s not too surprising to have some children, younger children especially, who are now growing up in a time when every other day they’re hearing about these terrible things happening,” Osterreicher said.

It’s easy to understand why a child who’s unfamiliar with camera equipment might, at first glance, mistake it for something more sinister, he said.

Osterreicher said the incident underscores the importance of journalists, photographers or otherwise, taking steps in advance to make sure they have permission to shoot in non-public spaces — such as hospitals, schools, jails or even malls. In the future, schools might consider making an announcement to let students know when journalists are visiting so they aren’t alarmed by a stranger walking around with unfamiliar equipment, he said.

Dalglish said University of Maryland students receive extensive training on how to interact with law enforcement.

“We spend a lot of time in all of our classes teaching our students what to do if police swoop in,” she said. “They’re almost given a script of what to say.”

But Dalglish fears that this incident could make it more difficult for journalists to gain access to schools in the future .

“What I hope does not happen is that school districts decide: That’s it, that’s done, no more cooperating with journalists who want to do stories,” she said.

She understands the pressure schools are under — her stepdaughter is a teacher in an elementary school — but cutting off media access would cut the public off from plenty of important stories to be told within a school setting.

For their part, photojournalists could do things to more clearly show their status as members of the media, like painting their tripods bright pink, wearing T-shirts that say “PRESS” or donning fedoras with press cards on their brims, she said. But even those examples wouldn’t necessarily prevent a similar situation.

Dalglish said she hopes journalists and schools can work together to “figure out a way to visually and orally communicate” when journalists are on school grounds.

“We’re dealing with a new reality and nobody behaved inappropriately — but we’re all going to have to be prepared to deal with this in the future,” she said.

Contact McDermott by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.