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Human error, computer glitch cause panic at Eastford Road School

Automated truant officer gives parents a scare

June 07, 2012
SOUTHBRIDGE — "We had a lot of panicky parents for a few minutes," said Officer Denis Leboeuf of the Southbridge Police Department Thursday, June 7, "but we eventually got things under control."

The panic, which actually lasted for about an hour Thursday morning, was the result of a computer glitch wherein the automated parental notification system at Eastford Road School sent phone calls out to all parents telling them that their children were absent from school.

School administrators knew "as soon as the first call came in" that something was wrong, said Eastford Road Principal Diane Shaw. The ensuing flood of phone calls from panicky parents quickly tied up the school's three phone lines, only adding to subsequent callers' fears and frustrations.

Parents then started calling the Southbridge Police Department, which sent officers to the scene, where they learned of the "computer glitch," called in for more back-up, and proceeded to direct traffic, inform parents, and otherwise help defuse the situation.

Parents and relatives, meanwhile, some dragged away from work and home, were still puzzled, scared, and looking for answers.

"We tried to comfort them," said Shaw, adding that a corrected message was "sent out right away" via the phone system, but that many parents were already en route to the school – and unreachable, resulting in continued dismay and confusion. The school's website also quickly corrected the error.

Police and school officials allayed some of the parents' fears at the school, but not everyone was easily convinced.

"We tried to explain. We let parents in to see that their children were here and OK," said Shaw. "They gave (their kids) a hug, so they could go home feeling better."

As to her own feelings, Shaw admits that the incident was unsettling.

"I never thought such a thing could happen," she said. "I never want parents to worry about their children when they're in our care."

As to the cause of the problem, Shaw attributed it to human error.

"He missed one step on the computer," Shaw said of the guidance counselor charged with making the daily absentee calls. Instead of checking off just the names of the kids not in attendance on the computer, he left that field open, sending out calls to everybody.

"We had quite a mess," Superintendent Eric Ely said of the incident. "It was an honest human mistake. You have to check off a couple of fields on the computer, and he missed one."

Both Ely and Shaw praised the police response.

"They were so good," Shaw said of the officers who helped at the scene. "But I don't want that to ever happen again."

A few distraught parents remained unsettled for much of the day. One grandparent called The News to report that his daughter was still upset and crying. "I think heads should roll because of this," he told this reporter.

Ely acknowledged that the glitch was not to be taken lightly – "especially in this day and age. We all have to take these things seriously. We'll do everything we can to see that this doesn't happen again."

Mark Ashton may be reached at (508) 909-4144, or by e-mail at mark@stonebridgepress.com.

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