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Principal praises staff for quick action in Forest Grove abduction attempt

Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: NANCY TOWNSLEY - Joseph Gale Elementary Principal Gretchen Schlag talks to television reporters about additional security measures after a man entered the Forest Grove school Thursday and picked up -- then put down -- a third-grade boy.Less than 24 hours after a 29-year-old man entered Joseph Gale Elementary School, walked upstairs to teacher Sienna Garrett’s third-grade classroom and picked up a 9-year-old student, Principal Gretchen Schlag faced television cameras with a message of praise and appreciation.

“I can’t emphasize enough how proud I am of our staff,” said Schlag, who’s in her first year as principal at the 357-student school. “Every one of them just rose to the occasion. They stepped up and did a fantastic job.”

Another teacher, Staci Heath, yelled at the man to put the boy down, which he did. He then ran out of the school and was apprehended nearby.

The whole incident was over in less than two minutes, according to Schlag. “I felt like it lasted forever,” she said. “But he entered the building at 2:44 and left before 2:46.”

Schlag said quick action by staff members helped Forest Grove Police find and arrest Joshua Brown, a transient apparently unknown to the child and unconnected to the school. Brown, 29, faces multiple charges in the incident, which had school employees and district administrators on high alert Friday morning, Feb. 20.

“I think our protocols worked really well in this instance,” said Chief of Staff Connie Potter, adding that staffers “were really heroic.”

Neither the young boy, who is 9 and a third-grader, nor any other children or adults, were hurt in the incident, which occurred just after school had been dismissed for the day.

Schlag met with the child’s parents Friday. They kept him home from school because he was running a fever, she said, adding he appears to be "doing all right."

She described the child as “quiet by nature [and] a strong academic student with a good, close circle of friends.”

The youngster was putting things in his backpack getting ready to go home for the day when Heath saw Brown grab him.

Brown “was saying the principal said to evacuate the building,” noted Schlag, who said nothing similar had happened in her tenure as a principal before.

“It's just bizarre," said Potter, who said police told her Brown likely was under the influence of a controlled substance when he grabbed the boy and began carrying him before a Heath challenged him.

“She yelled, ‘Put him down!’” said Schlag. "Thankfully, he did."

Staff members saw the man leave the school through a back door and attempted to follow him, Potter said. "The guy jumped up from behind a bush where he was hiding and ran," she added.

Schlag was among those in pursuit. She yelled at Brown in an attempt to engage him “or slow him down,” she said.

“I was calling out to him: ‘I need to know why you were in my building!’” she said.

“We’ll talk later!” Brown yelled back over his shoulder before he jumped a fence, Schlag recalled.

A school janitor had called 911 while staff members were chasing Brown. Police arrived and — after school staff pointed them toward the fence Brown jumped — arrested him in a neighborhood yard southwest of the school, which is located on 18th Avenue in Old Town.

Brown is charged with second-degree kidnapping, first-degree burglary, second-degree criminal mischief for damaging a fence, four counts of second-degree criminal trespass, unlawful entry into a motor vehicle and harassment.

Brown's last known addresses are in Beaverton and Portland. He has "an extensive criminal history," according to Capt. Mike Herb of Forest Grove Police, although local police records show no previous contact with him.

Detectives are still working on determining the motive or intent behind Brown's action, Herb said Thursday evening.

Police also determined that Brown had a felony warrant for his arrest for a parole violation.

Potter said district administrators will review details of the incident.

"All the doors were locked, with only the front door open," said Potter. "It had to be open because people were coming and going at dismissal time.

"The good news is, the staff was alert and did the right things. It was pretty scary."

Herb credited school staff for fast action.

"While this was an extremely unusual and frightening incident, staff members reacted immediately to this threat and assisted police in the apprehension of the suspect while risking their own safety," he said, adding that police would step up their presence at area schools Friday.

Schlag spent much of Friday morning handling inquiries from worried parents and requests for interviews from the media. She didn't immediately know if some parents had elected to keep their children home because of worry over the incident.

She said the school would take several “immediate measures” to boost security, including posting more staff in the main hallways and providing them with walkie-talkies.

“We are taking these steps because in this day and age you can’t be too careful,” said Schlag. “But I don’t want to believe this kind of thing will happen again. I want to believe it was a fluke.”

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