Keeping students, schools safe

A look at safety and security in Denver metro schools

Posted 1/23/18

In Colorado, where eight school shootings have occurred since 1982 — leaving 19 dead and 29 wounded — keeping students safe is a reality that has spurred Denver metro area districts to lead the …

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Keeping students, schools safe

A look at safety and security in Denver metro schools


In Colorado, where eight school shootings have occurred since 1982 — leaving 19 dead and 29 wounded — keeping students safe is a reality that has spurred Denver metro area districts to lead the way nationally when it comes to assessing threats and following sound safety protocol, experts say.

“Schools in Colorado are a little more sensitive and open to safety,” said John Nicoletti, a police psychologist based in Lakewood who works with law enforcement around the country, specializing in threat assessment and trauma recovery. “Some districts out of state I work with, they say they don’t think it’ll happen there. If you’ve never had an event, you’re reluctant to spend money and put time into it. But schools in Colorado take this stuff seriously.”

The metro area’s history includes what was once the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history at Columbine High School in south Jefferson County. In 1999, two teenagers killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves.

MORE: Keeping the curious out of Columbine

The most recent attack at a metro-area school was the 2013 shooting at Arapahoe High School in Centennial in which a student who was intent on murdering a faculty member instead shot a classmate to death, then killed himself.

Tragedy has changed the way area school districts assess and approach threats: Over the years, a statewide anonymous tip line has been created, a shared safety protocol was introduced with a system that focuses on locking doors, an active-shooter training center opened and threat management has become one of the main focuses of school safety and security teams.

“It’s scary, given the world we seem to be living in right now,” said Chris Wilderman, director of safe and sustainable environments for Adams 12 Five Star Schools. “But schools are still a very safe place for students to be. Security people like myself in Colorado, we take it so serious, especially because of our history. We never take for granted school safety and security and are constantly working at best practices and trying to improve.”

Leading the conversation

With three of the eight Colorado school shootings taking place in Jefferson County schools — Columbine High School and two at Deer Creek Middle School — John McDonald, executive director of security and emergency management, said his district feels a need to lead the charge in the discussion of school safety and protocol.

“I don’t know anyone else in the country with three active-shooter situations — we might be the only one,” said McDonald, who has spent almost 30 years in the security field. “I never consider us to be the experts, but we are students of this issue. We learn from all these events around the country and we dissect it ourselves and talk about how it applies here.”

As the state’s second-largest district, with 86,000 students and 156 schools, McDonald and his team have one of the largest student bodies to protect. The district’s schools security and emergency management team operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year patrolling, taking calls at the dispatch center and assessing threats.

Its patrol team includes 18 armed security officers who respond to all schools in the district, and the campus security division includes about four unarmed personnel at each high school.

MORE: Jeffco's DeAngelis Center trains law enforcement for the worst

Douglas County is another district that also utilizes an armed security team in addition to school resource officers and a school marshal team, which assigns officers to visit schools regularly. Like Jeffco, it has a 24-hour safety and security dispatch center.

All districts in the area partner with local law enforcement, but what makes the operation in Jeffco unique is that nine law enforcement agencies work together to provide school resource officers at every high school, most middle schools and a few that rotate between elementary schools free of charge to the district.

But the heart of the operation is the dispatch center, which took 70,000 calls last year, and the threat-assessment division, which identifies students as at-risk for behaviors.

“We’re focused on stopping threats, identifying what to do to protect the students, and support or consequences for the student who made the threat,” McDonald said. Depending on the nature of the threat, that could mean an arrest or suspension.

In the first semester of the 2017-18 school year, Jeffco schools handled 100 threat assessments on students because they had engaged in behavior or made statements that threatened the safety of others. When that happens, the threat-assesment team — which includes personnel from law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, the mental health field and the school district — work together to make a determination and put a safety plan in place. Some assessments result in criminal charges, while others take a redirective route through intensive mental health therapy.

Threat management is key focus

Focusing on threat management is one way to prevent an incident from occurring, Nicoletti said.

“In this day and age, we tell schools there is no such thing as observation only,” Nicoletti said. “Threat management has to be at the center of it. If someone broadcasts that they will kill a coach or shoot up the school, you need to believe it. You can’t not believe it — it’s a different world.”

Threat management is the initial reaction. It’s the response to when a threat is first heard, how the district responds, how the student is handled, how the impact on the school is managed and how to manage the impact to the community.

The Douglas County School District was faced with handling a major threat at Mountain Vista High School in December 2015. Two teenage girls planned to commit a mass shooting at the Highlands Ranch school before killing themselves, according to arrest affidavits.​

“This was a unique case because if you look at shooting profiles in the past they were all males,” said Rich Payne, director of safety for Douglas County School District. “What we say now is that it’s no longer gender-specific.”

MORE: Safe2Tell emerges as key resource to keeping students safe

After a tip came in through the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office’s Text-a-Tip line about the murder plot, authorities launched an investigation, as the sheriff’s office does with all weapons threats, Payne said. Once the tip proved to be credible, both girls were arrested and charged as adults with conspiracy to commit murder. The two girls eventually pleaded guilty in separate hearings in late 2016 and early 2017 and were sentenced to juvenile corrections facilities.

“The reality is these things are being stopped all the time, but no one publishes their success case,” Nicoletti said. “No one says we had six kids threaten to blow up the school and we stopped all of them. But that’s threat management at work.”

Standard Response Protocol

Another resource that was was sparked by tragedy and is available to all school districts nationwide for free is the Standard Response Protocol (SRP) created by the “I Love U Guys” Foundation.

The foundation was started by Ellen and John-Michael Keyes in response to the death of their daughter, Emily Keyes, who was killed when a gunman held seven girls hostage at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey in 2006.

During the time she was held hostage, Keyes sent her parents text messages reading “I love u guys.” The foundation aims to restore and protect the joy of youth through educational programs and positive actions in collaboration with families, schools, communities, organizations and government entities.

The Standard Response Protocol is based not on individual scenarios but on the response to any given situation. It allows students, teachers, security officials and first responders to use the same vocabulary and specifies what is done in a lockout, lockdown, evacuation and shelter situation. Districts practice drills for these scenarios multiple times a year to ensure smooth execution.

By standardizing the vocabulary, everyone can understand the response and status of the event. For students, this provides continuity of expectations and actions throughout their educational career. For teachers, this becomes a simpler process to train and drill. For first responders, the protocols establish a greater predictability that persists throughout any incident. Parents can easily understand the practices and can reinforce the protocol. Additionally, this protocol gives schools a game plan even when an unforeseen event occurs.

The protocol also allows more specific information to be shared. An intruder event may start as a lockdown, which is used to secure individual rooms and keep students quiet and in place when there is a threat inside the school. But as the intruder is isolated, first responders might transition parts of the school to an “evacuate to the gym and lockdown,” and later “evacuate to the bus zone.”

Jeffco was the first district to implement the SRP and today it is used by 18,000 schools around the country. All but two Denver metro districts use the SRP. Aurora Public Schools and Littleton Public Schools have their own protocols.

SRP in practice

To make sure that everyone in the school building knows exactly what to do, school districts run drills throughout the school year.

Englewood Schools, for instance, requires drills each month at its two high schools, two middle schools and four elementary schools.

In the fall, the district put its lockout procedure in place when a suspicious package was left outside one of its high schools. During a lockout, the goal is to keep the threat out and safeguard students and staff within the building. It allows for educational practices to continue with little classroom interruption or distraction.

“The lockout made sure everyone was safe and secured everyone indoors while law enforcement made sure the package was not a risk,” said Mandy Braun, director of safety and security for Englewood Schools.

Other examples of why lockouts are implemented include dangerous wildlife in the area, such as the presence of snakes or mountain lions in Douglas County, or local law enforcement activity, such as a suspect on the loose.

In Douglas County, the state patrol recently started participating in the school district’s lockdown drills because troopers may be the first ones to arrive at the school in an active situation.

That kind of collaboration among state and local law enforcement and school districts ensures preparedness and the right — and best — response to keeping students safe, school officials say, in the case the unthinkable happens yet again.

“We have to win this thing called school safety,” McDonald said. “And we better have the relationship in place today because if we don’t, tomorrow is too late.”


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