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It was right before noon on May 26, the very last day of class for Cherry Creek High School students, when the message came through over the intercom: The school had been placed on secure perimeter due to a threat.
After the initial announcement, the principal came back on the system to tell students they would have to stay in their seats for the foreseeable future. The minutes ticked by as students waited past what would have been their release for the summer.
The threat, a social media post from someone threatening to “shoot up” the school, never materialized and students were ultimately let out on a controlled release with no incident. The district had followed its security protocols to the letter. But taking place just two days after a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas that killed 19 children and two teachers, it left students on edge.
“There was palpable tension and anxiety, and a lot of that was a result of what happened in Texas on Tuesday,” CCHS junior Carly Philpott told The Sentinel.
The tragic shooting in Uvalde has spawned shock, grief and outrage across the country. Along with renewed action around passing gun control legislation, it has spurred a fresh round of conversation about school security measures and what best practices should be in place to try and prevent this kind of violence.
Colorado is no stranger to gun violence at schools, from Columbine, to the STEM High School shooting in 2019, to two shootings outside Aurora Public Schools high schools in November that wounded nine students.
The lessons of the past have made the state a leader in being proactive about school violence, from the implementation of the anonymous reporting system Safe2Tell to state law passed after the Columbine shooting requiring school districts to have written crisis management plans.
Many of the ideas discussed after the Texas shooting have already been implemented in Colorado schools. One of them — arming teachers to defend against school shooters — was floated after the STEM shooting but largely fizzled as school districts and communities dismissed the idea as ineffective and potentially dangerous.
In Cherry Creek Schools, the district is working over the summer to fast-track construction of a series of physical infrastructure upgrades to building security that have been underway for several years. A $150 million bond issue approved by voters in 2020 will in part fund security improvements to every building in the district, including new intercom systems and security vestibules at the entrance to each school.
The most visible upgrades from the funding measure are putting secure vestibules at the front entrance of each school in the district, to better regulate the entrance process for visitors. A camera and a buzzer will be on the outside entrance, and visitors will be ushered into a vestibule with a self-service kiosk, where they will sign in by scanning their driver’s license through RAPTOR, the school safety software used by CCSD and APS. The system ties into the state sex offender registry and the district’s own information system, so if a student has a protection order against a parent they won’t be able to circumvent the law by showing up at their school.
If someone inside the vestibule has a weapon or is a security threat, the extra barrier will give the school time to call law enforcement and direct students to go into lockdown. The school can automatically lock the outside doors from a central dispatch location and then unlock them when first responders arrive. All local police departments also have access codes to the doors.
The district will have completed about half the vestibules by the end of this summer, an expedited timeline from its original plan although it continues to experience delays due to supply chain issues and construction workforce shortages.
“As soon as Uvalde happened, we had a lot of conversations about trying to expedite as many of the projects that we can,” said Ian Lopez, the district’s head of security.
CCSD and Aurora Public Schools both follow the standard response protocol developed by the “I Love U Guys” Foundation, created by the parents of Platte Canyon High School shooting victim Emily Keyes to standardize the way school districts respond to threats and handle reunifications.
The district is also in the process of updating the public address systems in all of its schools. The new system will have video and audio elements and can be automatically programmed to play alerts for each of the different phases of the standard response protocol, secure perimeter, lockdown, and evacuation. The system also ties into the district’s radios, which are from Centennial-based SchoolSAFE Communications. Certain administrators at each school can make announcements on the PA from their radios, and can also use them to contact law enforcement.
In addition, the district is overhauling all its classroom doors to have push-button door locks, so that all doors can be locked from the inside, and that it’s immediately clear whether or not the door is locked based on whether the handle is vertical or horizontal.
“It doesn’t seem like a fancy security measure but it’s a really critical one, and we are literally replacing every door handle in every classroom,” said district spokesperson Abbe Smith.
Each classroom and office in every school building now also has a “RedBag,” which contains first aid materials that can be used in a lockdown situation. Each RedBag has a QR code specific to its room that can be scanned to connect to an online app. The app has a message function that allows people inside each room to communicate individually with district headquarters if there are specific issues — such as an injured or missing student — they need to communicate about. Cherry Creek is the first district to use RedBag and Lopez said that teachers have been extremely enthusiastic about it in trainings.
“This is a game changer for us to be able to communicate inside the room,” Lopez said.
The secure communication function will allow the district to communicate much more quickly about what’s actually happening to prompt the lockdown, so students and teachers won’t have to sit in silence, fearing the worst for any longer than they absolutely have to. The district can also direct classes to leave their room instead of having armed police enter each room to evacuate students, which can be frightening for students who are already in the middle of a traumatic situation.
One of the most important parts of the district’s security plans is making sure that employees and students are regularly trained and are following all procedures correctly, Lopez said. In a district as large as Cherry Creek, it’s crucial that trainings are frequent to account for staff turnover, changes in leadership and a student body that changes every year.
“We can install all the cool stuff, but it’s a constant effort to train,” he said.
Similar security upgrades took place in APS following a $300 million bond approved by voters in 2016. The district constructed security vestibules at 28 of its schools (some newer schools had them already) and updated security cameras, public address systems and fire suppression systems.
“From a physical standpoint we feel very good,” Superintendent Rico Munn said of the district’s security.
Over the summer, the district will be meeting with the Aurora Police Department to discuss the staffing and location of school resource officers (SROs) in buildings for the upcoming school year. APD will have 10 SROs in Aurora Public Schools and eight in Cherry Creek for the upcoming year, according to a department spokesperson.
Along with physical building safety, managing students’ mental health and emotional well-being plays a large part in the security systems at each district.
Both districts conduct threat assessments and suicide risk assessments when they receive reports that a student might be at risk of harming themselves or someone else. The assessments are conducted by a multidisciplinary team that includes teachers, parents, school administrators and mental health providers and counselors to assess whether a student poses a legitimate risk.
Sometimes, the report stemmed from a miscommunication or a comment that got blown out of proportion and is quickly addressed. Other times, it becomes clear that something serious is going on and either law enforcement or emergency medical services are brought into the situation.
In other cases, the team works to connect the students with mental health resources and other support efforts they need to address their issue and a safety plan is created to ensure that they and their teachers know the steps that are being implemented.
“When we’re making a safety plan we’re really making sure that we’re being intentional. What we know is that usually a student is on a trajectory towards violence, so we want to deescalate that behavior,” said Takeshia Van Ross, APS’ risk response coordinator.
This work goes on largely under the radar, but both districts have conducted hundreds of assessments just this school year. It’s challenging to point to the efficacy of efforts to reduce school shootings and other violence because it’s impossible to prove a negative, but officials from Cherry Creek and APS told The Sentinel that the process has helped to resolve student behavior that could have escalated into violence if left unchecked.
“You can’t prove a negative that by avoiding something you saved a life, but I do know from firsthand experience there are situations where, because of sharing information between a multidisciplinary team we were able to abort a harmful outcome,” said Steve Nederveld, Cherry Creek’s director of community partnerships for crisis intervention.
The efficacy of threat assessments is borne out by Mother Jones journalist Mark Follman in his recently released book “Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America.” Follman details the evolution of behavioral threat assessments in the workplace and in schools, and how, if caught in time, troubled people can be redirected before they commit an act of violence.
Too often, people who commit mass shootings are described by the media or acquaintances as having acted out of nowhere. But people who commit violence rarely go from 0 to 100. In almost every case, Follman said, the perpetrator indicated plans to commit violence before the attack in what is known as “leakage.” If that leakage of information is reported and taken seriously, it can be used to prevent attacks.
Just this week, investigators in the Uvalde shooting said the gunman was known by some to exhibit so many warning signs about being obsessed with violence and becoming notorious that his peers called him “school shooter,” according to an Associated Press story.
“I think, conservatively, dozens of potential mass shootings have been stopped using this approach — perhaps even hundreds of them,” Follman said of threat assessments in a May interview with NPR.
Van Ross is in charge of holding trainings for APS employees every year on how to identify warning signs. Leakage is a major factor in students being reported for assessments — particularly in this day and age, comments and potential threats made over social media.
Concerning writings that students make in class, a dramatic change in appearance or behavior or students suddenly adapting interests or beliefs they hadn’t had before — like talking a lot about Hitler or WWII — are all potential warnings signs she’s seen as well.
Along with identifying potential threats, information sharing is crucial for the district, Van Ross said. APS’ process became more in-depth after the Arapahoe High School shooting in 2013 where an 18-year-old student with a grievance killed one student. In that case, the school didn’t have a process in place to share information that might have prevented the attack, she said.
“Safety is everyone’s issue,” she said.
Assessing the level of serious intent is one of the first steps that school districts take when assessing a student after receiving a report through Safe2Tell or someone in the school community that they may be considering violence. Do they have a plan in place to actually do something? Do they have access to weapons that could be used to carry out an attack? Do they have a grievance against someone in their school?
“The data shows us that the number one indicator of a student potentially acting out on a threat is if they have a grievance towards either a staff member or another student,” Nederveld said.
School staff are trained to treat a report as their number one priority, Nederveld said, and once a student has been reported as a potential risk to themselves or others staff are trained to not let them out of a line of sight until they have the opportunity to be evaluated by a member of their school’s mental health team.
Once the initial assessment is conducted, Nederveld said that the most critical work is providing support and follow through for the student and making sure the safety plan is communicated to everyone in the school who needs to know about it. The safety plan is then followed through until the student is no longer in the district or no longer considered to be a threat.
“The key piece is training all of those different staff members to know their role and to really act quickly if we hear of a threat,” he said.
APS will be bringing on board an additional employee to its threat assessment team for the upcoming school year, and will now have four other people on the team along with Van Ross.
Both districts saw a significant decrease in threat and suicide risk assessments during the pandemic due to remote learning, but over the past school year they returned to pre-pandemic levels. APS conducted 476 threat assessments during the 2021-2022 school year and CCSD conducted about 700 assessments.
Nederveld said that the district’s main focus when dealing with any type of students’ emotional needs is prevention. Ideally, the district’s focus on mental health and student well-being will give students the support they need before any issues would rise to the level of needing an intervention. Not all prevention efforts are as visible as a security vestibule, but he hopes families know just how much work goes on behind the scenes every day to try and keep students safe.
“Obviously we have to respond to crises when they happen but we don’t sit around and wait for them,” he said.