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​​​Illustration by Gordon Studer​​

Beyond the Active Shooter

Tragically, school shootings are so common that only the most violent and singular capture more than brief attention in the media. One that stands out is a Seattle-area shooting this fall at Marysville-Pilchuck High School that left five teens dead. Fifteen-year-old freshman Jaylen Fryberg opened fire on five fellow students at a cafeteria table on October 24, 2014, with a .40 caliber Beretta, then took his own life. Four of the five victims died of their wounds. Two of the students, one of whom is the sole survivor, were cousins of the shooter. The other three victims, all 14-year-old girls, were friends of Fryberg. He had texted them all inviting them to the lunch table minutes before firing the shots.​

Several details surrounding the shooting appear anomalous when it comes to school violence, according to experts. Fryberg was a well-liked football player. He was voted homecoming prince just a week before the shooting. In most similar incidents, the perpetrators had been bullied, had a history of violence, or were otherwise isolated from their peers. But Fryberg shot and killed his own friends and family, not anyone who had knowingly caused him pain or suffering.

An investigation is still ongoing, and there are more questions than answers when it comes to what sparked Fryberg's actions. But the unpredictability of the Marysville-Pilchuk shooting highlights the imperative that schools take a broad approach to safety and security to prevent future tragedies. This article looks at what one school in Weld County, Colorado, is doing to ensure it can rapidly communicate with law enforcement during an active threat. Then, experts discuss how administrators can involve faculty, students, and even parents in a multipronged approach to safety and security.

Technology Meets Policy

Weld County School District RE-3J in Colorado encompasses 480 square miles along the I-76 corridor that runs through the center of the state. Just five communities occupy this rural area, and only one has a local police department. The community that the high school is located in, Keensburg, does not have stationed law enforcement. "We're dependent on the Weld County Sheriff's Department to be our first responders, and they are located many miles away in Greeley, Colorado," says Greg Rabenhorst, Weld County Public Schools superintendent.

The distance makes response time in an emergency crucial at Weld Central High School, home to approximately 640 students and 40 licensed faculty and staff. It also means policies and procedures must be in place so that students and faculty can respond appropriately.

Response protocol. The district has worked diligently at establishing safety directives with its students and faculty, according to Rabenhorst. For many years, each building in the school district had its own set of policies and procedures for responding to an incident. But in 2009, the district decided to standardize its response protocols across all schools. It went with those established by the I Love U Guys Foundation, a national nonprofit school safety initiative founded by John-Michael Keyes. Keyes started the initiative after his daughter was taken hostage by an intruder at her high school in Platte Canyon, Connecticut. The last thing she texted her father, after he asked, "R u OK?" was, "I love U Guys." The intruder eventually shot and killed Emily and himself.

After this tragic event, Keyes began evaluating the way in which schools across the country were equipped to respond to similar crises, and he found that there wasn't a common language among administrators, staff, and students, according to the initiative's website. He began the foundation in 2007 with the help of a 17-person review board that included members from school administrations, nonprofit organizations, government entities, and law enforcement.

Keyes spoke to Weld County administrators about the foundation in 2009, and they moved to adopt the foundation's protocols across the entire district. The idea is that simple, effective procedures are in place that can be activated at any time by an announcement over the public address system instructing students what to do. The protocols include response procedures for lockout, lockdown, evacuate, and shelter-in-place and are used by more than 5,000 schools throughout the country.

"You don't want something really complex and difficult in the middle of a crisis, and so it needs to be something that is simple yet effective," says David Miller, principal at Hoff Elementary, another school in the Weld County district.

The school district regularly conducts each type of drill throughout the year, and Rabenhorst says the lockout system has actually been activated in a few cases at certain schools. During a shooting at Arapahoe High School near Denver, Colorado, in December 2013, school authorities put the entire district on lockdown. "We didn't know enough about the situation to know what was going on," says Rabenhorst. "You don't know if it's just isolated at that school or across the state."

In the case of a drill, he notes there's no need to inform parents, because "they expect that they're going to occur with some level of frequency." However, in the case of the lockout procedure that was conducted during the Arapahoe shooting, an automated phone message was sent to all parents' phones to let them know what had happened. This phone system is used to communicate critical messages to parents.

Rabenhorst says if it weren't for students bringing the information forward, the threats might not have been addressed properly. "We encourage kids to talk, if they hear something that's not right or of a threatening nature of any kind and our kids are doing it," he notes. They also have antibullying programs at all schools, and a hotline number posted where threats or concerns can be anonymously reported.

Weld County conducts quarterly safety committee meetings, which are attended by administrators from all six schools, as well as local law enforcement representatives. It also has a districtwide resource officer who spends most of his time at the high school, Rabenhorst notes, and administrators invite him to observe any of the drills that take place at all the campuses. At the meetings, participants go over how drills have been going, as well as any recent developments in school security. For example, the Fryberg shooting in Seattle was a topic at a recent meeting. The grim reality of this shooting led Weld County to review its reunification plan, which is the procedure for reuniting parents and students if a school is evacuated. "What's really important is that we have procedures in place; that you know where you're going, how you're going to communicate where you're going, and that you have... student rosters and contact information," says Rabenhorst.

Alerts. While Weld County puts significant effort into its safety and security policies and procedures, the district also wanted to implement a technological solution that could help in the case of an active shooter or related threat. Toward the beginning of 2014, the district started looking into technologies for the high school that might help with this type of emergency response, especially given its distance from the nearest police station.

One security concern for Weld Central is that it does not have secure entrances, meaning that the school's front doors are unlocked during regular school hours. Rabenhorst says that this is a community choice designed to maintain a more welcoming, open environment. Weld Central does require that visitors check in upon arrival at the school and clearly display their badges. It also conducts background checks for volunteer parents.

Having unsecured entrances led the school to look for a technology that could guard against an intruder. During the quarterly safety meetings, it also considered the threats that face schools from the inside as well. "We looked at what funds we thought we could allocate for safety and security enhancements, and reviewed what options we had, and we decided that BluePoint was the option we wanted to go with at our high school."

The BluePoint Alert System works much like a fire alarm. Small blue boxes are mounted throughout the school, and they can be encased in plastic, that lifts easily, to protect against accidental deployment. The system communicates over commercial-grade wireless communication technology and equipment provided by Inovonics. In the event that law enforcement response is required, the clear casing can be lifted off the box and a lever pulled down, setting off an alert at BluePoint's central monitoring station, which subsequently contacts law enforcement. BluePoint has five such stations across the country, all of which operate around the clock. The stations also incorporate redundant systems, including those on the power supply, computer networks, and communications systems. 

At the same time the alert goes to BluePoint, a phone call is automatically routed through the monitoring station to police dispatch, connecting law enforcement to the school's main phone line so administrators can give additional details on the incident. If no one picks up at the main number, the school's predefined list of numbers to call will be dialed until a person is reached. Generally a principal's cell phone number is included in that contact list, and mobile numbers are called first during after-hours emergencies.

When the system is deployed, a prerecorded message automatically broadcasts on the school's public address (PA) system, which contains instructions for the lockdown procedure. The wall-mounted units also feature strobe lights, so that in a noisy environment, such as a gym or cafeteria, students and faculty who can't hear the PA message will still know a threat is imminent. The schools hope that a broadcast message in a familiar voice, combined with the strobe lights, will generate less panic than a siren or other type of alarm going off. The strobe lights are also posted on the exterior of the school so anyone outside would know not to enter the building.

The BluePoint Alert System features a mobile component in the form of a pendant that can be worn by teachers. Weld Central has 12 such pendants, which have been distributed "strategically" among the staff, according to Rabenhorst. These buttons are useful for outdoor and after-school activities. "Some of our staff have them for outdoor PE, so if they're outside and something happens they have access to the notification system," he notes. Pushing the button on the mobile pendant is equivalent to pulling any of the mounted BluePoint levers, sending the same signal to law enforcement and activating all the same protocols.

The system can also be tied into the IP addresses of any cameras the school may have, and Rabenhorst says Weld Central plans to tie its cameras into that system in the near future. This feature would automatically pull up video from the school for law enforcement when the alarm is deployed. The same feature is accomplished by pressing the emergency button on the mobile pendants.

Weld Central installed the system in September 2014, right as the school year was beginning. The school has since held training sessions for teachers and students so they know when and how to use the technology. Rabenhorst notes that the district had enough funds to equip only one school with the BluePoint Alert System. Determining where the system could do the most good, Weld Central chose to install the technology at the high school. But school officials hope to deploy the technology at other schools in the district in the future.

Rabenhorst says the BluePoint Alert System has created an added sense of security for students, faculty, and parents. "This just helps to let them know that we take it seriously and we're willing to put in various features to help strengthen our security," he says. ​

The Human Factor

As demonstrated in the case of Weld Central, technology can play an important role in school security initiatives. But experts encourage broader programs that include security assessments, regular drills, and a mental health component to foster environments where students feel cared for, and encouraged to report potential hazards.

Safe environments. The Seattle-area shooting leaves many lingering questions about why Fryberg would kill his friends and family, and turn the gun on himself. But bullying does not appear to be a factor in that case, leading some experts to urge that looking at the overall climate in schools may go further toward preventing violence than simply dropping in antibullying measures.

"We always say that if it's a school shooting, the shooter had to have been targeted, and they had to be targeted specifically," says Barbara Coloroso, an author and advocate of antibullying programs. "And that's a myth." She says this myth can lead administrators and even parents to look for the wrong cues when it comes to preventing school violence. Instead of paying special attention only to students who are the victims of bullying, schools must foster a "community of caring" in which all individuals feel their needs are being met.

"What went wrong with this boy will probably take a while to figure out. And it's interesting that the news will jump right away to, 'oh well probably he was bullied,'" says Coloroso. "But we have to look at it as much more complex, just as we have to look at security in our schools as a much more complex problem that's going to require a complex and in-depth solution."

She points out that there may have been a disproportionate response at Marysville-Pilchuck, when Fryberg was suspended for physical violence toward another student who had apparently called him "something racist," according to a student witness. Police won't reveal any details about the other student involved, but Coloroso says the school's disciplining procedures must be fair and consistent, and separate bullying from everyday conflict.

Mental health. Mental health care is another important factor in establishing safe and secure educational environments, says Carolyn Wolf, an executive partner in the law firm of Abrams, Fensterman, Fensterman, Eisman, Formato, Ferrara & Wolf, LLP. "There has to be training for individuals to be sensitive to it, to understand when a kid says, 'I'm upset,' 'I'm depressed,' or 'I'm thinking of hurting myself,' that somebody takes that seriously and acts on it," she says.

Wolf, who is director of the firm's mental health law practice, advises schools, college campuses, and workplaces on their approach to violence prevention. She says mental health is a key component to preventing school shootings, but that each time another shooting happens, "the conversation starts, but it doesn't continue, and we just keep learning the same lesson over and over." Many investigations of school and campus violence end up pointing toward individuals who were plagued with mental health issues but did not receive the care they needed, such as the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shooters. "There still is a significant stigma associated with mental illness or needing mental health treatments," says Wolf. She points out that it's difficult for parents to admit their child may have a mental illness, but getting the student help while he or she is still a minor can go a long way in preventing tragedies.

Wolf recommends that schools put more funding toward their counseling programs, as well as training and educating staff about the signs to look for in students who could pose harm to themselves or others. Schools that have set up threat assessment programs and kept them funded, as well as provided services for families who indicate that their loved ones might need mental health care, have seen success, she says.

Preparedness. Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland, echoes the sentiments of Coloroso and Wolf, advising that active shooter training be balanced with other types of programs. By focusing too much on shooting scenarios, schools might miss critical steps and signs when evaluating other threats. "We're finding schools that, because they have that tunnel vision focus on the active shooter, they're missing critical day-to-day training and awareness and focus on day-to-day issues," he says, such as students who are sent home with parents who don't have legal custody. He adds that more schools need to greet and challenge strangers walking their hallways, rather than assuming their presence is authorized.

Trump recommends that schools "diversify" their drills by altering the times. Some drills should occur at the beginning of the day when most threats tend to manifest themselves, or in the middle of a lunch period. That way, students are kept on their toes and ready to respond no matter what time an incident happens, he says. He notes that even when schools do implement drills, they often compete with other professional development priorities. Trump says that getting drills on the school calendar early is key, as well as conducting at least annual security assessments to keep safety at the forefront of school administrators' minds.

He points out two school districts that accomplished this and diversified their drills in a simple, cost-effective manner. "The superintendent and assistant superintendent would conduct unannounced visits to schools in their districts, along with their local law enforcement agency partners, and tell the principal upon their arrival to announce a lockdown drill immediately," says Trump. He says this kind of drill was over in less than 10 minutes and everyone was debriefed within 15. They then came up with a list of things that worked well and those that could be tweaked the next time.

Trump is a proponent of basic security threat assessments that start not with technology but with people. "Engaging your students is a part of that. Empower them to see what they consider to be their security concerns, and they might point out things that are a lot simpler than what [adults] come out with." He notes there have been schools who have students on their school crisis teams. They give the kids a clipboard a couple times during the school year and have them do a school safety assessment from the perspective of the students. "Oftentimes kids identify both gaps in school safety, as well as relatively simple and cost-effective solutions, that adults may never think of," says Trump. ​