A Colorado School District Listens for Lockdowns
In the Denver suburb of Englewood, Colorado, crime is an increasing problem—including violent incidents. In 2020, there were 480 reported crimes against people and 3,033 reported crimes against property—compared to 459 and 2,607 respectively in 2019.
When some of those incidents spilled onto school property, the Sheridan School District decided to beef up its internal security and communications system with emergency responders. After all, Englewood lies less than eight miles from the site of one of the most infamous school shootings in U.S. history—Columbine High School.
“We’ve got to stay ahead of the game and do what we can to maintain the safety of our stakeholders and our children,” says Stephen Garcia, chief operations officer for Sheridan School District.
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Garcia notes that the school is committed to the safety of its roughly 1,160 students and 250 staff, especially as incidents that started elsewhere have spilled onto school grounds. Garcia recalls a bank robbery occurring in late 2014, when the assailants hid from law enforcement in the school district’s school bus garage. This instance “kicked off this idea” of improving Sheridan’s security and culture, Garcia says. “It was about how do we design this in a better way—that we can be sure that everyone is comfortable and knows that we’re safe.”
We’ve got to stay ahead of the game and do what we can to keep the safety of our stakeholders and our children.
With assistance from its technology integrator, Johnson Controls, the school district’s previous chief operations officer responded to the incident with the bank robbers by applying for and securing a state grant that provided financial assistance for an integrated video, audio, and access control system.
But the security investments and designs didn’t stop here. To learn from the tragedies of the past and mitigate the threats of the present, district administrators have continued to look for ways to transform Sheridan’s security stance across its facilities. By 2015, they determined that there was a need for greater video surveillance, a new public address (PA) system, and a sound detection system that could identify gunshots.
Starting in 2019, new Axis Communications cameras were installed to complement existing video cameras in five district school facilities, focusing on blind spots. Eventually, legacy cameras in the facilities were also replaced with additional Axis cameras, some of which were dome cameras or offered panoramic, 360-degree views, while others provided 180-degree views. The specific models were selected based on each location’s needs.
In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the United States, district officials knew they had to adjust operations for social distancing efforts and other pandemic protocols. Under these new protocols, Sheridan’s schools shifted from having a single point of entry to multiple entrances and exits to keep students and staff spaced out as they came into school buildings. This subsequently meant that more surveillance cameras were needed to support the new entrances and exits.
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Complementing the new cameras, the upgraded PA system included Axis network speakers, 2N two-way intercoms, plus a programmable audio system from Axis that can broadcast prerecorded messages and live pages.
The Axis Network Audio Bridge and the audio management software integrated with the school district’s phone system, radio frequency devices, and the shooter detection system. In each school, the bridge enables the pre-existing analog PA speakers to link to an audio-visual system and the Axis audio manager. When digital audio messages are sent, the audio bridge converts them to analog to be played through the speakers.
In the event of an incident, the audio system will automatically air preselected messages to speakers in a specific area or across a whole facility. The prerecorded messages alert students and staff about the situation and remind them what necessary actions to take. If a lockdown is initiated, the phrase “Lockdown. Lights. Locks. Out of sight.” is played repeatedly through internal speakers, with the messages voiced by the facility’s respective principal, conveying both familiarity and authority to listeners. Faculty members and staff also have the ability to send live messages to the audio system via their phone or radio device.
The audio system is linked to the Guardian Indoor Active Shooter Detection System, which was installed in 2020. The system automatically activates a lockdown protocol from the school’s access control system if it detects a gun has been fired. As the lockdown is initiated and the internal message plays, external speakers alert anyone outside the school building that an active emergency is occurring. Anyone able to hear the message is encouraged to evacuate the area. All of this takes about three seconds.
While the audio system is at work throughout the facility, the sensors are also alerting local law enforcement about where the shot was fired. Once emergency responders arrive, they can overturn the lockdown using specially assigned key cards to enter.
The district has run drills without warning students so that the people inside the facilities can practice in a real-time environment. Students are trained to immediately turn off the lights and lock the doors of whatever room they are in.
This will definitely save lives. This is innovation that’s the future for many school districts.
Classrooms are also outfitted with shelter-in-place kits—which include snacks and other items that can help the rooms’ occupants remain comfortable since students and staff are likely to be locked in for prolonged periods. Meanwhile, teachers can use radios, phones, or intercoms to help check student attendance and ensure that no students are in harm’s way.
“We want to make sure that every time we do this, it’s a serious situation,” Garcia says.
These drills also help local law enforcement become accustomed to the school district’s system and building layouts. An officer will fire a specialized gun with blank ammunition and run through the building.
Garcia notes that with the gunshot system and other security components, not only can dispatchers for county law enforcement identify exactly how many shots were fired (even if done in nearly instant succession), officers can also target the exact areas the shots came from and complete the drill faster than without the system.
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The only significant catch so far is that the system has trouble differentiating the individual facilities as unique segments. Instead, it considers them a single, collective unit, Garcia says. So, if an incident occurs and a gunshot is heard within range of a sensor in one building, then every site is shifted into lockdown mode. And because students are trained to not open the door for anyone other than law enforcement, everyone sheltering in place must wait for a law enforcement officer to arrive to open the door.
Once this last glitch is resolved, however, Garcia says he plans on modeling this system for other school districts in the area.
“This will definitely save lives,” Garcia says. “This is innovation that’s the future for many school districts.”
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