Are schools prepared for active shooters?

While most agree school safety is a priority, no one is checking what individual schools are doing to train their staff and their students for the worst-case scenario. 9Wants To Know asked how serious the legislature is about making sure Colorado kids are safe, in light of recent mass shootings, as well as the Colorado Department of Education to see if they have a special department for school safety.

9NEWS at 10 p.m. 02/22/16. None

KUSA – After a four-month-long investigation asking all 178 Colorado school districts about their active-shooter preparedness, 9Wants To Know found not all Colorado schools train their students for an active shooter event, not every school does regular drills, and no one is checking if they are.

9Wants To Know embarked on this investigation after hearing from numerous experts concerned about how prepared Colorado schools are for a school shooting. Our investigators were determined to contact each school district in the state to compile our data. You can find the results from each district in the state, even those who declined to answer any of our questions, here: http://bit.ly/1RiQYbx. 9Wants To Know also shared our findings with the state and legislature who have decision-making power to make our schools safer. In addition, 9Wants To Know asked school-safety experts what parents should be asking their children's school district to make sure their child is safe: http://bit.ly/1RiXjn7. These experts helped 9Wants To Know make sure the online and on-air report did not give too much away about the drills to make sure schools can stay safe. 

SEARCH for your child's school district here: http://bit.ly/1RiQYbx

“We’re willing to have the conversation about what do you do when you’re on fire, we’d better be willing to have the conversation about what to do when you’re under fire, because that is the new threat of our time, and it’s not going away,” John McDonald, executive director of security and emergency management at Jefferson County Schools, said.

The new Commissioner of the Colorado Department of Education Rich Crandall had been on the job for only seven days at the time of 9Wants To Know’s interview regarding this. After 9Wants to Know started asking questions, Crandall asked everyone in the department leadership to start thinking and begin working on how CDE can do more to ensure schools are safe places for students.

The department told 9NEWS that Crandall “wants to think bigger about school safety, not just the drills. The drills would be a part of it.”

During its investigation, 9Wants To Know found the laws that do exist don’t specify what the training should look like and how often it should be done. The result: every district does its own thing, if anything at all. The larger districts with more resources, personnel and funding can often afford to do more than the small, rural districts.

Starting next summer, all Colorado schools will be held liable if a student gets hurt or dies in an act of school violence. The Claire Davis Act was enacted after Claire Davis was killed by a school shooter at Arapahoe High School in December 2013.

The possible liability has some schools scrambling to figure out how to prevent being sued.

In the course of the 9Wants to Know investigation, some parents have expressed they didn’t want their children to participate in lockdown or active-shooter drills. Some superintendents also expressed concern about having younger kids participate in these drills. A few were worried about any kids of any age being involved.

'BECAUSE I PROMISED'

David Benke, former math teacher at Deer Creek Middle School, tackled a gunman who was firing at his students in February 2010. Two students were injured, but both survived.

“I had told the kids I would try to do something,” Benke said. “When the thing actually happened, my brain had it as a promise. I said I promised the kids I would do something. So I did.”

That day, it wasn’t only the promise that pushed Benke to act.

“People talked to me as if I was brave. No, I was calculating. I calculated and made sure I could take him down at the safest moment possible,” Benke said.

Benke said the lockdown drills the school’s held for the two years leading up to the shooting helped.

“It’s important training for the kids to do,” Benke said. “It’s important for them to do it young so when they get to middle school or high school, they know what to do.”

PRO-TRAINING

When parents send their kids to school, they assume they’re going to be safe. It’s part of what used to be the schools’ unwritten promise. That’s more recently been spelled out in legislation.

“It starts with making sure your students [and] your staff know what to do in a crisis,” McDonald said.

Jefferson County Schools do two lockdown drills during the school year with all of their students. They also do multiple other drills, including reunification which is the process after students are evacuated and how they are reunited with their parents, and the standard fire and tornado drills.

“There should be two active-shooter drills [or] lockdown drills whatever you want to call them that involve students and staff, preparing and actually taking action to protect themselves if that threat arrives on their doorstep,” McDonald said. "It's really about life safety. There's a lot more that can be done, than is currently happening."

If the district where the Columbine and Deer Creek shootings took place does this level of training, it may be surprising to hear that not all schools would follow its lead.

9NEWS FINDINGS

9Wants to Know sent open-records requests to all 178 Colorado school districts, followed up with numerous phone calls and emails and made sure that all schools had an opportunity to participate in the 9Wants To Know investigation.

9Wants to Know found the level of training and preparedness for an active-shooter situation often mirrored the size of the district. Some smaller districts have never had a drill, never involved students or just recently held their first exercise.

Percentages of what school districts are doing for active-shooter training. 9NEWS.com. 2/22/2016. None

Of the 178 school districts in Colorado, 75 percent said their preparedness plan includes how to respond to an active shooter.

More than 30 percent wouldn’t say how often they did active-shooter or lockdown drills. For some districts, those are two different trainings. For others, a lockdown is the same as an active-shooter exercise.

Of those who revealed how often they trained, 24 percent trained twice a year, almost 24 percent once a year, 14 percent did drills three or more times a year, and a little more than 4 percent trained less than once a year.

Essentially, the 9Wants To Know investigation revealed Colorado has a hodgepodge approach when it comes to lockdown or active-shooter drills.

Some districts do a lockdown drill lasting less than five minutes. Others do active-shooter reenactments which last all day and don’t involve the students.

NEVER DONE AN ACTIVE SHOOTER OR A LOCKDOWN DRILL

9Wants To Know found two school districts that admit they have not conducted this kind of training, including Holly, Colo.

“I don’t want to go through an active-shooter [training],” Holly superintendent Randy Holmen said. “We’re probably more likely to have a tornado than we would, let’s say, an active shooter.”

In the last four years since Holmen has been the superintendent, the school has never done a lockdown drill. 

“It’s a very blue-collar community. We have really good kids that work hard. It’s a good place for us to be,” Holmen said.

Holmen says he doesn’t have the extra staff to coordinate a lockdown or an active-shooter drill and doesn’t know how to do one as a superintendent of a smaller school district.

“When do you do it? How do you do it? Who do you involve? Do you do it on a Friday?” Holmen wondered aloud. “I know we need to do a drill. I know that we need to keep up.”

Senator Mark Scheffel, (R) Parker was surprised to hear some schools don't do lockdown drills and don't know how.

"If you're telling me that there's a superintendent out there who said 'I haven't done any drills, and I haven't the foggiest idea what to do ... ' it's obviously not," Scheffel said. "That's something that's gotta be addressed."

Since Jefferson County School District does two of these drills every school year, McDonald was surprised to hear about Holly's reluctance. 

"I believe we have to be prepared," McDonald said. "I think any school district that doesn't take it seriously that isn't willing to commit and prepare."

COLORADO DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION CAN’T MAKE SCHOOLS PRACTICE

9Wants to Know took our findings to the Colorado Department of Education as well as Commissioner Crandall.

Crandall may be new, but he already knew his department has no statutory authority to force schools like Holly to do the drills.

“We don’t have a budget for it. It would be poppycock to say ‘Therefore we don’t need to do anything,’” Crandall said.

While there are departments overseeing school lunches and testing, not one department is checking to see if schools are doing something when it comes to lockdown or active-shooter drills.

Crandall says it’s important to train the kids on what to do in case a gunman were to walk into a school.

“Because that has to be second nature,” Crandall said, “If you use that philosophy -- that a child needs to know how to respond immediately and appropriately -- we definitely have a responsibility to spread the training across the state.”

“YOU DON’T TRAIN FOR YOUR BEST DAY … ”

Holly’s superintendent says he understands the training is necessary, despite not doing it in his school district.

“We need to be in class and to incorporate 300 kids over a course of a day, and with the resources that we have, that we’d have to involve, it’s going to take a lot of preparation and a lot of thought in order to get that done,” Holmen said.

The math teacher who tackled the gunman at Deer Creek, David Benke, says students want to know that the school and the teachers are prepared and that they will be taken care of.

“You don’t train for your best day, you train for your worst day,” Benke said. “Aren’t you supposed to be preparing the kids for life? Don’t these things happen other places other than schools now?”

RESOURCES FOR SMALL DISTRICTS

The Colorado School Safety Resource Center was created and funded by the state in 2008 to help small districts like Holly with training, resources and expertise for free.

This year, with the help of a grant, the CSSRC staff have been traveling the state, teaching school districts how to write an emergency operations plan. 

Yet, according to 9NEWS research, while most schools in Colorado have used the resource center, some said they have not or didn’t know who the CSSRC were.

LAWS AND STATS

Senate Bill 181, signed into law in 2008, was an attempt to better prepare the school districts to respond to emergencies, both natural and manmade, according to the analysis of the bill done by a members from a number of organizations, including the CDE, Colorado School District Self Insurance Pool and the Association of School Boards. The bill required all school districts in Colorado to adopt the National Response Framework, including the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS). The legislation required school personnel be NIMS or ICS certified through online or in-person courses.

According to the bill analysis, the language didn’t specify who among the school staff should be trained.

The bill also doesn’t give school districts clear-cut guidance or a road map on what a lockdown or an active-shooter drill should look like.

The bills says: “to the extent possible, each public school in collaboration with its school district, to hold coordinated exercises among school employees and community partners.”

The Claire Davis Act -- or Senate Bill 213 – which makes school districts liable for acts of school violence says: “parents have a reasonable expectation that when they send their children to a public school that the school and its employees will have taken steps to keep the children safe.”

But the bill doesn’t define what a “reasonable expectation” means, what to do to meet it and, in turn, how a district could avoid being sued.

One of the bill’s authors Senator Mark Scheffel, (R) Parker, who also chairs the Committee on School Safety and Youth in Crisis, kept the bill’s language extremely plain by design.

“As far as the particulars of what that means, no, it’s not specifically laid out in the bill because we expect school districts and school officials to act reasonably,” Scheffel said. “It’s all the things you would logically think. ‘Let’s keep the bad guys out while they’re in this environment. Let’s make sure we’re taking the steps to make sure they’re safe.’”

John-Michael Keyes, who spends his time advocating for school safety and founded the I Love U Guys Foundation after his daughter Emily was killed during the Platte Canyon School shooting in Bailey, Colo., thinks legislation needs to be more specific.

"If we're going to look at legislation, then it can't simply be an unfunded mandate," Keyes said. "We need to have the fiscal fortitude to make it meaningful and to fund any solution."

The school districts will be liable under the Claire Davis Act starting the summer of 2017.

In the meantime, the Colorado Department of Education has an honor system when it comes to checking if the school districts have taken their incident-command courses.

It’s a check box on the school’s annual report.

CDE provided 9NEWS NIMS compliance data it collected from 2014 and 2015. The majority of the school districts told the Department of Education they were in compliance with the requirement.

But 9Wants To Know found some districts told the CDE they were in compliance while telling 9NEWS they didn’t know they should have a NIMS certificate, had no idea what that was or no one told them it was the law.

CDE explained the disparity to 9NEWS saying the districts fell out of compliance in a short span of time because of personnel turnover.

The department hasn’t taken any measures against the districts that were not in compliance.

WHAT PARENTS SHOULD BE ASKING THEIR SCHOOLS

  • What are the emergency protocols used in the school?
  • How will the school communicate with parents and students in a crisis and how did I update my information?
  • What does the lockdown drill include at my school?
  • Where is the reunification site and what will I need to do to pick my child up?
  • Does the school have an emergency plan that was developed with first responders and has it been updated in the past year?
  • Does the school have a working relationship with local law enforcement?
  • Does the school have a School Resource Officer, and if so how can I contact the officer?
  • What are the school/district Twitter handles?
  • What are the school/district Facebook pages?
  • What anonymous tip line is available for my student?

9NEWS at 9 p.m. 02/23/16. None

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