Despite shootings, Colorado schools not on same page with safety plans

Colorado's patchwork school safety system

JEFFERSON COUNTY - Despite the tragedy at Columbine High School nearly 14 years ago, there is still no statewide standard for training students and teachers to respond to a gunman, a CALL7 Investigation has found. Moreover, some schools, particularly those in rural areas, often provide little in the way of drills because of budget and personnel constraints.

"There isn't a day that goes by that at some point, especially with the things you see every day on the news, that, [i ask] 'Who is going to be that person who comes into my building?'" said Tom Arensdorf, superintendent of the Arriba-Flagler School District in farm country in the Eastern Plains. "You have nightmares about that because it can happen anywhere."

Several administrators in rural districts told CALL7 Investigator John Ferrugia they would consider arming and training teachers if state law would allow it.

But experts say expecting teachers to be able to respond like police officers in a crisis could be dangerous as even trained professionals can make fatal errors during such a confrontation. In addition, security experts worry that law enforcement officers responding to a school shooting could confuse a gun-toting teacher with an assailant.

In Colorado, 176 school administration governing boards adopt their own policies because they have "local control." That control includes crafting school safety plans that include training of teachers and students, leaving the state with a patchwork system of plans that vary widely.

Experts say that's problematic from the perspective of law-enforcement officers and other emergency responders. Without uniform plans, responders may not be able to react as quickly during a shooting incident as they would if there were uniform statewide training protocols in place.

"Everybody should be on the same page," Larry Borland, security chief for the Academy 20 School District, said, adding that schools simply are not.

"I really believe that there should be a standard protocol statewide so that it doesn't matter if it's a Colorado Springs tactical team or Jefferson County SWAT team or whoever -- that they know pretty much what every school is going to do," Borland added.

Other administrators agree, including Arensdorf, who conceded that his school is only able to do one lock-down drill each year. There also are few emergency responders in his area for training -- and some are volunteers.

Funds for the drills are also tight, Arensdorf said.

"I think there should be some financial assistance to do those things, but everybody knows what kind of condition the state budget has been in and all the cuts schools have made," Arensdorf said.

Moreover, in rural areas with law enforcement resources distant, there is no uniform response required or for which students and teachers are trained.

For years, John-Michael Keyes has pushed for a national standard for training and response to school shootings in progress. His daughter was killed in a school shooting.

"What's happened since Sandy Hook is that it's become a national conversation and I think there's motivation in every school in this state to take a look at their safety program," Keyes said.

Keyes and his wife Ellen founded the I Love U Guys Foundation to improve school safety after they lost their daughter to a gunman at Platte Canyon High School in 2006. That school had trained extensively with local law-enforcement officers prior to the crisis and Jefferson County's SWAT team, which had experience at Columbine, took charge. Those factors, and 16-year old Emily Keyes' heroic intervention, clearly saved lives.

John McDonald, the security and emergency management chief of Jefferson County public schools, oversees a detailed, yet basic plan that's so simple young children can understand it.

"We start training our kids in this program at preschool -- 3 years old," he said. "My philosophy is that we train them all the way through high school. But by the time they're 6, 7, 8 years old, they're rock stars on this protocol."

The plan, represented in posters that the district distributes, consists of easy-to-understand language and symbols: Lockout, Lockdown, Evacuate and Shelter. All are defensive steps that create space and time between a gunman and his intended targets.

McDonald added that some districts have plans that are overly complex and may cost minutes during an emergency.

"Code Blue. Code Yellow. We've had some districts use code: Sister Mary Clarence." McDonald said, adding, "Code words don't mean a lot in a crisis."

While McDonald, Jefferson County schools, and dozens of other school districts in Colorado and around the country believe in what is called the "Standard Response Protocol" (SRP), it is just one of several in place in Colorado. Other training and response protocols contain some of the same elements of the SRP, but there is no requirement that any district have minimum standards or minimum training or response in their school safety plan.  And there are some districts in the state that admittedly don't have what experts would define as an adequate plan. 

Larry Borland of the Academy school district  knows of some schools that never drill and said, “that’s not acceptable.”

And, there is no state requirement they do so.

“They're vulnerable?” Ferrugia asked.

“They are vulnerable,” Borland said.