Parents, school district praise response, alerts

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By Emile Hallez

  Deer Creek Middle School parents and district officials are praising the response to the Feb. 23 shootings outside the school. Families were notified quickly and efficiently, officials say, and lockdown measures at the middle school and nearby Stony Creek Elementary were implemented in a timely and effective manner.

Preparation and planning have come a long way since the 1999 shootings at nearby Columbine High School, and an emergency-response protocol designed by John-Michael Keyes, whose daughter Emily was killed in 2006 at Platte Canyon High School, helped facilitate fast action last week.

“People knew what they were doing,” Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson said at a Board of Education meeting two days after the Deer Creek attack. “Our communications system is amazing.”

Both the middle school and Stony Creek Elementary were locked down shortly after eighth-grade students Matt Thieu and Reagan Weber were shot between 3:10 and 3:14 p.m. outside the Deer Creek building. The Jeffco Sheriff’s Office responded after receiving the first 911 call about 3:14, and automated phone calls and e-mails were sent to Deer Creek parents beginning at 3:57.

“They continuously kept us updated. So I think they did a wonderful job,” said Trang Tran, whose daughter attends Deer Creek. Tran said she received calls at home and on her cell phone, adding that her husband also received a call. “They got it covered.”

The school district communicated with the Sheriff’s Office during the crisis and created audio and text messages. The first calls were made at 3:57, and the initial process of notifying all Deer Creek parents on the district’s list was complete at 4:17.

“It took 20 minutes from start to finish,” said district spokeswoman Lynn Setzer. “If we would’ve done that with our old system, it would’ve taken 24 hours,” she added, referring to Jeffco’s new SchoolMessenger system, through which parents can request audio or text alerts to phones or e-mail accounts.

Alerts were also sent out district-wide to parents beginning at 4:31 p.m., and the first round of messages filtered through the system in the span of an hour, Setzer said.

“As soon as we felt that we had good information, we typed it up and got it sent out,” she said of the roughly 45-minute period between the attack and the first round of alerts. “You have to make sure that the information you’re putting out is correct.”

Parents received updates throughout the night and into the next day. Messages apparently traveled faster on some phone networks than others, Board of Education members noted Feb. 25. Cell-phone reception likely played a role.

“We’ve gotten some calls about over-communicating. But if that’s what we’re being dinged on today, we’ll take it,” said spokeswoman Melissa Reeves.

The district did not send a mass alert specifically to notify Stony Creek parents of the building’s lockdown, however.

Students from Deer Creek were sent to the elementary school, where they waited to be signed out by parents, after officials declared the scene safe.

Stony Creek parents were likely made aware of the situation when they received the district-wide alerts, unless they were notified directly from the school, Setzer said.

“The principals need to know how to send their own messages,” she said.

  Morning-after confusion

The district conceded that it fumbled a message sent the morning after the shooting. The alert contained information indicating a school shooting had taken place but failed to list the correct date, leading some to believe another attack had occurred.

“There was a communication breakdown,” Setzer said. “We were going to send that out Tuesday night. … We decided to hold the message until the next morning,” she said, noting that the word “today” in the original message was not changed to “yesterday” to account for the change in date.

“I think it was a lack of sleep and trying to do the right thing but not paying attention to detail,” she said. “Lessons learned.”

Parent Neil Mellberg, who has children at the middle and elementary schools, said he was pleased by the buildings’ response but wondered why he did not receive a message about Stony Creek being on lockdown.

“I don’t think there’s anything the school (Deer Creek) could’ve done, because the shooting happened outside,” Mellberg said. “In general, the school and the faculty at the school did a wonderful job. They put their lives on the line,” he said of the staff, including math teacher David Benke, who subdued the shooter. He was concerned, however, that the suspect, Bruco Eastwood, had entered the school prior to the shooting. Locked doors and a buzzer system to admit visitors into the school would be a welcome change, he said.

“The police responded as quickly as they could,” he added, noting that he watched four squad cars race down Ken Caryl Avenue minutes after the shooting. “We never received a call, to the best of my knowledge, that Stony Creek was on lockdown.”

  Improved communications

A marked improvement in emergency response is enhanced communication between the school district and the Sheriff’s Office, said John McDonald, director of safety, security and emergency planning for Jeffco schools. Law enforcement officers now have access to maps of every school, which they can pull up remotely on computers.

“They have our maps,” McDonald said. “Ten years ago (Columbine High principal) Frank (DeAngelis) had to diagram the map on the hood of a car. We’ve come a long way.”

The Jeffco Sheriff’s Office, Colorado State Patrol and FBI responded to the shootings at the school. John-Michael Keyes, whose protocol system facilitated the lockdowns, also arrived to aid the schools, as did his wife, Ellen, and Bryan Krause, who was principal at Platte Canyon during the 2006 shooting.

Stony Creek recently practiced a “reunification drill” during which parents came to the school to pick up their children, McDonald said, indicating that the practice run helped with the actual reunifications last week.

“They practiced what they did two days ago, on Jan. 20,” he said. “I think we validated the fact that training works. … They did a fantastic job two days ago. I’m so proud of all of them.”


Contact Emile Hallez Williams at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22. For updates, check www.ColumbineCourier.com.