A high-tech tour of Jeffco’s DeAngelis Center

Technology and training combine to keep schools safe

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The alarm is jarring. It sounds like a high-pitched metallic banging put through an electronic synthesizer. It jangles your nerves and causes an almost physical reaction with every pulse. The voices follow.

“ATTENTION! LOCK DOWN!… ATTENTION! LOCK DOWN! “

It repeats, as more audio components are added to the mix. 

“ATTENTION ALL UNITS! ATTENTION ALL UNITS! SHOTS FIRED! MULTIPLE PARTIES DOWN! SCHOOL IS IN LOCKDOWN!”

It’s loud. Incredibly loud. Soon, screams and pleading of a terrified young girl fill your ears. 

“HELP! PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME! HELP ME PLEASE! PLEASE! I DON’T WANT TO DIE HERE!”

There are flashing strobes, and the sound of gunshots ring out. 

It’s chaos. Hearing it, even 30 seconds of it when you know what is coming, is difficult to wrap your mind around. Add smoke filling the hallways to achieve complete sensory overload. 

This is just a small sample of what law enforcement agencies, school safety personnel, first responders and others encounter during training at what is perhaps the country’s premier facility for crisis response.

In its short history, The DeAngelis Center for Community Safety has also played host to members of the Navy Seals, Air Marshals, ATF, Secret Service and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation… all free of charge.

Frank DeAngelis knows more than anyone would ever want to know about school shootings. As Principal of Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, all eyes were fixed upon the horrific tragedy that took place there, and his response to it. There had been mass shootings in schools before. But none commanded more global attention than the massacre the world witnessed that day. 

MORE: The day that changed everything

In the aftermath of the shootings, DeAngelis volunteered to step aside, but the District and community stood firmly behind him. He shepherded the school through years of healing and rebuilding, remaining principal there until his retirement in 2014.

So, it came as no surprise, except to DeAngelis himself, that a shuttered Wheat Ridge elementary school, turned training center for crisis response and mass casualty events, would be named in his honor.

Now, as a consultant and subject matter expert, he helps guide the state-of-the-art facility that bears his name.

The Center, originally the brainchild of John McDonald, Executive Director, School Safety, for Jeffco Schools, had previously stood for 57 years as Martensen Elementary. 

“This school had been closed since 2011 and one day I was driving by and wondered if they’d let me confiscate an elementary school and turn it into a training center,” McDonald said.

And sure enough, they did. The District gave McDonald $150 thousand in seed money to clear out years of cobwebs and revamp the building into what it has become.

Far from a spider’s paradise now, the center recently installed advanced technology making it the only training center of its kind that McDonald is aware of. As you walk through the doors, it gives off, well, an old-school vibe — and that’s on purpose. Just inside, above the main doors, a colorful mural from its days as Martensen remains.

“We kept that mural there as a reminder of what this center is all about,” McDonald said. “I want everybody to understand what we’re trying to do here.”

MORE: A familiar face joins the DeAngelis board

Perched high, throughout the hallways and classrooms, 360-degree cameras are capable of recording every square inch of the building. McDonald said they’re an invaluable tool in evaluating performance of training exercises.

“We can immediately show people what they did right and what they did wrong — what those lessons learned are. It uses a software similar to NFL instant replay software,” he said.

Next up, McDonald leads the way to what he calls a “virtual shoot house.” 

A large room containing several smaller partitioned rooms, it looks decidedly more high-tech than the rest of the building. 

“We’re the first in the country to have this,” McDonald says. 

“It’s the first of its kind. Every room has cameras that can project a virtual event happening. You can have different events going, or you can have one event.”

A modern take on the shoot / don’t shoot training tactic law enforcement has used for decades, this interactive version allows for multiple scenarios to occur at the same time. It also gives trainees the ability to employ lethal or non-lethal means of deterrence.

And gives them opportunities to de-escalate situations when appropriate.

There are conference rooms to allow groups attending to debrief and engage in the kind of in-depth discussions McDonald says are vital to the center’s success. One such room displays the names and dates of all Colorado school shootings. It’s a long list, and another constant reminder to those who visit of the important work that takes place here.

There are traditional shoot / don’t shoot classrooms full of desks with cardboard cutouts made from photos of fourth graders in the district. Some are holding guns, others hold pens, electronic devices, whiteboard erasers and the like, there are backpacks and books and other distracting elements on desks to add to the confusion of the scene. 

The final spot McDonald leads the way to is a large interactive simulation room. One entire wall is a projection screen giving trainees a chance to experience an immersive scenario controlled by a staff member, in this case, facility manager and Columbine shooting survivor, Sean Graves. On screen, actors portray victims and bad guys. The trainee tries to get control of a situation that may or may not escalate to a lethal end, depending on which way Graves thinks it should go, based on the trainee’s performance. Sometimes it may be necessary for the trainee to shoot to kill. In true to life fashion, there’s also a possibility that he or she can be taken out by the assailant. 

For Graves, who still battles some of the injuries he sustained at Columbine, being hired by McDonald to manage the center brings things full circle. It not only gives him a chance to work with groups of people he considers heroes, it’s also an empowering way to help those agencies achieve the best possible outcomes in future events. It’s a job he takes seriously on every level. His pride is on full display when he tells a story of his daughter calming the fears of her kindergarten classmates during a recent lockdown drill.

DeAngelis and McDonald have consulted with other schools like Sandy Hook and Parkland in the aftermath of other tragedies. They, along with Graves and new DeAngelis board member, Ron Mitchell, would like to believe it won’t happen again, but are resigned to realities facing this country. 

“You’d better be having that conversation today and preparing for tomorrow,” McDonald said. “Because somewhere, someplace, tomorrow is going to happen.”

So, they do what they do. Push forward, think about the future, find resources to improve threat assessment and mental health and keep the mission top of mind.

At the end of the day, DeAngelis summed it up best. 

“I think all of us, when that horrific event happened on that day, made a promise — we’re going to do everything we can to make sure those kids didn’t die in vain, and that’s why we’re all here.

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