Columbine Tragedy: 20 years later

Hard lessons from Columbine help protect kids

Jeffco schools safety chief shares insights into crucial job

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Tragedy has changed the way area school districts assess and approach threats.

As the home district of Columbine High, the site of what was once the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, Jefferson County Public Schools feels a duty to lead the way in school safety and security, according to John McDonald, executive director of security and emergency management for the distrcit.

“I never, ever forget those that we’ve lost. They’re always in my mind,” McDonald said. “We’ve seen too much tragedy in the district. So, security is a 24-7, 365 operation.”

When reflecting back on Columbine, McDonald said, it “changed the world.”

“Columbine redefined for people what school safety meant and it was the very first time tragedy had ever played out live on TV,” McDonald said. “So people around the world saw it and they felt connected to it. They watched the tragedy unfold and they could see the anguish. They felt what we had gone though.”

This year will mark 20 years since two teenagers killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves at Columbine High.

It was an event that shook the nation.

“It was a moment where I think the world realized that our kids might not come home,” McDonald said.

Looking for correct protocols

After the shock of the tragedy wore off, the school district struggled for years trying to figure out the right approach to school safety and security.

Before McDonald took his post in 2008, six other people held the position.

Approaches ranged from no-tolerance policies to locks, cameras and armed security. Over time, Jeffco learned that threat assessment is an absolute requirement in the approach.

“It’s a recognition that when a student makes a threat, you have to act,” McDonald said. “It’s thinking how can you do an intervention that hopefully allows that child that just made the threat to succeed. We have to protect everyone immediately. And those are real challenges.”

Working together

Partnerships are key, McDonald said.

“The more and more tragedies we’ve had have really provided a laser focus,” McDonald said. “The work that I do is really about preparedness and response.”

Following the deadly shooting at Columbine, Safe2Tell, an anonymous way for students, parents, school staff and community members to report concerns regarding their safety or the safety of others, emerged as a needed resource. Safe2Tell went live in 2004 following the passing of a new information sharing law and an investment by The Colorado Trust, a nonprofit assisting other programs.

The statewide program is founded on the idea that prevention and early intervention are key to preventing violence and saving lives.

Research from the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education shows that in 81 percent of violent incidents in U.S. schools, someone other than the attacker knew it was going to happen but failed to report it.

During the 2017-18 school year Safe2Tell received a total of 16,000 tips throughout Colorado. In comparison to the 2016-2017 school year, there was a 74 percent increase in the overall number of tips received. Since 2012-2013, Safe2Tell consistently receives suicide threats as the highest concern reported, followed by drugs and bullying each month.

“It’s remarkable the increase we’re seeing,” McDonald said, adding that the program, which started as a way to call in threats of harm to someone else has evolved.

“Our kids are using the program at record numbers to let us know about a child in crisis,” McDonald added. “We’ve saved lives many times over with that program.”

McDonald said the district’s partnership with local law enforcement agencies is crucial to the success of safety and security in schools. Jeffco schools partners with eight different law enforcement agencies.

“The stuff we’re doing together, I’m incredibly proud of it,” McDonald said. “I wish there was a way to articulate to the community how big of a deal it is and how much constant effort everybody puts into it.”

Constantly preparing

McDonald said that as a district, one of the reasons they are successful in the school security realm now is because they aren’t afraid to talk about their failure.

“What I see happening around the country is schools start looking inward instead of outward and they don’t share their failures,” McDonald said. “If you don’t do that, you don’t learn the lessons.”

McDonald said following 1999, Columbine became the “poster child” for school shootings and while law enforcement agencies quickly changed how they respond to an active threat worldwide, school districts “had to be dragged kicking and screaming.”

“More shootings were happening before people really started paying attention,” McDonald said. “The problem is educators think the best of everyone — they are non-confrontational and they want to see all students succeed. But in law enforcement, we look at attack behavior all day long.”

One way Jeffco schools is correcting that is by bringing a principal onto their safety and security team. By doing this, they are hoping to cross-educate — bringing the education lens into security and the security vision to educators.

“There’s an expectation and people expect that we’re doing it bigger and better because of what we’ve gone through,” McDonald said of safety and security in Jeffco schools. “I think for us, at least for me, I feel a duty to protect our kids and our staff.”

One way Jeffco is doing this is through the Frank DeAngelis Center for Community Safety — named after former Columbine High School Principal Frank DeAngelis — which opened in the Martensen Elementary School building in Wheat Ridge in April 2017.

The facility closed to students in 2011 and now serves school districts and law enforcement agencies throughout the country as a training center to prepare for active-shooter situations, learn crisis-prevention techniques in a real-school environment and use a simulator that offers interactive training for a variety of school threat scenarios.

A way to give back

The center was the brainchild of McDonald, and last year, almost 60 agencies and more than 6,000 officers trained there. It is currently booked through February 2020. For McDonald, not only is this a way to share knowledge, but it’s also a way to give back to local law enforcement.

“I wanted a place for law enforcement and school safety to train,” McDonald said. “I wanted a way for them to be better at responding. But I didn’t expect what happened to happen.”

Now, thanks to various grants, the center will be adding more technology to better aid those training there. A virtual shoot house, additional video screens and a video system will allow agencies to look back and replay their actions. A new audio system will recreate sounds of guns firing, kids screaming and crying, suspects yelling and alarms going off. A scent machine will expel smells of gunpowder and other explosives, urine and additional odors founds in an active shooter environment.

“We want a realistic environment for our first responders so that when they come in, they know who they’re fighting for,” McDonald said. “They know who they’re training to fight for.”

McDonald said the shootings at Columbine and Deer Creek Middle along with the kidnapping and murder of Jessica Ridgeway in 2012, and Vince Nett, who set himself on fire at Standley Lake High in 2014, are always with him.

“These tragedies, they are always in the back of our mind,” McDonald said. “It’s a constant reminder. We’re always working to look at our response and how do we get better at preventing it. There is not a single piece of this whole department that doesn’t have some significant piece of it created because of a tragedy.”

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