The Aspen Community School is implementing a new safety plan that includes drills like “lockdowns” and table-top exercises. The increased security is meant to prepare for events like an active shooter, a bear inside the school or a wildfire. As contributor Marci Krivonen reports, schools across Colorado have been increasing security since Columbine in 1999.
It’s a usual Thursday at the Aspen Community School with kids playing outside and students reading in a classroom. In a short time, the day will turn atypical. A campus-wide drill at this small charter school, called a “lockdown” is scheduled.
“It’s one of the four different types of drills to make sure students are safe in the unlikely event that there’s an intruder inside the school," says Principal Jim Gilchrist. "So, students will stay in the room their in, the lights will be out, doors will be locked and they will be completely out of sight."
I’m stationed in the third and fourth grade classroom. At the sound of the drill, the kids move quickly from their reading room to an adjoining classroom. Three teachers move into action - one pulls the blinds, another turns out the lights and the third works to calm the kids.
"I’m just going to lead you through a few breathing activities to calm the body and the mind," says a teacher seated in front of the children.
After eight somewhat tense - but quiet - minutes, a law enforcement officer opens the door and announces the drill is over.
Teacher and parent Michelle Bassi trained for this exercise. Though it can be nerve-wracking, she thinks the added measures are worth it.
"It’s unfortunate that we have to do this, but I feel so good knowing that the adults who my children are with, have been trained. And, as a teacher, that I know what to do and how to react."
This lockdown was only a drill, but in February two Carbondale schools implemented it when a man carrying what looked to be a handgun had a standoff with police near the schools. The gun turned out to be a BB gun.
A lockdown, and other drills like a lockout, are part of the Standard Response Protocol. A lockout is for a threat outside the building. Doors are locked, but business as usual continues in the school. Many schools in Colorado use the Protocol, including the Aspen School District that adopted it three years ago. Assistant Superintendent Tom Heald says so far, it’s been used for incidents other than an intruder.
"The bears come to our campus in the spring and the fall and our little furry friends can present a threat to the kids on campus. So we’ve had to do a few lockouts if we have a bear on campus."
The Aspen district conducts one drill per month for a total of 36 a year, and teachers attend trainings in Denver. Similarly, the Roaring Fork School District held an active shooter simulation drill at Glenwood High School last fall. It collaborates closely with local law enforcement. The Garfield RE-2 district also performs drills once a month at its schools in Rifle, New Castle and Silt.
"Lots of people in government and so forth, have worked through trying to figure out what the best practices are," says Jeremy Meyer, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Education.
The state doesn’t require the Standard Response Protocol, but it does have districts fill out a set of school safety requirements. The mandates stem from a law passed in response to the school shooting at Columbine high school.
"Our goal is to provide a safe learning environment. If the students feel safe, they don’t have to worry about that and they can learn," he says.
Back in the third and fourth grade classroom, Community School teacher Michelle Bassi does a debrief with the kids.
Bassi: "Why was it a lockdown drill? Nathan?"
Student: "So that no threats could get into the classroom."
These drills are still new for the school, but principal Jim Gilchrist says so far, so good.
"I think there’s an initial feeling of dread when you think about all of the horrible things that have happened. But when you’re proactive and train your staff about how to deal with it, you feel better. That little bit of knowledge is empowering and the kids like it."