AURORA | Officials from across the Aurora Public Schools district learned simultaneously that a court order hadn’t kept a desperate father away from his child.
It didn’t stop him from getting his hands on a gun, and it didn’t stop him from boarding the school bus that carried his son. Administrators from district departments, ranging from transportation to nutrition, received
alerts about the unfolding crisis through a shared, online notification system. At the APS administration building off Chambers Road, an emergency team assembled in the board room adjoining the superintendent’s office.
Twenty to 30 administrators and staff members sat around a rectangular table wired with phone banks, internet connections and laptops. Televisions and monitors set around the room offered up-to-the-minute updates. Staff called up a map that tracked the exact location of the bus via GPS, administrators communicated with police and information technology experts established an emergency perimeter around the vehicle.
All of this was for a scenario that was completely fictional. There was no crazed father, no gun, no hijacked bus.
The whole exercise was an elaborate simulation organized a few years ago by the district and the Aurora Police department to prepare the APS Incident Response Team. This high-tech, immediate training session would help hone the team’s response during some very real tragedies to come.
“The purpose of the Incident Response Team is to deal with incidents that require our coordination at the district,” said APS Superintendent John Barry, whose own office is wired with similar high-tech connections. “With all of the challenges that we’ve had — from Columbine to Newtown to our own shooting here in the theater — it’s important that schools have an organizational network to be able to work crises.”
The approach to school security at both of the city’s public school districts has changed drastically in the past decade. New safety standards at APS and Cherry Creek Schools reflect a different landscape forever marred by unspeakable tragedies. They’re policies that reflect a new normal, one that takes cues from police procedure and emergency response training.
“Every time we do one of these, whether it’s real or we’re doing an exercise, we learn something new and we change,” said Barry, who came to APS in 2006 after serving in high-profile positions in the Air Force. “We add things to the checklist.”
The team’s approach is methodical, and it’s easy to see the clear mark of Barry’s military background.
“We designed this for the Incident Response Team, not the superintendent’s conference room,” Barry said. “My office was built the same way. It was designed to be a breakout room … This place was gutted. I’ve seen these operations before, so I specifically said, that’s what I’m going to try to do here.”
APS isn’t the only district that’s had to make constant revisions to its security policy. Starting with the 1999 shootings at Columbine and stretching to several recent high-profile violent incidents, school officials have had to fundamentally rethink basic questions of school security. In the hours and days following the shootings July 20, for example, crisis teams from APS and Cherry Creek came up with plans to handle issues ranging from emergency shelter for victims to mental health treatment for students.
The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 drove both districts to take another hard look at security policy. At Cherry Creek Schools, the attack affected plans for about $3 million for security upgrades. The money, approved by voters as part of a larger $125 million bond election issue, was set aside to upgrade security cameras at buildings across the district.
“It might speed it up. We were looking at a two- to three-year implementation, just because we have to rewire the entire system. We might push hard to get that done sooner than later,” said Cherry Creek Assistant Superintendent Scott Siegfried. “Since Connecticut, that project is moving forward, but we’re looking at some larger-scope issues as well, to put up barriers that would slow something or potentially stop something.”
Siegfried and other district officials have mentioned a wide range of measures, from modified building designs to additional security staff.
“We’ve had conversations about additional staff,” Siegfried said. “When we wrote it a year and a half ago, it wasn’t a part of the plan. It may become part of the plan.”
Coming up with new safeguards isn’t simple or straightforward. At the first Cherry Creek School District Board of Education meeting following the Connecticut shootings, Superintendent Mary Chesley spoke to the fact that the security measures in place at Sandy Hook Elementary School are similar to what’s in place at elementary schools across Cherry Creek. At that building in Connecticut, there was a locked outer door. There was a doorbell system. Staff had trained in security and evacuation measures.
“The reality is that you can’t give a 100-percent guarantee that everything is going to be right every day,” Chesley said during the meeting Jan. 14. “But we can give a 100-percent guarantee that we’re going to look at everything on the table and do what’s right for our kids.”
In the weeks immediately following the Connecticut shootings, Chesley and Siegfried said those measures included increased police presence across the district. In January, district officials met with police from Aurora, Arapahoe County and three other departments represented in the district.
“Every one of our law enforcement agencies had been ordered to be more present that week between Sandy Hook and winter break,” Chesley said. “I asked what way that could that be sustained.”
Unlike Barry, Chesley came to the superintendent post with a background as a teacher and an administrator. Each tragedy has posed its own learning curve, she said.
“Columbine changed us overnight,” Chesley said. “We went to teacher school. The day after Columbine, we were taking training that had been provided almost exclusively to those who were in law enforcement or the military. It was the drilling and the retraining. For my generation, that was a lot of brand new learning.”
That’s meant paying closer attention to how the district deals with everything from doorways to social media, she added.
“Part of that is the last tragedy becomes the new baseline. Maybe it’s that simple,” Chesley said, referring specifically to Sandy Hook. “This is a huge new baseline.”
It’s a profoundly painful baseline, one that’s raised questions that go even deeper than those raised by Columbine and the shootings at a crowded movie theater in July.
“When you look at what they did have in place at Newtown … I can tell you our schools have the doorbell, they have the locked door, they have the plan,” Siegfried said. “How do you deal with someone who is willing to die? I can’t think of anything more horrible than that.”
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at [email protected] or 720-449-9707