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Bogus school threat provides practice, lessons

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By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff Writer

While the threat that triggered closures and lockouts in the Roaring Fork School District on Feb. 9 was ultimately deemed not credible, school officials and law enforcement stand by their cautious approach. 
“Our job is to ensure as much as possible the safety of the students, the schools and the community,” said Carbondale Police Chief Gene Schilling. “I would say that smaller communities think it’s not going to happen here, but we all know that that’s not true. The world has changed.“
“We recognize the inconvenience, but that’s a lot easier to deal with than the alternative,” added RFSD public information officer Kelsy Been. “The information we had when we were making that call is that it sounded like a credible threat.” 
Specifically, Schilling explained, an on-duty officer received a call from the Federal Bureau of Investigation around 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 9, indicating that an online post indicating an 18-year-old was going to “take weapons and go to his high school and use them,” had pinged to an IP address in the Carbondale area. The intel made its way up to the chief by around 5:30 a.m. and he began calling schools. 
“Our role is to notify them and supply any support that we need,” he explained. “I wanted officers at as many schools as possible during the morning.”
That left RFSD and other local schools trying to hatch a plan around dawn, with buses already on the road and some staff already in buildings. 
“This was a rare instance in that it involved all of our schools. Logistically, we had a couple of not great options and tried to pick the one that made sure kids were safe,” Been said. “We were leaving a lot of messages to have people call us back and I think from the parent perspective there was a lot of confusion about what we were doing.”
The final call was the close the high schools – the main focus of the threat – for the day. It being more problematic to send elementary and middle schoolers home, those schools were placed on “lockout”. Ross Montessori and Waldorf schools, which are not part of RFSD, followed similar measures while Colorado Rocky Mountain School, a private boarding high school, was on an interim period but brought in its own security. 
In contrast to a lockdown, a lockout involves locking doors and increasing security (particularly for those coming and going), but not sheltering in classrooms or otherwise interrupting the class schedule. 
“The hope is that learning continues,” Been said. “I think our teachers did a really great job. It’s a tough thing to try to have business as usual, when there’s a lot of chaos around you, to help kids feel safe and learn.”
Whether out of fear or miscommunication, many parents opted to pick up their kids anyway, which actually increased the security challenge. That was mitigated somewhat by recent security upgrades funded by a 2015 bond, including security vestibules that require visitors to check in before the can enter the building proper. 
By mid morning, police learned that similar threats had been received elsewhere in recent weeks, including an almost identical one in the Aspen School District. The lockouts were lifted shortly thereafter, though some after school events were canceled and high schools remained closed. 
Both Schilling and Been view the incident as a learning opportunity. 
“You try and plan these training exercises and find those gaps, but this was a real-life situation that helped us a lot,” Schilling said. “We found out that communications need to be improved.”
Indeed, both RFSD and Carbondale PD are working on filling in blanks in contact lists and tightening up protocols for any future incidents. Parents who didn’t get updates are also encouraged to check that their information is correct and up to date in the online infinite campus portal. 
In the end, far from being a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario, Been believes the response might actually provide some piece of mind for worried parents, students and faculty.  
“I know that people were upset and afraid, but I also heard a lot of gratitude that we took it seriously,” she said. 

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Published in The Sopris Sun on Feb. 16, 2017.