“Good morning. How may I help you?” This is one of the most powerful phrases any adult responsible for child safety can say to maintain a safe school.
It is also one that is used the least by school staff.
A February 24th Associated Press article entitled, “Police: Colo. gunman entered the school earlier,” reported the suspect in the Deer Creek Middle School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, was in the building “chatting” with school staff prior to the shooting:
“But there was growing evidence the school missed a chance to head off the attack.
Investigators said unemployed ranch hand Bruco Strong Eagle Eastwood walked through the doors of the Deer Creek Middle School earlier in the day, indicated he was a former student and chatted with teachers, apparently without drawing much suspicion.
Authorities said they do not know what motivated him to leave the building and open fire in the parking lot with a bolt-action hunting rifle, nor do they know the nature of his conversations with school staff.”
If this is accurate, it raises legitimate questions which I believe school and law enforcement should candidly discuss in debriefing this incident:
- Why he was allowed to sign-in to visit during school hours? It is not common, nor a best practice, to have a 32-year-old male in a middle school visiting former teachers unannounced. Most teachers are teaching mid-day or, if they are lucky, getting a very brief lunch. A red flag?
- Where did he go? If he signed in, where did he go? Did he sign in and leave (end of story), or did he stay for awhile? How far did he get in the building? Were there opportunities and/or encounters for someone to have stopped, challenged, and/or reported him?
- Who did he talk with and what action did they take? If he did talk with school staff, who did he talk with and what was the nature of the conversation? What was their impression of this unannounced encounter? Did they, or could they have, taken any action if the felt the encounter was unusual?
- What did he do in the building prior to leaving and then start shooting? What transpired from the time he decided to leave the building to the time he started shooting? Where was he parked? Would anyone have seen him, his vehicle, or the gun?
My goal is not to point blame and some may not like these pointed questions being asked. And overall, the school staff and first responders did an exceptionally outstanding job in responding to the incident.
But this could be a teachable moment for all schools. Just as Deer Creek Middle School staff responded well due to lessons learned from prior shootings, others should learn from all of the lessons (good and not-so-good, if that be the case) from Deer Creek’s experience.
Impact on Shooting
Does this mean had the suspect been prevented from entering the school, signing in, and “chatting” with staff (if accurate), the shooting would have been prevented? Maybe or maybe not.
If staff had a bad feeling about the suspect and called police, would they have picked him up, searched his car, found the weapon, and hauled him away with no harm to anyone? On the other hand, if he had been told he could not sign in and visit, could he have simply said, “Thank you,” and left with no suspicion aroused —only to return at dismissal to do exactly what he ended up doing: Shooting two students?
We will never know, and pointing fingers of blame is not productive. But to strengthen our “lessons learned” it is legitimate to look closely at the suspect’s presence in the building prior to the shooting and what he did under the guise of being a visitor. To not have a candid conversation about this would, in my opinion, be a great loss for all schools to potentially learn another valuable lesson in school safety and crisis preparedness.
Am I saying this is what happened at Deer Creek? No. But am I saying this is a national problem in the school safety field? Absolutely.
Our school and public safety officials have an obligation to explore and share what did not work well, along with what did work effectively.
Past Cases of Strangers Undetected at Schools
In the same region of Colorado, a school hostage and killling took place in Platte Canyon High School in September of 2006. The suspect reportedly had been seen sitting in his car in the school parking lot up to an hour before the incident, and had reportedly talked with at least one male student about the identify of female students earlier in the day.
The 53-year-old gunman claimed to have a bomb and took six female students hostage and sexually assaulted them. He later released four of them, opening fire when police entered the classroom and killing one female student. He subsequently committed suicide.
I have also seen dozens of local news investigative stories from Texas to Florida to Indiana in the past decade where reporters have taken hidden cameras into schools to see how far they could walk without being stopped as a stranger in a school.
Over ten years after the Columbine High School attack focused the education community on safety, strangers are still very successful most of the time in getting too far into schools unchallenged.
School Security Fundamentals
I am frustrated when I see, time and time again, the failure of the most basic, fundamental concept in school security: Reducing access to schools, and training staff to greet, challenge, and report strangers.
The discussion after a school shooting typically moves to metal detectors, more cameras, additional officers, and other visible, tangible evidence of “heightened security.” These and other strategies may be helpful in some circumstances.
But the first and best line of defense is a well-trained, highly-alert staff and student body. If we can’t master that practice, we will never be able to advance to more sophisticated methods for protecting our students, teachers, and staff.
And over ten years after the Columbine attack, we are no where close to mastering it.
Update 2/26/10: An Associated Press story on 2/26/10 at 6:36pm provided the following update regarding the Deer Creek Middle School suspect’s entering of the school prior to the shooting:
Investigators say Eastwood initially entered the school Tuesday, said he was a former student, and chatted with teachers without drawing suspicion. Sheriff’s department spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said Eastwood used a restroom and left the building.
Moments later, he opened fire with his father’s bolt-action hunting rifle in the parking lot.
Techmeyer didn’t release the exact timeline, saying it was part of the investigation. But he said that contrary to what a school official has said, it was moments, rather than hours, between the time Eastwood entered and left the building and when the shooting began.
An earlier AP report on 2/26 also indicated:
John McDonald, director of safety, security and emergency planning for Jefferson County Schools, told KUSA-TV that Eastwood wanted a tour of the school. McDonald said tours are not given during school hours.
I find it intriguing this suspect would chat with teachers, ask for a tour, use the restroom, and then leave without drawing suspicion. Perhaps it happened so quickly there was no time to draw closer scrutiny.
I do not want to create an issue that does not exist. But some of the earlier questions as to who he talked with, for how long, and what was said, will be informative. It will be interesting to see the final timeline of when he arrived, how long he stayed, and when he departed.
Update 3/11/10: A Denver Post story (Deer Creek parents are promised a review of shooting response) indicated changes coming from an initial review of the shooting will include, “Other changes include a full-time security officer to check on those coming onto campus, security cameras, emergency training for bus drivers and, possibly, text messages to inform any teachers trapped in classrooms.”
The story also indicated questions about the release of elementary students from Stony Creek Elementary School, the evacuation site for Deer Creek Middle School, will be reviewed in response to parent concerns about elementary students being released while evacuees were arriving. I’ll respond to this in an update on my post on Deer Creek Middle School Shooting Has a “Textbook” School Crisis Response.
Meanwhile, the lingering question which I have yet to see addressed in Denver (or other) news stories is, “What exactly did the shooting suspect do in Deer Creek Middle School prior to the shooting?” Initial reports indicated he was in the building, signed in as a visitor, talked with teachers, went to a restroom, etc. I realize the answers will eventually come out, but it seems like the conversation on this issue has slipped through the cracks.
The point is not to beat up on the Jefferson County School officials. In fact, by all accounts, they had an overall excellent response to this situation. But incidents like these provide “teachable moments” on emergency planning for all schools, and the lack of an open discussion on this angle of the incident would be a disservice to Jeffco Schools and to all schools.
Time will tell the answer, but I find it interesting the school has indicated in one story this week that it will review visitor policies and now, in the Denver Post story, announced it would provide “a full-time security officer to check on those coming onto campus.” What factors determined these changes — something specific to the Deer Creek Middle School suspect’s actions or just a general security upgrade?
These are legit questions. We’ll see if anyone asks it. The answers could be beneficial to everyone looking to improve school preparedness.
Update 3/12/10: A Denver Post story based on an unsealed arrest affidavit reports: “Once at Deer Creek, said Eastwood, he signed himself in as a visitor, and was provided a visitor’s pass. He then went back to his car, which he had parked in the school parking lot, and there made the final decision to shoot students.”
Again, a legit question: Why was he allowed to sign himself in as a visitor and why was he provided a visitor’s pass?
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