Communication at the forefront of improvements for Aspen School District during lockdown |

Communication at the forefront of improvements for Aspen School District during lockdown

Aspen Schools Superintendent Dave Baugh speaks at Thursday evening's town hall safety discussion.
Audrey Ryan/The Aspen Times

Emotions ran high Thursday evening at the town hall-style safety discussion at the Aspen District Theatre as parents, guardians, and community members expressed concern about communication during the campus-wide lockdown Wednesday morning.

The meeting gave parents and guardians a chance to ask questions of law enforcement, city officials, and school-district officials who were involved with the incident.

Although the majority of the questions were about communication, which the district acknowledged needed improvement, everyone who had the chance to speak started off by thanking law enforcement for their quick response to what turned out to be one of at least a dozen prank calls across the state threatening violence on school grounds.

“We know (communication) is a shortfall. We’ve been debriefing regularly across the departments now, and there’s a concrete plan moving forward for getting you as much authentic, real information in real time as fast as possible,” Aspen Schools Superintendent Dave Baugh said.

Law enforcement, school officials, school board members and city officials answer questions from the community Thursday evening.
Audrey Ryan/The Aspen Times

Communication to parents, guardians, and the communities is a joint effort from law enforcement and the school district. Although the district had crafted messages and was ready to send them, Baugh said they were getting mixed messages on whether to send or hold messages.

“It was a very confusing situation,” he said.

The “swatting” call came into Pitkin County Regional Emergency Dispatch Center at 8:25 a.m., and School Resource Officer Alyse Vollmer said she initiated lockdown at 8:27. The first message from the district went out at 8:30, Baugh said.

Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta said the Sheriff’s Office’s initial response was to get to the scene as quickly and safely as they could to protect students and staff.

“Obviously, communication is a tremendous part of that because we want to get out what is going on, so that the community can can know, can feel safe, that their kids or their loved ones that are working here are safe and being taken care of,” he said. “There’s an investigative component that goes along with this. We didn’t have a lot of information except for what we were told by the initial phone call.”

The initial phone call came from someone claiming to be “walking into the school to shoot all of the kids,” Burchetta said in a media briefing Wednesday afternoon. The dispatcher who took the call also heard what sounded like gunshots fired in the background.

The first public communication from the Sheriff’s Office came from their Facebook page, where the post stated: “Local law-enforcement agencies are responding to the Aspen School District for unconfirmed reports of shots fired at the Aspen Elementary School.”

With communication at the forefront of law-enforcement and district-official’s minds, Baugh said, the district has a messaging plan developing and hopes to implement them within the next week. Going forward, messaging will come out through email and text every half hour if there is another situation like this.

“We’re really hoping yesterday’s was it, but we don’t believe hope is a plan,” he said. “We’re preparing to get it out by the texting process. We’re also working through county services to set up a direct communication line across schools.”

Pitkin Alert will continue to play a role in getting messaging out to the community, Burchetta said.

“We will also collaborate with the school district in their messaging, so if they’re sending out a certain message, we will mirror that message on Pitkin Alert,” he said, adding that now is a good time to make sure to sign up for Pitkin Alert.

The Aspen School District now has a new communications person, Monica Mendoza, who was forced to meet many of the city, county, and police communications people in a snowstorm during the lockdown. However, all the different communications people are now cooperating, so unified messaging can happen, Baugh said.

When in these situations, he said, messages will grow and be more flushed out as time passes. However, straight out of the gate, communication can state only basic information.

“We are in lockdown. Please do not visit the campus while we are handling the situation,” he said the initial messaging will be.

One parent asked if the FBI had made any progress in their investigation because their fear is not only about the security of the school, but also the “potential impact on the mental health of teachers and kids.”

Burchetta said they are cooperating with the FBI as one of the 10 jurisdictions in the state that were impacted by the swatting event, which has gained national attention from the FBI’s standpoint.

“All I can say right now is that the origin of the call was international,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean anything with virtual private networks (VPNs). … You can spoof your location using a simple technology that is available to anyone.”

One high-school student who attended the meeting asked what the district’s plan was to make students feel safer while at school.

“The school board has invested almost $6 million in technology upgrades and cameras,” Baugh replied, adding they are also finishing improvements on the doors that allow high access for responding officers.

He said they would like to open a dialogue among students, staff, and district officials to take in the students’ point of view in these situations and offer them a chance to voice concerns.

Pitkin County Sheriff Michael Buglione shared some statistics about Wednesday’s lockdown. According to his report, School Resource Officer Cameron Daniels was at the elementary school less than 20 seconds after the call, and Aspen Police were there within 67 seconds.

As for resources, Buglione said the Sheriff’s Office had 12 deputies on scene, Aspen police had 15 officers on the scene, Snowmass Police had four officers on the scene, Basalt police had one officer on the scene, and Colorado State Patrol showed up with four. They also had 27 medics with nine ambulances from Aspen, Basalt, and Carbondale, 26 Aspen firefighters with nine pieces of apparatus, and there were six dispatchers assigned to the call.

“Shots fired at the elementary school,” Buglione said and paused. “It’s hard. We responded, everybody responded, smoothly, beautifully, as they are trained to do.”

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