Threatening call puts schools into lockdown
Not even 24 hours after a campus-wide lockdown drill, Aspen School District was put into a real lockdown Wednesday morning when a threatening phone call was made to the Pitkin County Regional Emergency Dispatch Center, authorities said.
“We do believe, based on the information that we received, that this event here in Pitkin County was likely a prank,” Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta said in a media briefing Wednesday afternoon. “Operationally, we treated it here as a real event until proven otherwise. This required us to methodically go through all of the schools to ensure there were no threats and to ensure all students and staff were safe.”
The call came in at 8:25 a.m. from someone claiming to be “walking into the school to shoot all of the kids,” Burchetta said.
Aspen School District was one of roughly one dozen Colorado school districts, according to media reports, to receive a swatting phone call Wednesday morning. According to Burchetta, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office is working with the FBI to assist in their investigation of the threats. Swatting is the act of making a prank call to emergency services claiming an urgent crisis situation, so that large numbers of law enforcement are dispatched to a specific address.
Swatting calls made to other school districts came in alphabetical order, according to a 9 News report. Districts included Alamosa, Aspen, Aurora, Boulder, Brighton, Durango, Englewood, Estes Park, Fort Morgan, and Littleton.
Law enforcement is not sure who or where the phone call came from or how it was routed to the different jurisdictions, but Burchetta said that information will likely come out in the investigation.
According to Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Bruce Benjamin, who served as the incident commander, law enforcement’s initial focus was Aspen Elementary School because it was full of staff and students at the time of the call. Because Aspen Elementary starts earlier than Aspen Middle School and Aspen High School, the first drop-off by the school buses had already occurred for the elementary school.
“That school went into a full lockdown where kids were locked with the lights off in each individual classroom,” he said.
A team of law-enforcement officers went into the elementary school to perform an initial sweep to check for any threats, and when that was completed, they went classroom by classroom to account for the safety of each of the rooms and staff and students within them.
“The staff at the elementary school did a wonderful job getting those kids — as they drilled for many times — in place,” he said.
Although they do not have an exact timeframe, Benjamin said it was “pretty quick.” There were not many students or staff at the middle and high schools at the time, so law enforcement was able to focus on clearing the elementary school. Once the elementary school was cleared, teams were sent into the middle and high school and they were cleared of any threats.
“We’re very cognizant that elementary-school students shouldn’t be left in a hiding position with the lights off for very long. That would be extremely detrimental from an emotional standpoint, so we really did did put our focus and trying to clear any possible threat to the elementary school,” he said.
At 9:15 a.m., efforts to re-unify students who had not yet arrived to campus with parents and guardians began, according to Benjamin. By 10:45 a.m., full re-unification efforts were underway for the remaining students on campus. All re-unification was completed by noon, according to Burchetta.
The incident occurred just one day after Pitkin County deputies, officers, school resources officers, and the entire campus participated in a lockdown drill.
“Keeping in mind these drills are fairly frequent; the biggest procedure we followed yesterday was it was all-campus drill, interestingly enough, where all the schools were placed on lockdown status,” Benjamin said, noting that he and Burchetta were part of the Tuesday drill.
Though no specific procedural changes were made between the Monday drill and Tuesday incident, Benjamin said they noted areas for improvement, such as doors that were having hardware problems and staff members whose safety apps were not working as well as they should.
“It was very beneficial, as all our practice drills are,” he said.
Aspen School District Superintendent Dave Baugh said the response from first responders was “textbook,” and the district trains for these events to keep children and staff safe.
“The presence on Maroon Creek Road was something you couldn’t accomplish in a much larger community, a suburban community. You couldn’t do better than this,” he said.
One area the Sheriff’s Office and school district agreed they could improve upon was communication, and they will be discussing ways to speed up accuracy and timing of it.
“In an incident like this, communication is really difficult, and we’re trying to get accurate information in real time to our parents and to our staff,” Baugh said. “We’re going to work on notifications and who gets what when, as well as communication flow.”
From the law enforcement perspective, Burchetta said there’s always room for improvement.
“I think some lessons learned probably is a more robust traffic-management plan to address just the influx of vehicles that will be arriving at the school,” he said. “I think to Dave’s point, communication is always, in any incident I’ve ever worked on, communication is always the opportunity for improvement. I think we’re looking forward to taking a deeper dive and really fleshing out that communication piece.”
As for school Thursday, Baugh said they are planning on having a regular school day if they can open safely and the weather permits.
“We think routine and return to normalcy is vital to the health and wealth of our community and, I mean, the wealth emotionally. It’s very important for students and staff to return to routine after situations like this,” he said.
At the time of the media briefing, he said officials had not had time to reach out to partners like the Hope Center and Mind Springs Health to provide extra support for children. However, an email from Aspen School District communications at 5:30 p.m. said counselors and trauma therapists will be available to students all day Thursday and Friday. They will be in the counseling office at the high school and in the conference rooms at the middle and elementary schools.
“These deeply concerning events, which are all too common in our country today, are reprehensible, and the trauma socially, emotionally is huge to adults and children, and our counselors and staff are available. We encourage all parents and guardians to reach out to us if you see any symptoms of trauma and stress in your children,” Baugh said.
Standard Response Protocol
Aspen School District practices the Standard Response Protocol emergency response actions developed by I Love U Guys foundation. The protocol distinguishes two types of emergency procedures: lockout and lockdown.
A lockdown, which is what Aspen schools were in Wednesday, occurs when there is an immediate threat or hazard inside of a school building. Procedures during lockdown include teachers and staff closing and locking classroom and office doors, turning off lights, and getting students on the floor and out of sight. Students and staff remain silent throughout the lockdown, and no phone calls are allowed. Doors can only be unlocked by law enforcement or district administration.
In a lockout, such as the one that occurred in January when threats were made against Summit County school officials, students and staff remain in the building and exterior doors are locked. Lockouts occur as a precautionary measure due to a suspected and/or immediate threat or hazard outside the building. Class resumes as normal, and the main entries for buildings are monitored.
Roaring Fork Schools in safety protocols
A “hectic and scary day” in the Roaring Fork Schools and neighboring school districts Wednesday prompted a statement from Roaring Fork District Superintendent Jesús Rodríguez, as well.
“We always take any possible threat seriously,” he said in a written statement issued to district families and staff and made public on that district’s website. “As these situations are distressing and strip away the sense of security in our schools and communities, we ask that you help us raise awareness about swatting.”
Glenwood Springs High School was put in lockdown for about 30 minutes after a swatting incident directed toward them. Other schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, and Basalt, as well neighboring Garfield Re-2 schools, were in “secure” status on and off Wednesday morning, as well.
Glenwood Springs Police Lt. Bill Kimminau said the call made to Garfield County Dispatch sounded like a real voice, but the number was traced to outside the United States, as is often the case with such incidents.
“It sounded like a live body, so we still have to treat it as being a live thing,” he said.
Direction was given for the high school to go into lockdown and the other schools into secure mode until police could clear the school and give the order to lift the safety protocols, he said.
“We have to go through the motions, just in case,” Kimminau said. “It’s better to err on the side of caution and handle it as if it’s a real situation until we can figure out otherwise.”
All safety protocols in the area schools were lifted before noon Wednesday, but the situation did prompt an early release in Aspen schools and an earlier-than-usual release of students at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale. All Roaring Fork Schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, and Basalt have early release on Wednesdays anyway.
Garfield Re-2 officials also issued a statement, saying: “Specifically, this issue was in response to a threat originating in Roaring Fork School District that could have impacted Garfield Re-2. The safety of your students is the top priority, and Garfield Re-2 went to secure as a precautionary measure only due to advice upon law enforcement. All students and staff are safe. We are grateful for all of our local law-enforcement partners, and we appreciate your patience and understanding.”
Post Independent Interim Managing Editor John Stroud contributed to this story.
To reach Audrey Ryan, email her at email@example.com.