Keeping 'sacred' schools safe

District reacts to tragedy at Platte Canyon High School

Eerily similar.

That's how Moffat County School District Superintendent Pete Bergmann compared last year's mock school shooting drill and Wednesday's tragedy at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey.

In an e-mail sent to school leaders Thursday morning, Bergmann said the Platte Canyon incident reinforces the district's need to continually review and update crisis situations.

"The unfortunate events at Platte Canyon (High School) yesterday, again puts school safety and security at the forefront of our minds," Bergmann wrote. "The incident that occurred is eerily similar to our full-scale (Craig Middle School) shooter/hostage scenario conducted in 2005. We have been so engrossed in fulfilling the first half of our mission statement, that we tend to become complacent regarding the emergency response."

The mission statement Bergmann refers to is: "Our mission -- high student achievement for all students, in a safe, quality learning environment."

He added, "Not as an overreaction, but as a proactive activity, we should all review our emergency response plans with staff in the near future and plan regular drills to ensure our preparedness."

At about 11:40 a.m. Wednesday, in the town of Bailey, 53-year-old Duane Morrison entered Platte Canyon High School and took six girls hostage, releasing four of them, one by one.

After a three-hour standoff, a SWAT team was ordered to breach the school. Morrison killed one of the hostages, 16-year-old Emily Keyes, and then turned the gun on himself.

Bailey is a short distance from Littleton, the site of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, in which two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher before themselves. Wednesday's incident reminds educators that preparing for crisis is a necessary evil in today's educational landscape.

Bergmann said it's an unfortunate reality of schools today that districts must put in time, money and resources to develop, maintain and update school crisis and response plans.

"It really and truly is," he said. "Schools used to be sacred ground, a place for learning where you didn't have to worry about the degree of violence you see today."

With Wednesday's assailant being someone who "had nothing to do with anything that happens in school," Bergmann said a new variable was thrown into the threat of school violence. Although the district has always considered an intruder storming a school a possibility, the scenario hasn't happened in past cases of deadly school violence, he said.

In his e-mail, Bergmann said it's important for the district to balance any knee-jerk reactions dictated by emotional moments such as Wednesday's with doing what's best for students.

"Obviously, we must use common sense as we conduct this review and plan future drills as to not give cause for alarm, or inject emotion that may detract from our learning environment and negatively impact our students," he wrote. "There is a fine line as to when and to what degree we should involve students in our drills.

"Although there is a teachable moment as a result of the Platte Canyon incident, it is a very emotionally vulnerable moment for staff and students. Proceed cautiously."

Bergmann said the drill last year, which involved students who volunteered for it, had adverse impacts on those taking part. He said it was an effect that administrators didn't count on. That memory of students being affected by the realism of the drill served as the rationale behind his Thursday morning plea to administrators to use good judgment in reacting to the Platte Canyon tragedy.

"We have to try to balance the emotions of the moment and use some common sense," Bergmann said. "We cannot allow our emotions to impact our learning environment.

"(The drill) wasn't real, but it felt real to them. It may have been fake, but it still impacted people emotionally. ... We learned from that."

District officials meet once a month with various community members, such as law enforcement officers, prosecutors, mental health professionals, and probation and court representatives, to discuss ways to enhance school safety. Those meetings can cover a variety of topics, including bullying and teasing, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide.

"We have a great network in our community to address student safety issues," Bergmann said.

Each school in the district has a school safety plan and is constantly revising and updating those plans, the superintendent said.

Much like the Columbine tragedy, the violence in Bailey reverberated with policy-makers in Washington, D.C.

Two Colorado congressmen, U.S. Representatives Tom Tancredo, R-Littleton, and Joel Hefley, R-Colorado Springs, released statements Thursday regarding Morrison's attack on the small high school.

"Our community again faced evil yesterday," Tancredo said. "We recognize that this event opens old wounds that were beginning to heal. We must all pray for strength, and wisdom to cope with the aftermath."

Hefley added, "Senseless acts can not be analyzed for reason, and our prayers for peace go out to the family of Emily Keyes.

"The students of Platte Canyon High School will miss their classmate Emily, and through their loss, we, too, will feel the loss. Their questions will become our questions, and their confusion ours. My deepest sympathies to the residents of Bailey, Colorado."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.