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After multiple tragedies, how Colorado schools are securing the classroom

School shootings have become a tragic reality of modern American life. How can school administrators prepare for the worst-case scenario? John Ferrugia of Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver reports on how Colorado’s multiple deadly school shootings in the past 20 years have driven the state to develop new safety protocols -- some of which have been adopted across the country.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With an increasing number of school shootings across the country, school boards and administrators are struggling with how to prepare for the worst-case scenarios.

    As John Ferrugia from Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver reports, Colorado has become a center for developing school safety protocols that have been adopted in many districts throughout the U.S.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Walking the halls of Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colorado is always bittersweet for John-Michael Keyes. It is here he lost his daughter.

    In 2006, a lone gunman, a stranger, got into the school and took students hostage in a classroom. All got out but one, Emily Keyes. And she sent this last text message to her parents.

  • John-Michael Keyes:

    You know, Emily gave us a voice, and she also told us what to say. "I love you guys."

  • John Ferrugia:

    It is from here that an idea emerged, a plan to save the lives of others.

  • John-Michael Keyes:

    I realized that there wasn't a common language and common expectations of what to do in a crisis around the country with our schools. And we found a handful of districts in the country that were using some very specific language in their crisis response, and we packaged it and relabeled it and called it the Standard Response Protocol.

  • John Ferrugia:

    The I Love U Guys Foundation, started by John Michael and Ellen Keyes, trains hundreds of teachers, administrators, organizations and agencies every year to expand the reach and scope of the program.

  • John-Michael Keyes:

    We took lock out, lock down, evacuate, and we added shelter. And those are the four actions of the Standard Response Protocol.

  • John McDonald:

    We found the Standard Response Protocol in 2009. It changed our lives. And…

  • John Ferrugia:

    That was John Michael Keyes.

  • John McDonald:

    That was John Michael Keyes, the I Love U Guys Foundation.

  • John Ferrugia:

    John McDonald heads security at the Jefferson County School District. This is the district of Columbine High School, where, in 1999, two students killed 12 fellow students and a teacher before killing themselves.

    McDonald and his team, working closely with local law enforcement, are focused on keeping kids safe in schools. He oversees the Frank DeAngelis Center, which was once an elementary school. It is named for the former Columbine High School principal, Frank DeAngelis, who now speaks across the country about the lessons learned from Columbine.

    At this training center, school districts and law enforcement agencies from across the country can train for the worst.

  • John McDonald:

    In the past year, we have had over 60 agencies, more than 6,000 police officers, sheriff's deputies, state and federal agents training in here, preparing for that given day.

  • John Ferrugia:

    The goal is making sure a responding officer, even if working alone, understands the tactics that can help stop a shooter who gets into a school.

    This is a state-of-the-art, computer-controlled, virtual reality shooter training. Officers can be run through hundreds of scenarios involving a gunman in one room or in several rooms.

  • John McDonald:

    It really provides our professionals the ability to go into an environment and train just like they would have to respond, using multiple rooms, noise.

  • John Ferrugia:

    But this is just one part of the school safety equation. Another component is how schools immediately respond before law enforcement arrives. That brought John Michael Keyes, with program in hand, to Jefferson County.

  • John McDonald:

    He came to me, sat down in our office here. And I said, how much? He said, I'm not going to charge you anything. I just want you to try it. I call him back the next day. I said, I don't believe in testing it. We're going to implement it.

    We started training on the Standard Response Protocol in all of our schools, and it was battle-tested that year. In February of 2010, three weeks before our Deer Creek Middle School shooting, we first went into that school and trained and talked to the teachers and the administrators about what they would see, what it would feel like, what they needed to think about.

  • John Ferrugia:

    On that day, a mentally ill man shot and wounded two students outside Deer Creek Middle School, before being tackled by a teacher and subdued.

  • John McDonald:

    I support this program. I have for many years.

  • John Ferrugia:

    And that is why John McDonald is often right alongside Keyes, helping to train the Standard Response Protocol.

  • John McDonald:

    I believe it to be the fundamental program that we base all school safety on here in this district and so many districts across the state of Colorado, and now across the country and Canada.

  • John Ferrugia:

    The I Love U Guys Foundation has mapped where school districts are now using the Standard Response Protocol, and the list continues to grow.

    But despite their efforts, John McDonald says there are still huge gaps in school safety training across the country.

  • John McDonald:

    There are no national standards. There's no state standards. There's not local standards other than what we decide and determine. And that's a struggle. Frankly, that worries me a lot.

  • John Ferrugia:

    For Jefferson County and many other school districts, student and staff training and law enforcement response are just two components of a comprehensive safety plan. Columbine also changed school access and school surveillance.

  • John McDonald:

    And you have to be on video or intercom to get into a school today.

  • John Ferrugia:

    McDonald is committed to making sure they never let a gunman near or in a school.

  • John McDonald:

    Video camera, robust surveillance systems that track people's movement, panic alarms inside schools that automatically connect with our emergency dispatch center here, and we are on the same radio system that all of our first-responders are.

  • John Ferrugia:

    And while he wouldn't reveal the capabilities of the high-tech, high-definition surveillance system, he did demonstrate the lower-resolution optics.

  • John McDonald:

    If there's a critical incident in a school and we're locked down, our dispatchers can open the door the moment they see law enforcement pull up on scene.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Remotely, from here?

  • John McDonald:

    Remotely. And that's a big deal.

  • John Ferrugia:

    And he says these are safety measures for all district schools. But for Columbine High School, there are even more unique security elements that can't be discussed.

  • John McDonald:

    For so many, it is a place of hope and inspiration. A lot of victims come here. But so too do a lot of people who are inspired by the killers. And that's been the biggest challenge for us.

  • John Ferrugia:

    How many people have tried to get into the school?

  • John McDonald:

    We're averaging about 198 a month.

  • John Ferrugia:

    A month?

  • John McDonald:

    A month?

  • John Ferrugia:

    One hundred and ninety-eight people a month are trying to get into the school?

  • John McDonald:

    Yes.

  • John Ferrugia:

    And what do you do when you have people there, obviously, all the time?

  • John McDonald:

    Oh, we stop them. We engage outside the building, not inside. I'm not giving them the opportunity to get in.

  • John Ferrugia:

    And McDonald says, unlike in 1999, when there were unheeded warnings about the killers being violent in their writings and conversations, today, if there are threats, whether spoken, written or on social media, his team will react quickly.

  • John McDonald:

    Look, if you say you're going to kill us, you say you're going to blow us up, I believe you. And we're going to send law enforcement to your house, and we're going to try to get consent to search your room from your parents. And we're going and bring your parents in on this and make them a partner with us, because we're not going to allow this to happen.

    We're going to make sure that, in our environment, you and everyone else around you is safe and secure.

  • John Ferrugia:

    That is the message from a school district that has experienced mass murder. And it is a message officials here hope other districts across the country will take to heart to prevent yet another school shooting.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Ferrugia in Denver.

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