School shootings rare, but officials work to prepare
Despite a rise in violence in schools throughout the country, the probability of an active shooter committing an atrocious crime at your child’s school remains very small.
However, the violence a shooter inflicts has a huge impact on the school and community, which has been demonstrated time and time again since the school shooting at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, in 1999.
In September, Tohatchi High got a taste of what could have happened if the shot the students heard was coming from an active shooter. The sound of gunfire heard not long after lunch had students scattering for their lives, according to one student.
“As we were in fifth hour enjoying our day like always, my class and I heard five gunshots go off. We heard security yell ‘SHOTS FIRED!’ from the top of their lungs,” Ryan Ayze posted on Facebook. “Our substitute teacher told us to get up and run. Students turned around and ran back to the school screaming and crying. Then some of the students (like myself) had to go to a wall and only hope that nothing happens to us.”
No real threat
Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco said his officers were providing police protection due to an incident a few days before between a couple. A male, who turned out not to be a student at the high school, got into an argument with his girlfriend, who is a student at the school. The boy, according to Francisco, threatened to hurt himself.
“There was a fear that this person was going to come to school,” Francisco said. “So they actually had it blocked off. You know, watching people coming in and checking them in as they were coming into the school. “So officers were on scene, everything was safe, they were actually protecting the school by blocking off the entrance and checking,” he said.
Near the roadblock the police had set up, a Navajo Police officer discharged his duty sidearm. Francisco would not elaborate on what caused his officer to shoot his weapon.
But the shooting is under investigation by the FBI, he said. Ayze hid by a wall as he watched his classmates crying and running from a threat they perceived as genuine.
Seeing teachers and school security shouting at them and ordering them to run only fueled their terror. Seeing the chaos unfold, Ayze was not feeling “safe” as Francisco described. “At that moment I didn’t known what was going on. I was thinking PLEASE GOD KEEP US SAFE,” Ayze described on Facebook. “Then a teacher told us to go to the elementary. “We ran and ran like our lives depended on (it). I could see every kid of all grades scared, crying, thinking if their family members are okay. At that moment I couldn’t sit down. I was sick to the stomach, too worried about every fellow student that was traumatized by this tragic event.”
Nationally, according to a report by Amy Klinger and Amanda Klinger, authors of “Keeping Students Safe Every Day: How to Prepare and Respond to School Violence, Natural Disasters and Other Hazards,” incidents like the one that occurred at Tohatchi High, which they call “false reporting” or “mock attack,” contribute to the idea that shootings at schools happen often. The annual 2018-19 report released by the Educator’s School Safety Network, a national nonprofit organization, stated the most common threats recorded were “unspecified” threats of violence.
Nearly 50 percent of all threats schools reported were not active shooting-related. The Klingers found that more than 25 percent were shooting threats, again not active shooter-related. A threat, the Klingers wrote, is a defined “as an expressed intent to do harm.”
Francisco said the Tohatchi incident came in not as an active shooter call, but as a domestic situation where a student threatened to harm himself on school grounds.
According to the school district’s 2019-20 secondary-grades 6-12 student behavior handbook, a school must notify police when a threat of physical violence could occur.
While the situation at Tohatchi didn’t actually pose a threat to students, they were still traumatized by it, Ayze said “As a student of Tohatchi High, I saw what I saw, heard what I heard. For you (police) to say ‘No shots fired, no active shooter,’ I want to ask you, Were you there?” Ayze wrote. “Were you comforting every victim? You were probably in a place not even aware of this tragic event. Well, we are going through a rough time in our lives.”
The Klingers’ report said more than 3,430 threats and incidents of violence occurred in American K-12 schools in the 2018-19 school year. They reiterated that though actual active shooting incidents were not as common, threats that schools experience were still “significantly higher than in the past.”
“It is also important to consider that an increase in the number of threats reported over time may not necessarily be entirely negative,” Klinger wrote in their report. “A heightened awareness and adoption of a ‘see something, say something’ perspective by school stakeholders is a positive trend that may account for at least some of the increased number of reported threats.”
School violence on reservation schools was not reported in the past but this year any school that gets state funding from Arizona will be required to report school violence. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed House Bill 2119 this year that requires school districts and charter schools to develop and enforce policies and procedures related to school shootings.
The passage of the bill means schools on the reservation receiving state monies have to create policies and procedures by early 2020. Arizona school districts will be required to report any suspected serious crimes involving a deadly weapon that could inflict serious physical injury, such as a firearm or a knife, and any conduct that poses a threat of death or serious physical injury to employees, students or anyone else on school property, to police.
Francisco said Navajo Police have been working with school districts to place a school resource officer at schools. In August, Central Consolidated School District signed an MOU – the first of its kind — with Navajo Police that would assign two full-time school resource officers to the Newcomb and Shiprock high schools.
Currently, he added, the department is working with three other school districts. But as much as he said he would like to place a police officer at all of the 266 Bureau of Indian Education, state and grant schools within the reservation boundary, it is not possible. Schools could get grant funding for a school resource officer, he said, which they could then use to pay an officer.
“I can’t pull those officers right now off a patrol, it’s going to take time,” Francisco said. “Once we start filling ranks, we can start putting them into schools. Then we can hire another officer on the street. So it kind of helps us expand our police force with our limited funding.”
While Arizona and New Mexico schools have been improving their laws to address an active shooter situation, Utah created an app called SafeUT in 2016, which students and school staff can download for their iOS or Android devices. The app was designed to help students who are being bullied, or if they became aware of a threat.
Francisco said schools in Farmington also created an app that students and school staff could use. Gallup-McKinley County Schools do not have an app.
Go ask ALICE
Currently the best plan seems to be conducting active shooter training exercises.
In October, deputies from the McKinley County Sheriff’s Office held one at the Chee Dodge Elementary School in Ya-Tah-Hey, New Mexico, which is a K through 5th-grade school that has about 250 students. The school’s principal, Jacob Stokes, said the exercise is called ALICE, or alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate.
According to the ALICE website, the system helps organizations prepare to survive a “violent intruder event.” The intruder for the school’s training purposes is an angry parent who threatened the school. McKinley County Undersheriff James Maiorano III instructed his deputies that the parent, armed with a handgun, had already entered the school. The doors are normally locked, preventing anyone from entering unless they are “buzzed” in by a school administrator.
The deputies’ job was to clear each office and classroom and then “neutralize” the shooter.
The shooter, played by a 16-year-old student, ran through the halls shooting his gun – a toy gun filled with blanks – going from room to room and trying to gain access.
After about 20 minutes of searching, the deputies came under fire when they entered a dark supply room. Both deputies were told by ALICE-trained officers they were killed by the gunman and had to lay on the floor as if they had been fatally shot.
The “shooter” was eventually overtaken and arrested. During the training, two officers were shot and “killed,” and no one else was hurt. After the training, Maiorano said communication between school administrators and police needs to be improved. Throughout the training, officers had a problem contacting anyone at the school. He said they’d work on a solution.
Francisco corroborated what Maiorano said. “All the school districts don’t have a really good communication system with each other,” he said. “I was talking to (Kirtland) Central school the other day, and they said they were hearing that something was going on in Tohatchi, so they locked down their schools. “They’re calling us, we tell them ‘there is no threat to you guys.’
Communication between the different school districts and administration is really important,” he said.
Robert Gray Wolf, Ganado Unified School District’s Emergency Response Plan coordinator, said in a 2018 interview with the Navajo Times the Parkland shooting in Florida inspired a number of threats to the school. So they began conducting lock-down training. Their exercises unintentionally had an affect on other schools, like the Wide Ruins Community School, which is located about 22 miles south of Ganado.
“Their policy, from what I am told, is that anything within a 40-mile radius, they go into a lockdown,” he said. “That’s something we didn’t know because when we’re doing lockdown drills here, we will just announce it as a lockdown. “So we would actually force them into a lockdown,” he said.
“I don’t know if other surrounding schools do the same thing.” Gray Wolf said that during a drill, they ask students to turn off their phones because the sound of a cellphone could alert an intruder and pinpoint their hiding place. Should a lockdown occur, he said teachers and students knew what they had to do. Everyone else, like visitors, would be escorted to a classroom or an office where they would stay until the “all-clear” was given. Ganado High once experienced a full-blown lockdown when a student reported she was threatened by a group of other students armed with a gun and knives in September 2006. Dozens of heavily armed police officers converged on the school, resulting in a five-hour lockdown.
The report turned out to be a hoax, but parents helplessly witnessing their children being escorted out of the school with their arms above their heads saw it as anything but a hoax.
No injuries were reported from the lockdown. Another incident occurred eight years later in Fort Defiance when acting Superintendent Deborah Mayher with the Window Rock School District wrote on the district’s social media page in 2014 that a student at Tsehootsoi Intermediate Learning Center – a fourth- through sixth-grade school – brought an unloaded gun to the school.
Mayher wrote that no one, including staff, was in any danger. She added Navajo Police investigated the incident. Requests for a comment to Navajo Police about what happened with that investigation were left unanswered.
On Dec. 7, 2017, in Aztec, New Mexico, William Atchison, pretending to be an Aztec High student, walked into the school armed with a handgun. He went to the second story and opened fire, killing two students. Atchison fired several rounds into the wall of a classroom office where students and their teacher had barricaded themselves before taking his own life.
Police said no one else was injured. And the Navajo Times found only three reservation schools – Ganado High, Window Rock High and Chinle High – use metal detection equipment to scan people before they enter a sports activity. Signs are usually posted at the entrance instructing fans what not to bring in to the facility.
Reservation schools on the New Mexico side do not use metal detection equipment during sporting events. At Chee Dodge Elementary, Maiorano said the school keeps its doors locked and does not allow anyone in until a school administrator buzzes them in. It is not known if other Gallup-McKinley schools also keep their doors locked during a school day.
Francisco said schools in the Central Consolidated School District also lock their doors, with some of them requiring government ID cards to be scanned before anyone is allowed into a school building. Overall, all schools require any visitor to report to a school’s main office where they are usually given a name tag or some other type of identifier. While some do, most reservation schools do not lock the main front door.
Real shootings rare
Despite the fear that a shooting will occur at a school nationally, during the 2018-19 school year, the Klingers wrote that only six percent of all tracked violent incidents involved an active shooter in a school, with an additional 4.5 percent of tracked incidents involving shots fired on school grounds. The Klingers said an incident is categorized as a “shooting” when shots are deliberately fired on the campus with intent to cause harm.
Cdr. Roscoe Herrera with the Apache County Sheriff’s Office agreed that active shooter situations at schools are rare despite the media reporting that the most likely threat a school faces is an active shooter. The Klingers wrote there was an increase in hoaxes and prank calls after the Parkland shooting in 2018. Gray Wolf said Ganado schools received threatening calls or found graffiti on walls that were threatening in nature.
Police said the school threats during the 2018-19 school year were either hoaxes or unfounded. According to the Klingers, Harvard lecturer David Ropeik said, “The statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly one in 614 million.”
“It is likely that the increased awareness and fear of active shooter attacks has resulted in the belief that the actual number of these events has also increased,” Klinger wrote in her report. “You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than being involved in an active shooter situation, in school,” Herrera said.
Other violence common
More concerning than gun-related violence in schools were other types of violence that regularly happen in schools – aggressive and disruptive parents, large- and small-scale student fights, dating violence, assaults and attempted abductions, the Klingers reported.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ Indicators of School Crime and Safety, there were 38 school-associated violent deaths from July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016, that occurred at one of the 132,853 elementary and secondary schools – 21,287 being high schools.
In 2017, there were about 827,000 theft and non-fatal incidents at schools and 503,800 total theft or non-fatal incidents away from school. Nationally, in 2017, 20 percent of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied during the school year, with nearly half of those saying the bullying would continue.
Also in 2017, about 16 percent of students in grades 9-12 reported that they carried a weapon. Four percent reported carrying a weapon on school property at least once. Between 2000 and 2017, the NCES wrote, there were 37 active shooter incidents that occurred at elementary schools and high schools and 15 active shooter incidents that occurred at college or post-secondary institutions.
All the active shooters at the elementary and high schools were male, while at the post-secondary institutions 13 were males and two were females. For Ayze, the experience that made him “sick to my stomach” was traumatizing, he wrote.
He was also grateful for the outpouring of support he and the school received. “On behalf of my fellow peers, classmates, teachers, and community, we are expressing ourselves for a reason,” he wrote. “We were about this issue for a reason. And to everybody, thank you. Please stand up for our school.”
Francisco said if anyone suspects or sees suspicious activity happening around or in a school, to report it to their local police department as soon as possible so they can investigate it. “That’s what we do. And if we validate something, that’s when we start putting things in motion. This still our community,” the police chief said.