Students and parents returning today to Aspen schools after the holiday break will not see a drastically altered campus in the wake of the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, district and law enforcement officials said recently.
There will be some subtle changes, though, to improve safety, and district administrators and police will meet later this month for a “table-top” exercise in which various scenarios are laid out to gauge the efficacy of the response, said Superintendent John Maloy.
On Dec. 14, the day of the Connecticut tragedy, Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo consulted with Maloy, and they increased the number of deputies on campus that day and the following week during the morning and afternoon drop-off and pick-up periods. DiSalvo said it was a “low-key” step and one that will not be made permanent.
Maloy said he understands there are now “parents who have an uneasiness about sending their children to school.” But changing the campus’ open and inviting culture is not planned: There are already a host of safety measures in place, and implementing more security measures, like locking all doors and making them only accessible by key cards, for instance, may be futile anyway, Maloy and DiSalvo agree.
Both noted that the gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School used firearms to circumvent locked doors and an intercom system designed to keep out unknown visitors.
“This young man shot his way through a system that was there specifically for safety issues,” Maloy said.
When it comes to installing more stringent security, the question is, “Do we just feel more secure or are we actually more secure?” Maloy said. “There’s a fine line there. … These are the conversations we need to have.”
DiSalvo said increased measures would only result in the appearance of a safer school.
“Any Secret Service agent will tell you that they cannot protect the president against somebody who really wants to kill [him],” he said. “That’s just a fact.
“If you look at Sandy Hook, they did everything they could after the bell rang to keep anyone who didn’t belong in the school out. The guy shot through a locked glass door and gained entry. You can’t prevent that.”
Aspen maintains a generally open campus for its elementary, middle and high schools, with the buildings’ front doors open and plenty of freedom of movement for students, parents and volunteers. Policy calls for the latter two groups to sign in and out at the front desks of the schools, and there is also a sheriff’s deputy and an Aspen police officer, both of whom are armed, in two of the three schools at any given time, Maloy said.
Making the schools less convenient and inviting would “disrupt the flow we know,” he said.
“This community, and I agree with it, wants our kids to have certain liberties and an open campus so they can come and go as they please,” DiSalvo said. “I think that’s a really good environment for kids to grow up in, but it exposes them a little more.”
He called the upcoming “table-top” drill a small step in improving safety, one that was planned well before Sandy Hook. Maloy said the exercise initially will involve small incidents, such as a fire in a bathroom and escalating to a theoretical discovery of a bomb. The practice will allow the district to hone its response plans, including which administrator will deal with law enforcement and who will handle the media and the public.
“Everyone has a role to play, and we want to identify those individual roles,” Maloy said.
DiSalvo said the table-top exercise will eventually be expanded so teachers can “get up to speed on what they’re supposed to do.” In 2014, he hopes to include students so officials can practice a mass evacuation. Students would be considered safe if they can be taken to, for instance, the nearby Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club building, he said.
“But I will not drill with an active shooter, with a bomb, with anything at our schools that puts any kind of fear into children,” DiSalvo said. “We’re planning on a gas release, a tanker turning over on Maroon Creek Road where we may have to evacuate the schools. We may have a fire in one of the classrooms. I don’t want kids seeing SWAT gear, helmets, guns on a drill. Never.
“Nothing’s worse than seeing scared kids.”
The small-scale changes post-Sandy Hook include repairing surveillance cameras and door latches, increasing the number of walkie-talkies and purchasing blinds for certain windows, according to a Dec. 21 letter that Maloy sent to parents.
Staff will also be instructed to check that side doors are locked, as students oftentimes go out an alternative exit and prop it open with a rock, Maloy said.
“We get into these habits of convenience instead of reminding ourselves on a regular basis of doing things like making sure all doors are locked so we know who’s coming into a building and leaving,” he said.
The district has a crisis response plan it reviews on a regular basis. Lock-down and lock-out drills, which are designed to guard against threats in and out of a school building, have joined fire drills as an occasional exercise for students and staff.
“It’s important to get this message out to parents that we see this as a serious issue, even though the Aspen schools and Aspen are safe,” Maloy said.