A Junction City, Ore., school and local police had a drill that went poorly in the spring. But district administration and PD leaders have met to review procedures used in schools in case of a lockdown or lockout.
(TNS) — Earlier this year Junction City Police placed Laurel Elementary School on lockdown after receiving a 911 phone call with kids screaming in the background. The call was dropped quickly after it came in, and while it could have just been kids playing at afternoon recess, school shootings and threats hang in the forefront of the nation's fears, so police chose to respond — just in case.
School staff said they practiced a lockdown drill that very morning, but police body camera footage showed disorganization and miscommunication in the minutes that followed the lockdown call.
Large groups of children rushed toward officers from outside instead of into classrooms, police access was slowed while clearing the school due to hard-to-locate master keys, and communication between district staff and law enforcement was delayed.
The May incident spurred frustrations among district leaders in the following weeks, asking whether the situation was justified, but for police it's a matter of following protocols and making a decision in seconds that could keep kids safe.
"If you're not dealing with it like a threat, you're crazy," said Junction City Police Chief Bob Morris. "I'm trying to balance what I see as a threat with reasonableness."
While Junction City is making strides in the new school year to fill the cracks revealed last spring, the situation raises questions about how schools and law enforcement are tasked to work together, who has jurisdiction when, and what is key to making potential threat situations settle smoothly.
Relationships between schools and law enforcement
In 2015, the state Legislature passed a bill creating a law that established standard terminology for incident response: lockdown, lockout, shelter in place and evacuation. The bill, HB 2661, also required all K-12 grades have school safety drills — before it was just required for kindergarten through eighth grade.
But there's nothing in Oregon law governing how schools and law enforcement should work together.
"There are no particular laws, but there are some best practices here," said Eugene Police Department Sgt. Ryan Nelson, who supervises the school resource officer team.
Everybody has their own opinion on the role of school resource officers, he said, but the primary goal is to have a point of contact at the schools in case police presence is needed.
EPD works with 4J and Bethel school districts and has a school resource officer in each of the high schools who not only is responsible for the high school, but also for all of the feeder schools that go into it. In case of an emergency, those resource officers will be the first ones to get involved, Nelson said.
"If I'm working or one of my folks at the school hear something go down on the radio, I might call my people and say, 'Hey put them on a lockout or lockdown.'"
A lockout is typically called by police when there's a situation nearby that could spill into the school — for example, a standoff down the street — and the school locks all of its doors to the outside. Other than that, the school day goes as usual.
"A lockdown would be different, where we would think there's a threat specific to the school," Nelson said. This would mean there's a potential threat within the school and is when students and staff go into the nearest room, lock the doors and typically turn off the lights and stay silent.
"Anybody can call those — usually it's gonna be your building administration," he said.
In both situations, Nelson stresses that consistent communication between school administration and police is crucial. When police arrive at a school, they should be clearly alerting administration to what's going on.
"The one thing that we teach is that information needs to flow so anybody who sees something needs to pass that information on," Nelson said.
But once that has happened, the situation turns over to law enforcement.
"Once law enforcement arrives on scene, whoever that first (officer is) is in charge," he said, which then can change as higher-ranking officers arrive at the scene.
To prepare for situations where a lockout or lockdown would be necessary or if the schools were to face an active threat, law enforcement and schools work together to do trainings on protocols.
Districts in Eugene and Springfield use the ALICE training — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate — developed by an Ohio-based training company.
EPD does trainings with Eugene's schools multiple times a year where they teach students and staff how to best react in a potentially threatening situation, and this fall they extended it to a "sizeable" group of substitute teachers in 4J.
Springfield School District also does ALICE training semi-annually, said district spokesperson Jenna McCulley, and the district works closely with Springfield Police Department. Each high school has a school resource officer that is responsible for those regions of the district, and staff have been able to access online ALICE training since last school year to use if they need a reminder of the protocol during the year.
However, Springfield still ensures each staff member has an opportunity to train in-person with law enforcement. "It just depends on how many new staff we have each year as to whether or not the full training is needed," McCulley said.
Junction City and Oakridge are the only two districts in the county that use the training through The "I Love You Guys" Foundation over the more popular ALICE, Morris said.
What parents should know about school safety in Oregon
The leading safety risk in Oregon's schools is not a threat of a school attack — which is actually fourth behind bullying, drugs and suicide based on the number of calls placed from January 2017 to November 2018 to SafeOregon, a statewide safe schools tip line.
The tip line took more than 2,800 tips in this time, with 898 of them being related to bullying, according to a 2019 legislative report from the Oregon Task Force on School Safety. Only 139 were to report a threat of a planned school attack, some of which could be duplicate tips for the same situation.
Nelson said he is woken up in the middle of the night almost monthly with a report of a potential school threat to address.
"It's pretty regular that we get information that may be on the face value seems it could be a threat, and we're able to track that down and dispel it or get in front of it before it actually happens," Nelson said.
Police get information about potential threats or situations that may come up at schools because kids will see something on social media and tell their parents, and the parents report it.
He said many of them aren't what police would consider credible threats because most kids don't recognize that what they're saying is serious until police step in to ask questions. However, parents always should report concerns if it seems like something bad could happen at their student's school.
"Every investigation is going to be different but about 99% of the time, by the time it's all said and done, we'll do a home visit to talk about guns, talk about weapons," Nelson said.
The goal is to understand what weapons may be available to students in the home or at least to explain to students why this could cause fear.
"In the end, my expectation for my team is that we're gonna actually respond out there, talk to the parents, do face-to-face meetings," he said.
It's also important parents remember to sign up for their school district's notification system, which typically is listed on the district website, to get alerts and updates.
"We're going to follow the lead of the law enforcement agency in terms of what information we're allowed to share to parents," said Brian Young, co-principal of Junction City High School. "We'll try to get information out to parents as quickly as we can."
Parents also should avoid showing up at the school or calling immediately whenever there is an alert that goes out about an incident, said Young and Nelson, because this can mix up communications between schools and police.
"I'm a parent, so I understand the first response is you want to show up at the school and make sure your kids are all right," Young said, but it could just cause more confusion in an emergency.
Rebuilding communication in Junction City
Following the May incident, Junction City Police and the school district realized there had been a change in the strong working relationship they once had when the district used to ask police to come in and help run drills in the schools.
"I would say we kind of let that slip for the better part of maybe a year," at least at the high school, Young said. But district administration and the department leaders met in August to get on the same page and review procedures used in schools in case of a lockdown or lockout.
District leadership also plans to pull together a calendar of when their drills will be in fall and winter so they can loop police back into that.
"We want all of our officers to be familiar with our buildings," Young said. "We're just trying to strengthen that working relationship with them."
Morris, the Junction City police chief, also echoed this. "We have met with the school district," he said. "I'm hopeful we can fix the communication problems and move forward."
This will be made a bit easier with the new alert system the two agencies are working to put in place and start using in the coming months. The system allows police to use pre-written texts and emails to quickly send an alert directly to district and school leadership.
One example of a prepared message is: "JCPD is advising Junction City High School to go into lockout based on an issue that's happening outside the school."
It's only a one-way notification system, meaning staff inside the school can't send an alert to police through the same program in the event of say, a lockdown, which is almost always called by school staff. So school staff will have to still contact police directly, but police also can then put the other schools on notice that there's a situation and have all four of them on the same page.
"That will be huge for our community," Young said, "because it had gotten more challenging here lately."
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