2 threats in 2 weeks: Summit School District superintendent says protocols kept students safe, but messaging to parents could have been faster.
First, someone posted threats against Summit School District staff on Instagram, prompting an increased police presence at Summit County schools on Jan. 25. Then, in a separate incident less than two weeks later, someone called in a threat against the high school on Feb. 6, prompting a districtwide lockdown.
In the aftermath of these incidents, Superintendent Tony Byrd said Tuesday that he believes the school district took all necessary steps to ensure the safety of its students. But, he said he also recognizes that there are improvements that could be made — particularly more timely notifications to parents.
“I want to reassure people, safety is our No. 1 priority,” Byrd said, “and we define that as physical, emotional and intellectual safety.”
Through both incidents, school officials maintained close coordination with law enforcement officers investigating the threats, Byrd said. That coordination informed administrative decisions made to keep students safe, he said.
“This is the best place I’ve ever been in my career in terms of law enforcement, other social services and the school district all working together,” Byrd said.
Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons agreed that cross agency communication has been strong, especially throughout the response to the threatening call made against the high school on Feb. 6.
For several hours that day, school district leaders and Sheriff’s Office personnel huddled around a table at the Summit County Emergency Operations Center in Frisco to coordinate the law enforcement response, security protocols and communications with parents.
“We were there with school officials working at a table in one room, which was really beneficial,” FitzSimons said.
Still, the incidents prompted concern among many parents with children at the schools.
Yesenia McCauley first learned that something was happening at Summit High School on Monday, Feb. 6, when she received a call a few minutes after 10 a.m. from her 11th-grade daughter. But McCauley said her daughter had little to no service at the time — so she couldn’t reach her to find out if she was safe.
“I was absolutely devastated,” McCauley said. “My life was put on hold until I heard from her.”
With no information coming from the district itself, McCauley said she didn’t know if students had been hurt or if something horrible had happened. It wasn’t until a little after 10:20 a.m. that McCauley received notification from the Summit School District that students were safe and schools had entered lockdown.
Even once she had heard from the school district, McCauley said there was limited information. She said she spent much of the day on Facebook communicating with other parents, many of whom were corresponding with their children at school.
McCauley said as rumors — later found to be unsubstantiated — about a gunman or a bomb at the high school swirled, she feared the worst.
“I wish the school would have been more forthcoming about what was actually happening,” she said.
Meg Caldwell also found out about the incident on Feb. 6 from her high school student. Caldwell said her son texted her almost immediately when the school entered lockdown, asking her if she knew what was going on.
Throughout the day, Caldwell said she stayed in contact with her son, updating him with any information she had and telling him to listen to his teachers.
“I think they handled it as best they could,” Caldwell said. “As a parent, it’s alarming and upsetting, but you have to stay calm.”
While it took about an hour for the school district to first notify parents about the lockdown, which went into effect around 9:20 a.m., after that first message, the district communications were more regular, she said.
Caldwell said she also spent hours communicating with other parents on Facebook and monitoring social media for updates. She said there were rumors, including a misleading photo of man — who turned out to be a law enforcement officer — holding a gun outside the school, but she had faith that school officials would keep her children safe.
“I put my kids in public school, so I’m giving them my trust,” Caldwell said. “I was trying to go off what (officials) were saying, not what a bunch of high schoolers are saying.”
Having raised two children himself, Byrd said that he understands the worry these situations can cause parents.
“I get why people would be anxious. It’s very, very frightening,” the superintendent said. “I get why parents want to get as much communication as possible, and we’re going to continue to get better.”
Byrd explained that when an incident — such as threats being made against a school — occurs, the school district’s incident command team leaps into action. That team, made up of Byrd and about 10 other district officials, coordinates with law enforcement to determine the best way to keep students safe and align messaging to parents.
In addition to working to get the message out as soon as possible, the team has to make sure that the notification is accurate — meaning that students texting parents, social media and media outlets sometimes react faster, he said.
Accuracy is important, Byrd said, because the school district doesn’t want to provoke an unnecessary panic or interfere with an ongoing investigation by law enforcement.
When it comes to the Jan. 25 incident, for example, Byrd said the school district was in close communication with law enforcement as officers tried to locate the person suspected of making the threats on social media.
While at first law enforcement didn’t know exactly where the suspect was located, by the time it came time for open schools, it had become clear that the man — who was later arrested — was not in the county, Byrd said. He said if he sent a message to parents even 30 minutes earlier that day, without complete information, “I would have set off unnecessary panic across our system.”
The Sheriff’s Office has also noted that in complex situations, such as when responding to an unknown threat, information can take time to communicate.
“It is important for parents to realize, communication is never timely, and it’s never the right amount of words or the right words,” Sheriff FitzSimons said. “But everybody is doing the best they can in the moment, balancing response and communication.”
Byrd said that after the two incidents in the past two weeks, school district officials have discussed how they can adjust to be better at communication. He also noted that the past several years have been difficult for educators and asked the community to throw its support behind local teachers.
“We want to be faster. It wasn’t perfect,” Byrd said. “We hear people when they say that. We’re balancing speed with accuracy.”
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