In the event of a crisis at a Natrona County school — like an active shooter — officials consult a flowchart to determine what to do next, part of a new process rolled out in August.
If there is an active shooter or any other sort of immediate danger, the school’s administrators would call 911 immediately.
“They don’t worry about the process at that point,” Tom Ernst, the director of student support services at the Natrona County School District, told the board of trustees at a work session last week.
But if the danger is not immediate, then the official — likely a principal — will follow the protocol. They’ll call the necessary administrator at the district offices — which can vary depending on whether it’s a student, staff, facility or transportation issue.
The next steps include notifying the district spokeswoman, Tanya Southerland, who will work on putting out a statement to media, families and the community.
In the case of a threat reported to a school official — and when the threat doesn’t appear to be “imminent and very serious” — the school will call Ernst, who will determine whether a lockout is necessary. In lockouts, the doors to the facility are locked and the students are brought inside, but business continues as usual within the school walls.
A lockdown is more strict: Students and staff shelter in place within the building. Lockdowns occur during the rare instance of an active and immediate threat to the school.
On Nov. 16 — less than 72 hours after the board discussed the protocol — three west Casper schools were placed on a lockout after a person was reported to have a gun in the area. Police investigated and determined the weapon was a BB gun held by a Roosevelt High School student.
In many cases, the road leads to law enforcement. If the person who made the threat cannot be determined — Ernst gave the example of something written on a bathroom wall — then the police are immediately called. If the person is able to be determined, then he or she is held in a “safe and private location,” Ernst said, to begin the inquiry process. The parents of the accused and victims are notified.
The student is interviewed, and officials will determine whether the threat is transient — meaning something made in passing or a statement that the accused doesn’t have the means to carry out — or substantive, meaning a threat that has credibility, is directed and could be carried out.
Ernst said the majority of school-related threats made across the country are transient.
The response to substantive threats is more rapid and serious: Police are notified, as are affected parents. Due process is ensured for the accused, who may be suspended to student support services for 10 days. A mental health expert may conduct an “in-depth evaluation” of the accused, Ernst said. The student may be recommended for expulsion further down the road depending on other details.
Asked what happens with students during the 10-day suspensions, Ernst said that was a good question. He told the board that the district needed to determine what student support services’ job was.
“Right now — I’m going to editorialize and I apologize — right now, it’s kind of a warehouse, OK? ... Right now, there’s not a whole lot going on. We don’t have the resources,” he said.
Threats can also be judged as serious — like students saying they plan to beat somebody up — or very serious — like if a student has a map or the means to conduct an attack. Ernst acknowledged that the classifications — serious and very serious — sound strange.
Board member Debbie McCullar asked Ernst what the time difference is between when he gets a call and when officials or authorities respond. Ernst replied that “recent events” suggested there was a flaw in response time and that officials had tweaked the protocol to make it as quick as possible.
He referenced a recent talk given by Alissa Parker, whose 6-year-old daughter was a student at Sandy Hook Elementary and was killed in the December 2012 mass shooting there. Ernst told the board that Parker said a faster response time could’ve saved lives, and the Natrona County School District had worked to speed up its protocol after her talk in early October.
“Delay in response can be us — personnel in the school district,” added Superintendent Steve Hopkins. “It can also be those in the community who are aware of the information and don’t come forward quickly.”
He urged anyone who knew of any threats to act on it quickly and “not try to judge for themselves if it were a joke or real.”