A principal recounts how a tech tool helped ensure clear communication during an initial emergency--later revealed as an active shooter hoax.

How our school handled the chaos of an active shooter hoax


A principal recounts how a tech tool helped ensure clear communication during what staff and police believe to be a school emergency

Key points:

  • Every moment is critical during a school emergency, and having the right tools is a must
  • An emergency response app helped one school leader receive and deploy clear communication

I was in a meeting when I heard the sirens. I immediately excused myself and saw the first squad car screech to a halt in front of our doors and knew it was bad. The police department had just received a call saying there was an active shooter somewhere at Spanish Fork High School and two students were deceased.  

As it turns out, we were the victim of a coordinated hoax that targeted schools throughout Utah and other states, but for the next 24 minutes, this was our reality and as principal, I had to act. My emotions almost got the better of me; not only do I care deeply about each and every one of our 1,469 students, I also have a daughter who was in class just down the hall. I almost lost my motor skills but was able to pull my phone from my pocket to instantly lock down the school with the push of a button and watch our emergency plan unfold almost flawlessly before my eyes.   

To fully understand the importance and power of that simple act, we need to take a step back. I have been the school’s principal for four years. Although we had published an emergency plan and conducted drills four or five times every year, from day one, I felt there was something off or missing from those plans. We had the standard procedures and instructions for locking classrooms, counting students and making announcements on the PA system, but nothing that would help us know what is happing in the moment, coordinate actions between law enforcement and school administrators or communicate with teachers and staff to effectively manage the chaos.  

A few months ago, I was approached by a former student who wanted to introduce me to a technology called AEGIX AIM (Active Incident Management) that other schools have implemented to address the very challenges I was worried about. We received approval from the district to install and pilot the software. As fate would have it, we finished rolling it out and conducted staff training on it exactly one week before the active shooter hoax was perpetrated.   

AIM has an app that is installed on the phones of all administrators, teachers, and staff at the high school. Our local first responders including the police department, sheriff’s department and fire department all are on the platform as well. Within the app, there is a map of the five buildings that make up our campus. When an emergency happens, which can range from an injury in the gym, a flood in the cafeteria, or an active shooter, anyone on the system can report the emergency or initiate a lockdown, like I did that day. 

When I hit lockdown, everyone on the system heard an alarm on their phones and saw that the school was in lockdown. Teachers knew they needed to push a big button to report themselves and their classroom as “safe” or “unsafe.” If they are safe, their classroom shows up on the interactive map as green, if unsafe, it is red. The system also has a chat feature that proved absolutely critical during the emergency. We had students who were in other teachers’ classrooms and staff that were alone in offices or bathrooms. Teachers and administrators were able to clearly communicate with each other to quickly account for every person on campus. 

Earlier, I said the plan unfolded almost flawlessly. We had one teacher who accidentally pushed “unsafe,” teachers across the hall messaged her to make sure and she immediately changed her status to the correct one.  

Not only was I able to see my daughter’s classroom light up in green, because law enforcement has the app, they watched with me as every classroom and building on campus report in as “safe.”  

During the event, students were naturally on their phones as well and social media was doing nothing to help the situation. False reports and rumors were adding to the fear, confusion and anxiety, but teachers were able to hold up their phones and say to students, “This is what’s real, and this is what’s happening,” which served to calm nerves and minimize chaos.  

Lt. Cory Slaymaker of the Spanish Fork Police Department was monitoring the situation through the app as well. He learned that other agencies around the state were receiving similar threats and after 24 of the longest minutes of my life, he sent a message through the AIM app that the active shooter threat was a hoax and what the next steps were to be. The police were clearing the classrooms as per procedure. Lt. Slaymaker was able to give peace of mind by telling those huddled together behind locked classroom doors or isolated by themselves in bathrooms, stairwells and offices that this is a hoax, stay calm, we’ll get to you soon.  

We count ourselves fortunate that this situation turned out the way it did, especially knowing that too many threats are not hoaxes. I take solace in the fact that I can, as an educator and parent, say to the parents of my students that our school has the training and the tools to help keep their children safe. 

Related:
Focusing on upstream prevention can stem school violence
Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best: School leadership for emergencies

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