We weren’t far from campus, driving back from an off-site event, when two police and sheriff patrol vehicles sped past us at what must have been well over 100 mph. My first fear was that one of our students was in a car accident. But pulling into the middle-school entrance, my heart sank further as it became clear that there had been a shooting, decimating many students’ and staff’s feelings of school safety. We saw first responders tending to a victim outside the building and watched a terrifying scene of ambulances, fire trucks and armed law enforcement arriving from surrounding towns.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, a local sheriff had thankfully already taken the shooter into custody. Later, we’d learn that two students and a custodian were injured by a Rigby Middle School sixth-grader. It could only have been divine intervention that we had no loss of life.
As horrific as that morning in May 2021 was, it was just the beginning of the trauma our school district and community would have to work through over the ensuing weeks and months. My hope is that by sharing what we’ve learned and the physical changes to school safety we made in the aftermath, we can help other schools in their own efforts to improve safety and preparedness.
As superintendent of the Jefferson County School District 251 in Rigby, Idaho, I oversee six elementary, two middle and two high schools with a combined attendance of some 6,500 students. Our Rigby Middle School, where the shooting occurred, shares a campus with one of the high schools as well as our district office. At the time of the incident, roughly 3,000 students attended classes at the site.
While we’ve always prepared for threat response, most of us never really expected to face an actual active-shooter situation. But that morning the actions of our staff were amazing, from quickly assisting victims to implementing lockdown protocols, evacuating middle-school students to the high school and rushing to set up tents where families could reunify with their children.
Likewise, law enforcement arrived on scene within minutes of the first 911 call and worked together as a multi-agency team. Our bus drivers waited on call the entire day so they could help wherever needed. Local businesses dropped off water and food. Surrounding districts sent counselors. We’re so grateful for all of them.
We learned many lessons that day but made some mistakes along the way. Here are a few of each and the changes we made as a result.
Prepare for the moment the shooting stops
Although we had actively trained for a lockdown, we had never completely planned for the aftermath. In the chaos, we forgot to expediently release students at the high school when the site was deemed safe.
We also didn’t plan for clean-up efforts. When the sheriff called me late that night to say they had cleared the scene, I realized we couldn’t expect colleagues of our injured custodian to come back on-site, so several of my own staff helped me take care of it.
We also hadn’t considered when to bring students back — do we wait days, weeks? In our case, the shootings occurred on a Thursday, we called teachers back the following Monday and restarted classes on Tuesday. Today, we have concrete plans in place for what to do next.
Temper knee-jerk reactions with compromise
Four months after the shooting, another student brought a weapon to school. In both of our incidents, guns came into the building in backpacks. Our response initially was to ban backpacks — not only to prevent entry of a weapon but to ease the anxiety of other students wondering what their peers might be hiding.
As it turned out, the ban was a bad idea. Our creative students resorted to all manner of book carriers, from shopping carts to baby buggies and even rolling M&M dispensers! Our solution evolved to allowing clear backpacks, a compromise that satisfied nearly everyone.
Stick with proven security solutions
Afterward, we were bombarded with security recommendations from all corners. We ultimately chose to focus available resources on solutions with the proven best outcomes.
For example, we decided against metal detectors after weighing their researched effectiveness against cost (for both initial outlay and on-going crew).
Get assistance from experts
Working with Navigate360, a school safety-solutions provider, we conducted safety audits and threat and security assessments of all facilities.
In addition to the perimeter security already in place, we fortified security at building entry points and at the classroom level. While we understand it’s not seamless to manage, teachers now keep classroom doors locked at all times.
Three resource officers stationed in the building are available in emergencies and continually train for a lockdown event.
Invest in trauma-informed training
We asked our outside vendor to provide ALICE training. The program uses a trauma-informed approach with a multi-option response, and it instructs how to best take the actions called out in the acronym: alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate.
Multiple staff achieved instructor certification, but I opted to do the first training myself to ensure the most consistent information delivery across the district.
I was admittedly apprehensive about running middle-school participants through scenarios (like shooting Nerf guns at each other) that mimicked what they had been through. There were indeed high emotions and some tears. But without fail, by the end of training, everyone felt that rather than having to hide in fear, they’re now empowered to participate in their own survival when faced with violence.
Throughout my career I’ve been supported by great people who work together, see each other regularly and all just want the best for their kids, our kids. While we never imagined the hell that would break out on that sunny, blue-sky day in May, we also could not have anticipated the community closeness, strength and depth of commitment and resolve that have been the heartening aftereffects.
Chad Martin has served as superintendent of Jefferson Joint School District 251 since 2018. He has held positions at the college level, as a middle-school principal and as a high-school English teacher. He holds an education specialist degree and a master’s degree in educational leadership. The district works with Navigate360 on school safety solutions.
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