When someone threatens a school, two worlds collide. In one, faculty are locked inside working to keep students safe. In the other, families are stuck outside, desperate to reunite with their children.
No matter how much prep and training take place, school threats happen. One instance came on November 12, 2020 at Gateway Charter High, when a student threatened a mass shooting. Principal Amber Jensen says the possibility of danger is always in the back of her mind.
“I actively think about it every day,” Jensen admits. “And as I walk around, I’m aware of how people are reacting and acting to situations and making sure that people follow protocols.”
The first part of a threat is getting the threat itself.
When school faculty learns of one, they immediately begin gathering information and contact law enforcement.
“Once the threat is communicated with LCSO, we work collaboratively through the whole thing,” Jensen says. “But they really take over, because it becomes a criminal issue.”
At that point, school staff takes a step back. Lockdown procedures in Florida are simple and strict.
“The doors are automatically locked. So they remain locked,” Jensen says. “No students go in or out of the classroom. A lockdown is: Nobody is entering or exiting.”
Communication specialist Colleen Reynolds says, that’s also the moment the school starts reaching out to parents.
“Our goal is to get as much accurate information to parents as we can, as quickly as we can,” Reynolds explains.
But it’s the Sheriff’s Office that decides exactly what information to send out to the public.
“We are following the law every single time and we are following every step that we have to take to keep everyone safe,” Reynolds reassures. “We rely heavily on what law enforcement will allow us to say.”
Michelle D’Amico has two kids who have been in the Gateway system for almost 10 years. She’ll never forget that day; stress and panic ended with the Sheriff’s office arresting a 14-year-old for texting the threat.
“School safety… You do everything you can, and you pray every night that there’s not gonna be an incident,” Sheriff Carmine Marceno said after the arrest was made.
“It’s definitely a scary situation! You feel helpless,” D’Amico admits. “At that point, you have to believe they’ll do everything that they can.”
Parents feel helpless in part because once the school went into lockdown, parents started getting texts and calls from kids inside. And those students probably don’t know exactly what’s going on.
“Their children are going to text them things that may or may not be true,” Reynolds says. “What they have to do is listen to the messages that they’ve got.”
Inside the school, faculty is locked down as well. They stay with students in the most protected, secure areas of schools. While the administration is in contact with law enforcement, they can’t send out information without permission. It can be an agonizing wait for anxious parents.
“It’s very difficult to stay patient and calm with any situation like that because you feel helpless,” D’Amico says. “Of course it was a lot of anxiety. A lot of friends texting back and forth.”
Educators inside the school feel the parents’ pain.
“The students are communicating to their parents that they’re on lockdown, and the parents are panicked and they want to know why,” Jensen laments. “But we can’t compromise an investigation.”
“I’m going to give you the information that I can. We gave you everything that we can give you,” Reynolds states. “Would you prefer that I called you or took care of the children?”
And just because law enforcement swarms a school doesn’t mean parents should do the same.
“Understand that you’re not getting into the school,” Reynolds cautions. “You’re not gonna be able to get your child. When that school is closed down for code red, nobody goes in, nobody goes out.”
The investigative process for law enforcement can take minutes or hours, but after the school is deemed safe, children can finally run into the loving arms of their parents.
“It was just a big relief. It was a sign of relief,” D’Amico explains. “But you were angry to think that somebody did that.”
“It’s a huge sigh of relief and very emotional,” Jensen adds. “And a lot of tears.”
Experts say long before a school threat occurs, parents can help with safety. Patience and understanding can go a long way in bridging the gap between faculty inside the school and parents outside.
“You have to trust in me, you have to trust that I have your student’s safety as my primary concern,” Jensen says. “I will do everything I can to make sure they get home to you at night.”