The quick response of Jamestown Public Schools following a report that a man had been spotted with a handgun outside of Jamestown High School on May 23 was the product of practice and training, said Robert Lech, superintendent of Jamestown Public Schools.
Within less than 45 minutes from the time of the initial report, all of Jamestown Public Schools went into lockdown, local law enforcement was notified, the suspect was located and detained and later transported to the North Dakota State Hospital, parents were notified through an automated message from the school district and the lockdown was lifted following an all-clear from law enforcement. No one was injured.
"We were very impressed with the efforts and the work of our school officials and our teachers and our staff," Lech said Wednesday. "And certainly the response from law enforcement was amazing."
"We were really happy with the way our staff responded according to the protocols," said Adam Gehlhar, principal of Jamestown High School. "We responded exactly the way that we needed to."
'That's why we drill'
Lech and Gehlhar agreed that the incident showed the value of practicing lockdown drills during the school year.
"It shows that drills are important and when you practice you have a much better opportunity to respond appropriately," Lech said. "From my standpoint, it's always nerve-racking when anything like that happens, but pretty quickly you fall back to protocol and procedure.
"That's why we drill - so we react with training and practice, not emotion."
"With my experience in the military, too, that's the reason you practice and train and repeat, so that in those stressful situations you can go back to that muscle memory and react appropriately," Gehlhar said.
North Dakota law requires schools to conduct at least one lockdown drill every year. One of the goals of the drill is to make sure internal and external communications happen quickly and "that all staff are aware of what's going on," Lech said.
Jamestown High School also has a building emergency response team that is trained to respond to hazardous situations, including fires, tornadoes or school shootings, Gehlhar said.
The staff members appointed to the team are typically those who would not be directly supervising children - custodians, counselors or administrators - who would have the flexibility to move and respond quickly in an emergency situation, he said.
The school district also has procedures in place to update parents in emergency situations as soon as it is safe to do so, Lech said. In the case of a potential school shooting, the school district defers to law enforcement's expertise on when it is safe to share information, he said.
"We work with law enforcement to determine what we can share, as soon as we can," Lech said. "Our focus will always be student safety. Once we have that handled and law enforcement gives us the go ahead, then we are able to share that information with parents.
"We appreciate, respect and understand that our parents and patrons want to get that information and we appreciate that they're willing to provide us with that flexibility."
'Time for reflection'
The incident on May 23 was not the first time the school district has had to go into a non-drill lockdown, but it was the first time the school district went into lockdown due to a potential school shooter, Lech said.
When asked about the rise of school shootings across the country in recent history, Lech said schools must "adapt to any potential incident that could happen."
"When the environment is what it is in terms of school safety, you're erring on the side of safety at all times," Lech said. "That's been our priority and it will continue to be our priority."
Having good relationships with students is particularly important in these types of situations, Gehlhar added.
"It's vitally important that we know and have relationships with our students because that helps us make connections throughout the school year when we're learning, but also when we need to make quick decisions in lockdown situations," Gehlhar said.
Immediately following the incident on May 23, school officials met to debrief what happened, what worked and what didn't work, Lech said. Then, on Wednesday, the school district held a full administrative team meeting to discuss the same things.
"There's always a time for reflection," he said. "What did we learn from this experience?"
Overall, the protocols were executed very well, but one area for improvement was communication to the other public schools that were instructed to lock down during the incident at the high school, Lech said.
"What happened at the high school was one thing, and everyone was pretty clear about what was happening there, but the other buildings weren't as clear about what was happening," Lech said.
The school district is looking at ways to improve communication to all Jamestown public schools in lockdown situations, with the understanding that it might not be safe to communicate everything right away.
"How do we make sure that when we communicate it out to those buildings, there's an understanding of what's happening and the significance of what's happening?" Lech said. "For the most part, it comes down to how we are communicating, how we are involving all levels of communication and how quickly things happen."