Yakima Deputy Superintendent Shares Lessons Learned After Fatal School Parking Lot Shooting
After a teen was tragically shot and killed, the Yakima School District conducted an after-action review to determine failures and successes in its response.
On March 15, 2022, 16-year-old Shawn Dwight Tolbert was fatally shot following an altercation between two groups of teens in the parking lot at Eisenhower High School in Yakima, Washington.
As with all campus incidents, the district did a full after-action review of the shooting and the school’s subsequent response. It was determined a security monitor gave incorrect information regarding the location of the shooting, sending police, EMS, district security, and school administration away from the scene instead of toward it.
Stacey Locke, Deputy Superintendent of the Yakima School District, told Campus Safety that this error caused delays in providing medical services and in apprehending the shooter (00:27). Locke and her team worked together to determine how the district can eliminate this mistake during future emergencies.
“The quickness at which we can respond to an incident makes all the difference in the world,” she said. “We [determined] we needed a solution that would indicate where an incident took place and provide us a seamless communication to alert all staff members. We did end up finding a system that would do just that.”
The district adopted a Bluetooth-enabled wearable badge with real-time location service capabilities for all staff members to initiate an emergency response while also pinpointing the exact location or locations of an incident.
In this interview, Locke further discusses the school’s error in its response and how the district has since fixed its emergency response plans to prevent similar mistakes from occurring in future incidents (08:00).
Locke also shared:
- The school’s many successes in its response (11:11)
- How she encourages her district employees to create a culture of safety through a layered approach (13:16)
- How the new technology adopted by the district following the incident has helped in other emergencies (16:56)
- Recommendations for schools or districts considering adopting similar location-enabled technology (20:57)
The full interview transcript is below and includes subhead descriptions to help break up the discussion into easily digestible parts.
Amy Rock (00:00): I’m here today with Stacy Locke, deputy superintendent for the Yakima School District in Washington, and we’re going to talk about lessons learned in an incident response. To give our readers context to our discussion, can you discuss what happened in a school parking lot in March of 2022? And although I want to highlight what went right in the district’s incident response since that’s just as important, can you discuss what did go wrong in the response?
Stacey Locke (00:27): Yes. March, 2022, just absolutely unthinkable incident in which we had a young man shot and killed. What we found was there was gaps in our original safety plan. We needed a solution that would indicate where an incident took place and provide us a seamless communication to alert all staff members. And we did end up finding a system that would do just that.
But what really went wrong to lead us to that was that we were trying to evacuate the campus and avoid escalating the incident and notifying everybody that needed to be involved. So we had a school safety monitor that sent everybody in the wrong direction. He said to go south instead of east, and that caused a lot of time for the [shooter] to escape from us.
In addition, he could have been sending people into the actual fray that was occurring. And so when that happened, we sat down, we debriefed, we have all these layers in place, and we said, “What are we going to do to eliminate this gap?” Because this is pretty serious when we have a shooting in our school and we have a security monitor sending everybody the wrong direction. And what we learned was slight delays can make all the difference. And so we had been exploring a product, looking for a product that was not an app. We didn’t want something that was app based because if you don’t have your phone, you don’t have the app. And we also didn’t want one that had to have cellular connectivity because of cellular issues throughout our different buildings and the inability to be able to get that link.
So we ended up coming upon a badge that was Bluetooth enabled, so it wasn’t held captive to an app and not held captive to connectivity with a wireless system. And in doing that, we had a long conversation with the company and ended up implementing that shortly after the shooting incident.
Amy Rock (03:08): Yeah, connectivity issues are obviously a big issue with more common incidents like medical emergencies and certain technologies are great because they do take out that possibility of human error because mistakes happen and I don’t envy people in emergency situations having to make those decisions and communications to people on campus. So it’s good to implement some sort of technology that kind of takes out that human error piece.
Stacey Locke (03:36): Well, and one thing about it, we wear ID badges and it sets with my ID badge, we all have ID badges, and it’s the same size basically as my ID badge. And the other key part of it is if the button is pushed three times, it will alert exactly where that person is standing. We know exactly that there’s an incident that is occurring there and we don’t know whether it’s medical, we don’t know whether it’s just an altercation that needs to be addressed, but pushing it three times will get help immediately within the building. If you push it eight plus times, it will actually put the entire facility into lockdown. So whether you’re at the district office or whether you are in a school building, you have that ability if you see something that you think is life threatening, you have the authority to go ahead and put the entire building into lockdown.
And that’s what’s so cool about this is in implementation of this, with everybody voluntarily choosing to take a badge, we now have 2,000 more eyes and ears on safety and security in the Yakima School District and the Yakima community, which is huge because typically you only have your SROs or your SSOs and your administrators all the time on point watching to make sure everything’s safe. Now every employee in our district not only can see something, but they can actually respond to it, whether it’s in medical emergency or some type of potentially violent situation.
Amy Rock (05:18): And we’ve seen time and time again, the importance of pinpointing the location of an emergency. So like Parkland, there was a delay in communication with walkie-talkies and people were confused about where the incident was, and the guy had been off campus for a significant amount of time before there was a response.
That technology is also huge — I’ve found in my discussions with people like yourself — for first responders, because if you say, “Oh, the threat is in the cafeteria,” that might be common sense to someone who works there. They know where to go or where to stay away from. But a first responder might not know exactly the map of the school. Hopefully most schools are communicating with first responders in their communities so that they can know the layout of a school but having that exact location pinpointed is just huge.
Stacey Locke (06:08): Well, and with us, our motto is “Time matters.” And so anybody that puts a school in lockdown, our police also receive that. There’s an app on the phone on the backend that says, “If there is an alert, I will get it.” And so throughout the day, in fact, I have three right here where they were doing drills. We have to do drills in Washington, but it tells me whether it’s a shelter in place, they’re doing all clear, they’ve reopened it, they closed it, and our police, they will get the lockdown part. So somebody pushes the button eight plus times, the police on their phone and our dispatch all get that alert, and it’s already pinpointed exactly where that incident is occurring.
And so it used to be that we had numbers on the outside of the buildings and the windows, and then the police also have maps of every building, et cetera, et cetera. This device actually will allow that to be like, boom, when it happens, you’re right there, you know exactly what’s going on. So that response time is improved drastically just by that ability. And so when we were looking at our layered approach to safety and security, this was the one piece that really helped gel everything together.
Amy Rock (07:41): I did want to note that I really do like your motto, “Time matters.” I don’t know if you use that for non-emergency scenarios too, but I feel like it really does apply to everything, whether it’s an emergency or also just teaching students to spend their time wisely. What you do with your time is important. It’s kind of an all-encompassing motto. It’s clever.
And now in addition to that type of technology, have there been different ways that you’ve been able to improve your emergency response plan?
Stacey Locke (08:07): Yeah, absolutely. And like I said, we looked at a layered approach and it became very clear after the shooting that we had gaps. So we get a team together, we review, we collect the data on the work that we’re doing to decide what’s going next. So we have a variety of layers.
One is we have as many people do an anonymous tip line in an app for parents, students, and staff. We also have our own armed school security officer program, and they’re required to have at least 10 years of commissioned police officer experience. So when we bring them in, they’ve already had the academy training and all kinds of training requirements. And then what we do is continue to train and improve their response in a school setting.
Other thing is cameras throughout all of our campuses, and again, reviews and updating from the analog camera situation to digital camera situations. Technology changes so fast, Amy. I mean, it’s a revolving door. And so what’s important to us is to have cameras that are clear and cameras that will follow so that we can pinpoint certain situations. We just had a second school shooting here about a month ago, and we were able to capture at the south end of the building the car, the license plate of the vehicle that the shooter was in. And I can’t say enough about cameras and their current abilities.
The other thing we have is the layer of interior and exterior door locks for access control. We have vestibules at all of our school entrances so that you have to buzz in. You can’t just walk in, you have to be able to identify yourself. Safety lighting is really key. Fencing in a variety of places, teachers have panic buttons on their desk, but right now, if you’re wearing this badge, it’s with you, which is much better because it’s kind of concealed, and when you push this, nobody really knows what you’re doing. And all of a sudden help will arrive, and it’s like, “How’d that happen?”
We also have a parent app that has real-time updates. I know that when there are situations, parents hear that a school went into lockdown, I mean, they’re very anxious and very nervous. The worst thing we can have is everybody converging on the school because then first responders cannot get through the traffic to get to the incident. And then we also have immediate media releases again to reduce the anxiety among people as to exactly what’s happening and what’s going on.
Amy Rock (11:11): Now, I feel the media especially, but people like focusing on the mistakes, and it can be hard to talk about for a campus that has experienced an incident like a shooting, like so many have. But in the first incident, can you actually share what the school did right in its emergency response?
Stacey Locke (11:28): Many things went right — it was just the one gap that we identified. We had excellent police response to the incident. We had excellent communication when it went out to putting different schools in lockdown, clearing the area. It was after school, so we had kids out on the stadium field practicing. So all the audio, the visual, all the notifications worked perfectly. We got kids inside, we got doors lock.
As far as our reunification plan, once we identified who the shooters were, who we were looking for, and that everybody was safe, the search through the building went really well. And then as far as connecting kids, notifying parents exactly what was happening, what was going on in real-time. And then we had to take our kids that we had within the building to a reunification site. And this occurred when elementary schools were getting out of school, so you had busing situations where we had excellent communication with transportation as to where they would pick up and drop off, and then where we would reunify students to connect with their parents.
And so again, having people down by our elementary schools, directing traffic, keeping everybody calm, communicating exactly what’s happening and what’s going on, everything else went well. It was just that notification piece and putting people in the right spots at the right time.
Amy Rock (13:16): And now since the incident, you’ve come up with various steps that you’ve encouraged your district to follow to create a culture of safety. And we had mentioned a layered approach, and you mentioned some with fencing and others, but can you discuss the steps that you took to create a multi-layer approach and why you believe it’s so important?
Stacey Locke (13:35): You bet. So the first thing you have to do as a school district is adopt safety and security as the number one priority for your school district. In our school district, everything floats through a lens of safety and security. It’s important for K-12 leaders to understand the importance of unity and creating an environment where safety is also a shared responsibility with all staff. And oftentimes, as I said earlier, that safety falls to your SROs, your school safety officers, school monitors, and your administrators. But in order to really embrace a cultural safety, the real key is that it’s a shared responsibility among all staff.
What the device does that you’re wearing, the card that you’re wearing around your neck, that gives the onus to everybody to be involved in safety. And we have 11 unions in our school district, and they pushed back against the requirement to wear the badge. So we educated everybody on the importance, what it does do, how it can help you. And we had over 90% agree to voluntarily wear the badge. That was last year. This year, we’re probably around 97%. We’ve had people that [originally] said no that now see the benefit of wearing it and having the ability to keep your students and yourself safe.
And because the badge works 24/7, if you’re a teacher working late at night and we have some schools that maybe aren’t in the best part of town, you can actually click that button eight times — the sirens, the lights will go off and help will arrive, which means that you are, as an employee of ours on campuses, safe for 24/7, which I think is really important. In essence, everything flows through that lens, and then you begin to create the safety layers to what we believe is the ultimate in safety that keeps all students and staff safe. And again, our latest layer is the badge and it’s Bluetooth and it’s working quite well.
The other layers are the vestibules and all that kind of stuff, and everything just builds on each other. But with this badge in place, we’re well-rounded at this point in all our additional layers. And again, like I said, we have 2,000 eyes on our students and staff. You could have transportation drive up to or come up onto a building, and let’s say they see somebody jumping over a fence with a gun, they can immediately put that school in lockdown. That would never have existed before. When you think about Stoneman Douglas, you think about Uvalde, the fact that you could have alerted people and put them in a lockdown much sooner would’ve made a world of difference in saving lives. So that’s why it’s beneficial, and that’s why we’ve done it.
Amy Rock (16:56): Now most of our readers and educators know that incidents such as medical emergencies are far more common than incidents like school shootings. Can you speak to other incidents in which the changes that were made following the March 2022 incident made an impact?
Stacey Locke (17:15): Well, if I understand what you’re saying, you’re right. Over 90% of the time it’s going to be a medical situation. And that’s what we found. Just yesterday, we had one of our employees go down here at Central Services and I was in a superintendent’s meeting and a notification immediately told me exactly where it was at. Took off going that way. We ended up getting this person medical help as well as getting the ambulance here immediately to provide that support. And again, not being able to respond, time matters. That’s all I can say. The quickness at which we can respond to an incident makes all the difference in the world.
Probably the most notable one we had was a couple days or a day after the training at one of our middle school sites, we had an incident where we had a counselor that was behind a locked door, and with her medical emergency, the keys on the phone were going blurry and she could not see to get help. And what she managed to do, though, is push the button. She remembered to push the button on the badge — because she had — one three times. At that point, it alerted one of our assistant principals who went to the office to look, noticed the door was locked, and she was down behind her desk. So he gets his key, opens it up, she’s having a heart attack, we get help immediately. Long story short, she’s okay. Now, if she had not been able to alert him, who knows how long it would’ve been behind that locked door and passed out behind your desk. Nobody would’ve saw her for, goodness gracious, I don’t know how long. And that could have turned out very tragically.
And so when you think about the power that one little badge has to get help, it’s just what price can you put on a life? You just can’t. We’re very proud of the fact that our employees have embraced it, that they’re using it. And again, there’s always that element of training that takes place, so we just keep working on it. And again, we’re very excited about the circle that it’s given us to close gaps that we were concerned about.
Amy Rock (19:47): I’m sure that specific incident convinced teachers who may have been hesitant to adopt the technology to be like, “You know what? I want that now.” Because naturally, I think this is terrible to say, but I think naturally people are selfish. And if you can find a way to say, “Hey, this is going to help you as well,” they’ll be more likely to do it. I’m so glad that she’s okay, but the fact that that happened literally the day after the training is crazy.
Stacey Locke (20:17): It’s just crazy. I truly believe that’s divine intervention, and that’s what I told our employees. I said, “You need to understand we’re giving this to you because we value you and we value your ability to make decisions based on life-threatening situation.” And somebody said, “Will we get disciplined if we do something wrong?.” I go, “No, you have full authority to use this as you see fit. If there are situations where we can train on it, yeah, absolutely, we’ll use certain incidences to train on. But overall, we believe in you as employees to keep not only yourself, but also all our students safe during the day.”
Amy Rock (20:57): Now, you’ve gone through the process obviously, of selecting a location services vendor technology. In your opinion, if a school or district is trying to select wearable incident response badges, what do you think that they should look for in a solution or ensure that a solution has?
Stacey Locke (21:16): The key is that it’s not app-based, it’s not Wi-Fi-based. And if you have a building, like we have in some of our buildings, you have connectivity issues, that pushes out the app. I would suggest, beyond a shadow of doubt, you look for a Bluetooth device that you can guarantee will work all the time, and that it’s not app based. Again, carrying phones and having an app and all this stuff is not productive. It’s never where you want it to be. It’s kind of like the supervisor on the playground and they need to respond to a situation and the phone or the radio is sitting 20 feet away because they put it down to do something else. You don’t have that problem If you’re wearing a badge — it’s always with you. Some people wear it around their neck, some people hook it to their pants, and you just want it visible so you can get to it. You don’t want it in your wallet or in your back pocket or something like that.
But we’ve been impressed, even in the classroom when we have student behavior where a child will run. The cool part about it is you can give an alert to say, “Hey, I’m here. I need help.” If the student is running, you just click it again every couple of seconds, three times, and it will track where you’re going so that not only the help won’t come right there, they will follow where you’re at, so the help will be there where you’re at instead of where you were. There’s some really cool parts about it in the evolution of that technology. And again, changing every day, but my suggestion would be Bluetooth — something that is a wearable on you and not app-based.
Amy Rock (23:18): The pace that technology changes, it’s great because improving, but in your position especially, it’s just so hard to keep up with because you think that once you have something in place, you’re like, “Okay, I’m good for a while,” and then you’re like, “Oh, there’s another update, or another cool something — AI advancement.” But it’s obviously great that these changes are being made, but it is a very fast-paced world.
Stacey Locke (23:43): Well, and in schools, I mean, money matters. Time matters and money matters. And so when you’re looking to implement some of these layers of safety, that’s why I say we had to make safety our number one priority because then when you look through that lens, you make different budgetary decisions. And some of that stuff, the hardscape like the fencing, the vestibule, some of that, that’s a one-time expense, but the technology, as it keeps changing and as we have to keep up with it, yeah, that’s an ongoing product cost. And you only have so much money. You have a finite amount of money, so where are you going to spend it? And I realize in school districts across country, that those are difficult decisions. But I may be a little biased, but I just think about what price you put on a life. And students need to be in school if they’re going to learn, and if they’re afraid to come to school, they’re not going to learn anything, so we really take that approach.
Amy Rock (24:49): And you said money matters. That should be the second part of your school motto, because sadly, it’s true in all parts of life. We’ve got to teach kids young.
Stacey Locke (24:58): Yes, we do.
Amy Rock (25:01): Thanks so much for chatting with me. I can’t imagine the stress that everyone on your staff was under with the campus shooting. Knock on wood, my kids are in school, as a parent I haven’t had to deal with anything like that yet. It probably changes people’s lives in a lot of way, even if the outcome isn’t as tragic as the ones that you hear about in the news — it just keeps you very aware of everything.
Stacey Locke (25:27): Yeah, yeah. No, it is. And we have a great security staff and security team that we’ve homegrown and built and are committed to keeping everyone safe. And again, back when school districts had ESSER funding with COID, we chose at that time, because we knew it was one-time funding, to make some investments and safety and security. And that, I think is going really help us in the long run when budgets get really tight.
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