Rigby Middle School Shooting: 7 Lessons Learned and 29 Recommendations for Improved Emergency Response
An after-action report from the May shooting at Rigby Middle School provides helpful insight into ways schools can prevent and respond to shootings.
Lesson 4: Clear communication is necessary for effective response and is dependent on adequate procedures, training, and tools.
The first areas that were locked down during the attack were classrooms within the immediate area of the initial attack. Nearby staff secured their areas and attempted to contact the front office so they could initiate lockdown procedures.
While the telephone system in the school had the capacity for an individual telephone to notify the entire school, it was not widely known or trained. As a result, the sitewide command to lockdown went out later than it could have had staff known to use this function on their phones.
- When applicable, it is recommended that all staff be empowered and trained to initiate emergency commands from their room phones to save critical response time.
- The lockdown notification was delivered from the front office through the PA system using the phrase, “Lockdown, locks, lights, out of sight. Lockdown, locks, lights, out of sight.” This phrase proved to be difficult to remember and relay during an emergency. It is recommended that a simpler phrase be used, such as “Lockdown, lockdown, lockdown.”
- It is recommended that emergency commands be dissimilar in sound to avoid confusion. As part of the response, the co-located high school campus was directed to “lock-out,” meaning it was supposed to lock its exterior doors to protect people inside. The response commands “lock-out” and “lockdown” were confused and resulted in significant information gaps as the high school locked down instead of locked-out. Because the high school went into lockdown, they did not answer school phones as this was the protocol for lockdown situations. Under the ISCRS system, the equivalent directive to lock-out is referred to as a “hall check,” which is easily distinguishable from “lockdown.”
- Campuses should assess their grounds to determine if there are any coverage gaps in their notification systems. Two portables being used by the high school at the time of the incident were disconnected from both the middle school and high school PA systems. Once the attack moved outside, the occupants of the portables were able to observe some of the events but did not hear the lockdown notification. Staff members were able to render aid to a wounded student but the students remaining in the portable classrooms had not been notified to lockdown.
- Schools and districts should employ multi-modal, mass communications tools to notify parents, employees and off-campus students during an emergency. School telephones in the district were not an effective means of communication due to the high call volume at the middle school and the lack of unaffected personnel to staff phone lines. Several facilities within the district reported failures of both incoming and outgoing phone calls. Consequently, external communication was primarily accomplished by the district’s emergency notification system, which incorporated mass text, email, and telephone calls to parents and reached more parents in a more efficient manner than any single method would have.
- Parents should be notified about the status of their children as soon as it can be determined through a variety of methods. The first priority of communication was to reach out to emergency contacts of injured students and staff. Soon after, parents/guardians of uninjured students were notified using several methods. At the reunification center, students were encouraged to contact their parents using their personal cell phones and to share their phones with friends so they could do the same. A mass notification was also sent to all parents letting them know that if they had not been previously contacted, their student was confirmed to be safe, helping to reduce anxiety for parents of uninjured students and allowing for a smoother reunification process.
- Districts should work with local response agencies to develop district-wide, interoperable communications systems. There was no interoperable radio system in place at Rigby at the time of the incident. The location of the attack resulted in a multi-site, multi-agency response with no unified communications plan. No unified communication system in place meant most communications required face-to-face interaction between agency representatives or cell phones used between buildings.
- It is recommended that schools employ wayfinding signage, credentialling, and surveillance monitors to convey critical information to emergency responders during the initial response phases. The use of passively monitored surveillance displays in the front office at Rigby helped to gain awareness of the developing incident, including identifying the location of the attack, victims, and that there was only one attacker. Responding officers also reported it was easy to differentiate staff from parents, volunteers, and observers because of the obvious identification badges worn by staff. On the contrary, responding officers reported difficulty wayfinding inside the school. Rooms with wounded individuals were called out on the radio by specific room numbers but officers unfamiliar with the building had difficulty making contact due to the lack of orienting markers inside the building.
Lesson 5: Reunification plans consist of plans to reunite students with parents/guardians and document the transfer, forming the bridge between immediate emergency response and the beginning of the recovery process.
Prior to the shooting, JCSD had developed and trained on reunification plans. Though some variables during the incident at Rigby led to deviations from the original plans, the original concept of operations still helped guide the reunification process.
- Schools should consider the use of unaffected personnel to run the reunification process. This can be accomplished by using district personnel, community partners, or staff from other school buildings. The original reunification plan called for Rigby staff to have a much larger role in reunification but it was clear they did not have the capacity to engage in the reunification process in the chaos of the aftermath. It was subsequently decided to staff the reunification center with personnel from the district office. It was determined that no less than 40 individuals were necessary to accomplish an emergency reunification of approximately 940 students without significant delays.
- It is recommended that a designated individual(s) be specifically tasked with updating and collecting current class rosters during emergency situations.
- Emergency plans should include provisions for a percentage of students to remain at the reunification site for an extended period of time. Food, water, restroom use, medications, and engaging activities should be considered to provide relief from the emergency situation. While most Rigby students were quickly reunited with their parents/guardians, approximately 10-20 students were unable to be picked up at the reunification site and stayed until the end of the day. Staff noted it was difficult to find engaging activities for those students.
- Emergency operations plan templates should contain a functional annex for volunteer/donation management. The outpouring of support/goods from local, regional, and national responding agencies was immediate but there was confusion about the roles, function, and responsibility of those responding. Donated food and other items required active management and were removing staff from other response priorities.
- On-site substitute teachers should be available to support education continuity in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event. In the first week back to school, the district activated a large pool of substitutes to support staff which proved critical in the aftermath. Substitutes were on hand if a staff member needed to step away for a few minutes or speak to a mental health support staff located on-site. Most substitutes were utilized on the first day back and the need reduced to near-normal absentee levels within two weeks.
Lesson 6: The need for mental health support following a traumatic event can exceed the mental health capacity of a local school, district, or community.
The first few days back to school following a traumatic event require significant planning and coordination. The infrequency of high-impact events can compound the lack of resources with a lack of experience from those tasked with beginning the recovery process.
- In the aftermath of a traumatic event, a sufficient period should be reserved for staff support prior to student return. After the incident at Rigby, the return to school was delayed for a day to support and coordinate with staff. The extra day was used to communicate the facts to all staff members, provide a critical stress debriefing opportunity, address opportunities for mental health support, and develop a plan for a controlled reopening of schools. All interviewed staff agreed this day was crucial for recovery and returning to school.
- Schools should coordinate with regional and statewide mental health support agencies and include them in mental health crisis planning. While there were significant levels of community support in place, it was quickly learned that leveraging regional and state mental health agency resources were critical for long-term recovery. Region 7 Children’s Mental Health (CMH7) coordinated with local providers and agencies to develop a single onboarding process for inducting individuals looking for additional support. CMH7 was also able to help manage the outpouring of volunteer mental health support while validating and vetting through their network.
- School districts should develop memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with neighboring school districts following a traumatic event. It is also recommended that a common statewide plan template and training be developed to allow for uniformity of response. The plan should coordinate between behavioral health agencies and school practitioners (school administrators, counselors, and psychologists). In the days following the incident at Rigby, trained school counselors were provided to the school by neighboring districts. These counselors provided student assistance and worked within an overhead planning team to develop a support strategy for students returning to school.
- Schools should monitor the levels of additional adults throughout the first few weeks of recovery and scale down as needed. Large impact events may require a formal demobilization plan. At Rigby, many parents, community members, and agency staff remained at the school for the first week. Staff reported that some students appreciated the support while others found it to be a distraction.
- Schools should consider using a variety of research-supported strategies to help with social-emotional regulation and coping skills for grief and loss. Rigby staff reported that the presence of certified therapy dogs helped some students to emotionally regulate themselves. Others responded best to professional counseling or group work.
- Long-term recovery efforts should be primarily guided by local community agencies who are best positioned to understand local needs, priorities, and resources. In Rigby, a community-based recovery team coordinated long-term recovery needs, specifically focusing on the summer months when students and staff may be without support. The recovery team included representatives from local law enforcement, schools, victim’s services agencies, prosecutor’s officers, and county emergency management.
Lesson 7: Physical site maintenance and logistical considerations after an act of violence require thoughtful planning to reduce additional trauma.
Depending on the incident, there can be physical damage to a school in the aftermath. Addressing these damages is key to the recovery process.
- Provisions should be made in emergency plans for third-party restoration services to address repairs or cleanups that may be emotionally or physically hazardous. Before students returned to Rigby, district maintenance staff repaired all visible damage from the attack. In this process, the school learned this task may cause additional trauma for individuals. Additionally, it learned even damage not directly related to the incident may have a traumatizing effect on students. Because of this, district maintenance filled all pre-existing holes throughout the building to prevent rumors.
- It is recommended that emergency operations plans make provisions for returning important personal items following an incident before full reopening. Some Rigby students needed to gather their personal items from various areas of the school before the repairs were completed. To accommodate this, a guided escort process was developed. Parents were able to travel to the school site and were given their student’s personal belongings in a process that was controlled and guided by school staff. This was required in order to prevent access to areas of the school where repairs were being made.
If you are interested in learning more about emergency response and after-action reviews, check out our previous tabletop exercise installments. Each features an incident that occurred in an Idaho school, how the school handled the situation, and after-action review findings. The latest installment can be found here. Links to all previous installments can be found within the article.