Emergency management training, coordination helped save lives in Aztec school shooting
Three people were killed during a shooting at a New Mexico high school Thursday morning, and the shooter is among the dead, PEOPLE confirms.
Efforts led by San Juan County Office of Emergency Management involve all regional school districts, multiple agencies
FARMINGTON — Regional efforts made by multiple agencies throughout San Juan County to prepare and respond to emergency situations helped save lives in the Aztec High School shooting on Dec. 7, Aztec Municipal School District Superintendent Kirk Carpenter said.
“It ran as smoothly as I think it could go, because we’ve worked on it and we’ve been trained,” Carpenter said. “A lot of that credit goes to the (San Juan County) Emergency Management Office and all the training they’ve provided for all the school districts.”
Local school districts, working with a variety of agencies throughout the Four Corners, have gone above and beyond state mandates in preparation for emergency response, Carpenter said.
The San Juan County Office of Emergency Management facilitates safety trainings that cover mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery in the case of an emergency.
“All the schools have done (a state-mandated Safe Schools plan), but a lot of schools here are prepared in a way that’s far above a lot of places, only because we’ve had that cooperation with the county,” Carpenter said.
All New Mexico schools are required to have a Safe Schools plan that covers prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery efforts in preparation for or in the case of an emergency for an individual school and an individual district.
However, the county’s Emergency Management Office organizes a School Safety Committee that facilitates trainings and unified responses between school districts and law enforcement agencies from throughout the county, according to San Juan County Emergency Manager Mike Mestas.
The committee is made up of district superintendents, district safety coordinators, school resource officers and emergency management officers to prepare for a variety of emergencies, including situations involving bomb threats, active shooters and evacuations. Members meet periodically to go through table-top exercises, or facilitated discussions where the committee addresses what to do in a hypothetical scenario “to help build core plans” to respond to emergencies, Mestas said.
Several plans developed by the committee helped “save a lot of lives in this particular incident,” Mestas said, including the presence of portable radios in every classroom and administrative offices. The committee began the program with the past three years at all schools in Aztec, Bloomfield and Farmington, and Central Consolidated School District is in the process of implementing the radio program.
During Aztec’s shooting, Mestas said the active shooter alert went out almost immediately throughout the school, thanks to a repeater system that sent the signal out across the campus. An emergency signal connected the school radio system to emergency dispatch lines that alerted law enforcement agencies throughout the county, as well as other school districts, which prompted preventative lock-downs.
“This saved lives because there were shots fired, then an emergency lockdown. It was relayed back to the office, and the office relayed it to every teacher and custodian who has radios of their own, so they locked down, and the shooter was not able to get into the rooms,” Mestas said.
Over the past few years, the committee also facilitated a lockdown drill program that has each school practicing lockdowns on a quarterly basis. Lockdown drills are now organized and facilitated by school resource officers and district safety coordinators, Mestas said.
“Aztec got so proficient in locking down their school, it saved a lot of lives in this particular incident,” Mestas said.
The committee also focused on mental health services in the aftermath of an emergency. Mestas said all school counselors in the county gathered in 2015 for crises management counseling, and that team of crises counselors “sustained San Juan County for the first 72 hours with mental health counseling” for the AHS community and first responders before counselors from the New Mexico Department of Health and Medical Reserve Corp. were requested on Monday.
Though Mestas said “we have a lot of good things in place … this incident, after action reviews, taught us there are some areas we need to perfect.”
Mestas said the committee had never “done a full-blown” reunification process before Dec. 7.
“It went well, but we could have probably been more organized,” Mestas said.
Another issue that came up during the response to the shooting was communication, Mestas said. Though local law enforcement and Aztec School District designated a joint information center and public information officers “to try to tie in social media so there’s only one voice going out,” rumors were spread by misinformation in the chaos of the day.
“We kind of had a few hiccups in this incident, but for the most part, we were putting out one message, so that people wouldn’t (spread misinformation), so we were trying to get a hold of that through our emergency operations center through our JIC,” Mestas said.
Though there is room for improvement, Mestas said proactive and unified efforts over the past few years have paid off.
“It just shows that the training and the commitment that was there and the buy in saved lives,” Mestas said.
Two students from Aztec High School in Aztec, New Mexico, describe the chaotic scene at the school when a gunman opened fire Thursday morning, December 7, 2017. One student's cousin was killed in the shooting.Tom Tingle/azcentral.com
Carpenter said the trainings left Aztec School District and county-wide partners well prepared to respond to the Dec. 7 attack.
“It wasn’t a situation of, ‘OK what do we do next?’ Everybody had an assignment, everybody had a role, and everybody didn’t have to be told what to do,” Carpenter said. “We just said, ‘OK here’s how we need to do this. I need you to take care of this,’ and people did it. … In the midst of chaos, a lot of calm was able to come, once we started getting rolling, because we were trained.”
Though the district is currently focusing on supporting students and staff as the district prepares to resume classes at the high school on Monday, Carpenter said the district has been keeping notes and preparing for an in-depth review of its response to the shooting, and that the lessons learned from the emergency will be shared with other local districts and regional agencies.
“There will be things to look back at and learn from, and we will absolutely share everything,” Carpenter said, adding that “there’s no textbook on this.”
Other Four Corners school districts have already made adjustments to school safety in the aftermath of the shooting in Aztec.
Bloomfield, Central Consolidated and Farmington school district have all taken steps to review and improve school security in the past week, administrators said.
Bloomfield schools all underwent door and lock audits, Bloomfield Municipal School District Superintendent Kim Mizell said. Bloomfield High School will have a buzz-in system installed in the front entrance, and Blanco Elementary School will have updated security camera systems.
Central Consolidated School District’s School Board met with school principals to review safety plans on Thursday, according to CCSD Public Relations Supervisor Renee Lucero. The district is reviewing the cost of installing front entrance buzz-in systems at all CCSD schools, and will post school maps within buildings for emergency crews to reference and restock schools’ radio supplies.
Farmington Municipal School District is reviewing safety plans at schools, according to FMSD Superintendent Eugene Schmidt, including creating special key cards for emergency crews that can override the district’s door locking mechanism in the case of a situation where law enforcement needs to enter a building that’s been locked down.
Megan Petersen covers business and education for The Daily Times. Reach her at 505-564-4621 or firstname.lastname@example.org.