Multiple Colorado schools entered lockdown after unconfirmed threats Wednesday. Here’s what we know
This story was originally published by Colorado Public Radio on February 22, 2023. It was updated at 6:07 p.m.
Schools in at least a dozen Colorado districts went on temporary lockdown or secure mode early Wednesday after receiving a spate of phone threats from unidentified sources.
The list of impacted districts spanned across the state, from Boulder to Englewood to Aspen. No injuries were reported. Some lockdowns were lifted in a matter of minutes.
So far, none of the threats have been deemed credible, according to Colorado’s statewide Office of Emergency Management.
“Our State Watch Center staff continue to monitor and communicate with local law enforcement to coordinate information related to today's school incidents,” the office said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Denver office and local law enforcement agencies said they were continuing to investigate the source of the calls. FBI, local law enforcement and school districts have said they believe the threats across the state were coordinated.
“It is important to note that law enforcement will use all available resources to investigate a threat until we determine whether it is real or not,” the FBI said. “We urge the public to remain vigilant, and report any and all suspicious activity or individuals to law enforcement immediately.”
Here’s what we know about the large number of school safety incidents on Wednesday.
What is the difference between a lockdown and secure mode?
Secure mode – or a secure – means a school locks its exterior doors and does not allow any person in or out of the building. Classroom teaching and activities continue as normal. For schools with locked door policies, the only difference is the no exit or entry procedure. A school might be placed in secure mode when there is a potential risk or threat in the area. This is sometimes referred to as a "lockout."
A lockdown means classroom doors are locked in addition to exterior doors. All activities and operations are stopped. No one is allowed in or out of the building. A phrase often associated with a lockdown is "locks, lights, out of sight." A lockdown occurs when there is a threat inside or outside the school.
What is ‘swatting’?
“Swatting” refers to a hoax call placed to 911 that falsely reports an emergency such as an armed intruder, active shooting or bomb threat. They appear to be intended to draw an armed police response which may include a special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team.
There has been a surge in swatting calls targeting schools across the country over the past couple of years. There have been 317 false reports of violence in schools around the country so far this school year, according to the Educator’s School Safety Network, which tracks incidents. It reports a 600 percent increase in the last four years.
An NPR analysis last year found schools in 28 states were targeted by the same individual.
Most of the attacks, especially those that occur in clusters, appear to be perpetrated by someone overseas. The perpetrator often attacks groups of schools in the same state on the same day. The motive for these continued attacks, however, is uncertain, but they appear to be intended to cause mass panic, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers.
“These false alarms of active assailants on school campuses are not a harmless prank,” said Mo Canady, executive director of NASRO. “There’s an emergency response from the local law enforcement agency, which means we're coming in with lights and siren and a little quicker than normal. It increases the risk to those officers and, and, and other drivers out on the roadways.”
The false calls also keep officers from responding to other calls and increase anxiety among students and teachers.
“It is weaponizing our fear of active shooter against us,” said Amanda Klinger, director of operation at the Educator’s School Safety Network. “ It undermines people's faith in our institutions. It undermines people's sense of safety in our schools. The fact that it's happening sort of in a structured, organized way, to me, would tend to indicate that these are actors who are doing it on purpose to achieve those ends of weaponizing those fears against us.”
Alamosa School District
The Alamosa School District placed Ortega Middle School on lockdown, according to the city, after the local police dispatch center received a call from an “unknown number” at 8:24 a.m., according to a district statement on Facebook.
The caller reported “a threat of an armed individual at Ortega Middle School,” the statement said.
Alamosa Police responded to school grounds. The district placed all other schools in the district on a security hold while police investigated.
The lockdown at Ortega Middle School was lifted “within five minutes, and all schools were placed on hold,” after officers found no evidence of a threat, the district’s statement said.
“The response of our staff, students, and the Alamosa Police Department was swift and prompt,” said Superintendent Diana Jones.
Aspen School District
The Aspen Police Department and other local agencies responded to “unconfirmed reports” of shots fired at Aspen Elementary School early Wednesday morning, according to a statement posted on the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Facebook page shortly before 10 a.m.
The district placed all schools in the district on lockdown. Officers went through the elementary school and cleared the building, according to another Facebook post shared 15 minutes later from the sheriff’s office.
“Officers are now going through all Aspen School District schools to ensure the safety of all students and staff,” the statement said.
The district released all students from classes for the day and posted reunification information on its website.
Boulder High School
The Boulder Police Department responded to reports of an active shooter at Boulder High School early Wednesday morning, according to a tweet from the department.
The school and its surrounding area, less than a mile away from Pearl Street, were placed on lockdown and students were evacuated.
At a later press conference, police said a caller claimed he was “carrying semi-automatic weapons and was ready to enter Boulder High.”
“(The call) is very scary,” said Maris Herold, Boulder Police Chief, during prepared remarks. “In the background you can hear shots being fired.”
Police responded to the school, but found no evidence of a credible threat.
Brighton High School
The Brighton Police Department received a “threatening call” from an unknown person regarding Brighton High School Wednesday morning, according to a tweet from the department. Officers responded and schools in the surrounding area were placed on a secure.
Roughly an hour later, police lifted the lockdown after they found “NO credible threat,” according to a department tweet.
Cañon City High School
Police deemed a bomb threat against Cañon City High School a “false report.”
The campus was under lockdown Wednesday morning, as officers swept classrooms. The department responded with help from the Colorado State Patrol and the Fremont County Sheriff’s office.
"We are leaning toward the idea that this is a hoax, and that it's one of many that are happening in the state on this very day,” said Cañon City Schools Superintendent Adam Hartman. “The truth is you always have to respond as if it's something real. Because the sad reality is these types of events are taking place in America.”
The Denver Public School District was not subjected to the same threats of bombings and shootings on Wednesday morning. But an unfounded threat on an FBI building in the city did get phoned in — and it appears to be related to the same spate of calls.
“Just after 9:00 a.m. today, Denver 911 received a threat by phone involving an FBI Denver facility,” noted Denver Police Department spokesperson Jay Casillas in an email. “The threat was unfounded, and it appears, at this time, to be connected to unfounded threats in other jurisdictions.”
No other Denver locations were included in the threats, he said.
Durango School District 9-R
The Durango Police Department said it received a “threatening phone call” about Durango High School early Wednesday morning and placed the school in a secure shortly after, according to a statement from the department posted on Facebook.
After arriving at the school, officers did not locate a threat.
The caller, who the department did not identify, said there was an “armed suspect approaching the campus,” according to a statement the district posted on Facebook.
Both the school district and the police department said the threat was possibly connected to others across the state on Wednesday.
“DPD has received information that these types of threats are occurring across the state and possibly the nation,” the police department said.
Englewood High School
The Englewood Police Department received a call about “shots fired” at Englewood High School shortly after 9 a.m. on Wednesday, according to a tweet from the department.
Englewood School District administrators put the high school on lockdown. Englewood Middle School was also placed on lockdown.
Police officers cleared both schools shortly after and the lockdown was released.
The district said it would release students from class who needed to leave. Mental health support was also offered to students.
Estes Park Schools
Police officers responded to reports of an active shooter at Estes Park High school at roughly 9:23 a.m. on Wednesday, according to a statement the department shared on Facebook.
The school was already shut down due to weather, according to the department, and law enforcement found no evidence of a credible threat. They also searched nearby schools.
Amid the response, an Estes Park officer accidentally discharged one round of his handgun into the floor at an elementary school.
“No one was injured,” the department said. “The police department is reviewing its response to this call and the subsequent accidental discharge.”
Fort Morgan High School
The Morgan County Sheriff’s Office received a call “indicating that there was a man with a gun at Fort Morgan High School” shortly after 9:38 a.m. on Wednesday, according to a statement from the Fort Morgan Police Department.
“Shortly after that, there were what sounded like gunshots in the background [of the call],” the statement said.
Local law enforcement responded to the call and went to the high school, finding no evidence of a threat. Officers also searched other schools in the district.
“There is no immediate or viable threat to staff and students,” the police department said. “Out of an abundance of caution, there will be an increased presence of law enforcement throughout the district.”
Gilpin County School District
The Gilpin County Sheriff’s Office said it responded to a fake report of a “suspicious incident” at the Gilpin County High School on Wednesday morning. Students and staff were placed on lockdown during the search.
The school shared reunification information on its Facebook page, along with the message “EVERYONE AT THE SCHOOL IS SAFE.”
Lamar School District
In southeastern Colorado, Lamar’s Parkview Elementary School went into lockdown for 15 minutes, according to District RE-2. Superintendent Dr. Chad Krug said an airsoft gun was found in a child’s backpack.
Dr. Krug believes it was an isolated incident. “I have no reason to believe that it's connected to any type of behavior that's happening outside of our school district.” He said situations like this come with “pretty harsh school discipline consequences.”
Roaring Fork Schools
Glenwood Springs High School was placed in lockdown mode, and the district placed all other Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt schools into secure mode Wednesday morning after police received a call about a “party with a gun and pipe bomb directed at Glenwood Springs High School,” said Glenwood Springs Police Department Lt. Bill Kimminau.
Law enforcement investigated and found no credible threats. Lockdowns at all district schools were lifted after 30 minutes.
The call appeared to come from a phone number from outside the country, Kimminau added.
School administrators said the incident appeared to be connected to other hoax threats made toward other Colorado districts Wednesday.
“Carbondale law enforcement believes this may have been a swatting incident, meaning a bogus threat that occurs when someone makes a prank call to police claiming an emergency and provides a real address for officers to respond to,” the school district said in a statement.
“We know that situations like this are frightening for staff, students, and parents alike,” the district added. “We always take any possible threat seriously.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to better reflect the difference between a secure and a lockdown.