How an incident at East High School changed the way a district communicates

By Adelle Whitefoot

It’s been nearly a year since Duluth’s East High School went on lockdown and police entered with weapons drawn and escorted a man out of the building. 

The lockdown April 5, 2019, ended roughly 20 minutes later without incident. A tip from a concerned resident, emergency planning measures and a rapid, all-hands-on-deck response prevented a tragic outcome.

It took less than an hour from the time police received the first vague report of a man suspected of threatening violence at a school until the arrest of 35-year-old Travis Anthony John Warner Busch in the back of the school cafeteria.

Busch, who was a job coach supervising a vulnerable adult working in the kitchen, allegedly made a series of threats in messages with a family member, describing how he could shoot up a school or theater and expressing plans to kill police officers.

That family member, who was not publicly identified by authorities, turned to the police for help.

Due to this incident, Duluth schools learned a lot about how communication district-wide and within the schools worked and what improvements could be made. 

Authorities had trouble communicating with each other with radios when they were in the building. 

Using health-and-safety funds, the district installed radio signal boosters at East and Denfeld high schools over the summer and were in the process of installing the same equipment in the middle schools this school year, with plans to test the signals at the multi-level elementary schools.

The conversation around the East incident also brought making security upgrades to all schools district-wide and changing the way visitors can access the schools to the forefront.

Duluth Public Schools received money from the state to make security upgrades only at Denfeld High School and Rockridge Academy, so the district partnered with the Duluth Police Department and the city to apply for a Community Oriented Policing Services grant through the federal School Violence Prevention Program.

The district received $468,750 in grant money, with a local match of $156,250, for a total of $625,000 to be used on security upgrades for the rest of the schools in the district.

Drilling down communication

The lockdown at East also put the district’s communication methods to the test, Assistant Superintendent Jeff Horton said.

“Many times when there is a school threat, you know where it is and that triggers a response in a building. In this situation, we knew there was a community threat and we had to work from there to narrow it down,” Horton said. “So, it became a system-wide approach to a lockdown, which is massive, and that tests your communication systems in a very different way than a single building does.”

The district took the information it gathered from the East lockdown to improve efficiency of how it gets to students and staff.

The district now makes sure all student contact information is updated in the Infinite Campus online information system and is working on communicating with those outside the district. The district did its first test of the new external communication tool during a lockdown drill March 10, sending a message through all avenues of communication, such as an automated phone call. 

For East junior Nabiha Imtiaz, the lack of communication was the worst part for her last year. 

“We just had no idea what was going on until after,” Imtiaz said. “For me, that worsened my anxiety about being safe in school. I just felt like a sitting duck waiting for who knows what.” 

Imtiaz said she feels pretty safe at school, “but in the event that an active shooter enters the building, there isn’t much adults can do other than help us evacuate or barricade.” 

The district is in its second year of using ALICE, which stands for “alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate.” Horton said the district has also added its own best practices and tailored it to its needs. The state of Minnesota mandates that all districts have at least five lockdown drills. 

As part of the ALICE program, the district conducts various drills, such as a barricade drill and an evacuation drill, which looks like a fire drill, Horton said. 

“We give advance notice of drills. We don’t do surprise drills. We put signs up on doors and notify law enforcement,” he said. “We make them age-appropriate as well.”

When a school goes into lockdown, it doesn’t always mean there is an active shooter in the building. 

“Lockdowns can be used for medical emergencies as well if we need to hold the changing of classes to make sure the emergency response is efficient and quick,” Horton said.

Clarity instead of codes

Over the past year the district stopped using code words to describe why the school is going into lockdown, Horton said.

“We used to use colored codes and nobody really knew what that meant and most people aren’t even trained to know what that meant,” Horton said. “If there was an actual active shooter, we would actually come out and say that, where they are and what they are wearing.”

Denfeld junior Phoenix Ocean said she believes lockdown and barricade drills, even though announced well in advance, affect anxiety levels. 

“Acting in the same way that one would in an actually dangerous situation definitely causes some of the same responses of adrenaline and fear,” she said. “I know I’m not the only one who’s (thought), ‘What would I do if this was real?’ in the middle of a routine drill.”

Imtiaz and Ocean said school safety conversations don’t happen daily among students, but the topic comes up after drills and training, or in the wake of a tragedy at a school anywhere. 

“Mostly the conversation is about the nature of the world that we, as students, live in that requires us to prepare for horrifying situations because our lives might depend on it,” Ocean said. “Threats against school safety shouldn’t be as big of a problem as they are today. 

“The youth shouldn’t have to have any fear or anxiety about their physical safety at school, but more and more frequently we are forced to.”