Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Are Utah Schools Prepared For An Active Shooter?

Renee Bright

There has been little reprieve from news about school violence this year with yet another recent shooting casting a shadow as the 2018 academic year comes to a close.

A week ago, it was eight students and two teachers shot dead at Sante Fe High School in Texas. Three months before that, 17 were killed in a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. And then there are the handful of smaller incidents across the country.


All of this raises questions about the safety of Utah schools for students and educators alike.


Aaron Wilson is finishing up his first year as principal of Granite Park Junior High School in South Salt Lake. He said its been an interesting year to begin his new role. 

“The Parkland shooting and now Santa Fe," Wilson said in a recent interview as students asked him to sign their yearbooks. "That context for public education is really all I’ve known."

Wilson has made sure Granite Park is doing what it can. The school held more active shooter drills this year than the district required. Except for the main entrance, all other outside doors are locked throughout the day. Wilson also frequently talks with teachers about potential blind spots. But the anxiety is still there.

"It’s really scary," said eighth grader Malcolm Beverly. "What if it affects you or someone you love. It’s terrible to think about.”

Are [schools] prepared? Let's say, they're more prepared than they were in the past — Jeff Johnson, Utah Division of Emergency Management

As part of a student news team, Beverly helped create a video that outlines what to do in a shooting. Students are instructed to duck into the nearest classroom, lock the doors and keep them locked — no matter what. But that's not necessarily the only — or best — response.

“Drills are just one part of [safety preparation] and even then they’re doing lockdown drills," said Jeff Johnson, who oversees school safety for Utah's Division of Emergency Management.

Johnson sees progress in schools like Granite Park taking a creative approach to educating students. He wonders, however, if the typical response of hiding is too narrow. There are other crisis techniques like running or resisting that often aren’t covered. It raises questions of how prepared schools are for shooting incidents.

“Are [schools] prepared? Let’s say, they’re more prepared than they were in the past," Johnson said.

Utah requires each district in the state to have a safety plan in place, but that’s the only expectation. Johnson said some districts go above and beyond with their preparation. For others, the safety plan is less of a priority.

“I’ve been to some schools where I don’t think the plan has been pulled off the shelves in three years,” Johnson said.

Out of all of this tragedy, I see some good happening — Johnson

In the last few months Johnson has seen more schools getting serious about safety. He has received significantly more training requests. He's also noticed heightened awarness from lawmakers as well. 

The state legislature recently created a new school safety commission and Utah Governor Gary Herbert has been talking about school shootings a lot.

“Out of all of this tragedy, I see some good happening," Johnson said.

One of those positive things is the Safe UT app, which Utah students are encouraged to download and use as a way to share anonymous tips.

The app was designed as a tool to help friends and classmates in crisis, be it someone having suicidal thoughts or threatening to bring a gun to school.

But now, stories of students barricading themselves in classrooms, trying to get word out as a shooting occurs have generated a new Safe UT feature.

By next school year, students will be able to use the app to share real-time information during an attack.

“So that when we do have to call dispatch and get officers responding to the school we can provide as much detail up front as possible so that they know what they’re walking into," Tori Yeates, who helped develop Safe UT, said.

Rather than making a 911 call and putting their own safety at risk, students can silently pull up the app and answer a few simple questions.

“Are you at school? Are you at home? Did you hear about this or did you see this? And it's all going to be yes, no stuff," Yeates said. "We’re going to try to make it as streamlined and simplified as possible.”

It pains Yeates that it’s come to this. But that’s the reality of being a student in 2018.

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.