Almost one year to the date of the school shooter false alarm at the Early Childhood Center in Creston, the district once again went into lockdown in what would turn out to be a false alarm.
“I think it’s a fear that we live with now as parents,” Creston Superintendent Deron Stender said. “It’s a fear that we live with as educators in our own school settings. It’s a fear that I live with also every day.”
At approximately 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Union County dispatch received a 911 call from an unknown male caller who said there was a shooter in the Creston High School bathroom and four students had been shot.
Over the course of Tuesday morning, more than 30 Iowa schools received similar communication.
State government officials say the calls were made through an internet platform that makes tracking the calls difficult. Officials said the calls all had the same details, content and voice.
These “swatting calls” are calls made to law enforcement or directly to schools, businesses, public libraries or other entities where the public gathers. These calls are an attempt to trigger the dispatch of emergency services to a particular address.
Iowa Department of Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens said these false reports are a tactic intended to illicit a large-scale law enforcement response.
“The design of it is to create confusion and chaos,” he said. “It’s designed to draw a large law enforcement presence to a school even though there is no active threat. And by all accounts and for all intents and purposes, it appears thus far that is what Iowa experienced.”
When the call came in to dispatch, the Creston School District administrators were in a meeting at central office. As they saw law enforcement drive by the building with lights and sirens activated, they checked their phones to see if the school’s security system had identified any threat.
“We said, ‘oh good, it’s not us,’” Stender said. “We thought maybe it was a bad accident.”
Within a minute or two, the principals began to be called back to their respective buildings.
“I still didn’t have any information on what was happening,” Stender said. “I actually received a phone call from the Lenox superintendent (David Henrichs) while I was waiting.”
Henrichs told Stender he had heard things were pretty bad in Creston and asked what he could do to help.
“I didn’t know what he was referencing,” Stender said. “He said, we’ve heard that there’s kids that have been involved in a school shooting. I said thank you very much Dave; I appreciate the offer and I’ve got to go.”
It was at that point Stender triggered a district-wide lockdown from his cellphone, a feat only possible because of the new security system put into place last year. The old system required Stender contact an administrator at each building to initiate lockdown procedures.
Despite the lockdown being in affect, information was sparse. “Understand that at that point, no one in the district knew anything that was happening,” Stender explained. “School was as school is until law enforcement entered the front doors.”
Sophomore Karter Clayton was in the bathroom when the lockdown sounded, informing students to go to their classrooms. “She goes out of the bathroom to her classroom and sees this guy standing there with this big gun,” Karter’s mom Kylie explained. “Had it actually had been real it would have been scary. That could have been an actual gunman.”
Kylie was at work when Karter sent her a message informing her the school went into lockdown, but she didn’t know why. When her son Willie, a senior, texted from his class at Southwestern Community College to say the college had been shut down, Kylie began to worry.
“I didn’t know what’s going on but I was a little concerned because both schools were going down,” she said. “My husband was panicking. He was ready to go to the school, but I said we need to wait and see what’s going on.”
Though dozens of parents showed up, both Stender and the Creston Police Chief Paul Ver Meer agree parents should avoid coming to the school.
“As a person who doesn’t have kids, I know it’s tough, but parents need to wait until the all-clear is given because we’re trying to clear the school, and we have parents showing up trying to get into the building,” Ver Meer said. “It’s not conducive for us to do our job. We try to get things out in a timely manner once the all-clear is given so they can see their kids or come pick their kids up. But showing up when we’re trying to do our job makes our job more difficult.”
Stender said it’s easy to say and difficult to do. “I want them to be aware that we are trying to get them accurate information as quick as we can, and that sometimes takes time. I’m responding and reacting as well. No one is getting a warning this stuff is happening,” he explained. “When it does happen, we’re assessing, what’s the situation, where’s it at, who’s involved, so we can relay some good reliable information.”
Stender also discouraged parents from calling the schools. “I didn’t even know where it was at when it was happening,” he said. “Be patient, give us some time. When you call the district, you’re just blocking our ability to be able to communicate out if we need to.”
When officers arrived, they conducted an immediate sweep of the building. According to the Creston Police Department, no evidence of a shooting was found.
“I think the response went well,” Ver Meer said. “Officers responded in a timely manner. They did what they were trained to do, cleared the building. The school went on lockdown like they were supposed to do, so we had it resolved fairly quickly.”
Also responding were the Union County Sheriff’s Office, Iowa DNR, Afton and Creston first responders.
According to DPS, More than 30 Iowa districts were impacted including schools in Cedar Rapids, North Liberty, Iowa City, Clinton, Davenport, Muscatine, Cerro Gordo County, Story County, Lee County, Waterloo, Boone, Mason City, Charles City, Clear Lake, Des Moines, Oskaloosa, Marshaltown, Monona, Nevada, North Liberty, Ottumwa and Decorah.
DPS is continuing to work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate and identify the caller. Bayens said the initial information leads investigators to believe the calls are similar in nature and likely originated from a single source.
The calls appeared to make their way from eastern to western Iowa. The first swatting call originated in Clinton County at approximately 8 a.m., and the last call was received at 10:30 a.m. in Creston. Clinton High School cancelled classes after the incident.
“Our training helps us prepare for this,” Stender said. “It’s very unfortunate that we have to do this, but it’s a necessity and it’s a very important part of what we do in our schools as a part of our school safety program in making sure we keep our children safe and our staff safe.”
“I want to thank all of our law enforcement, emergency personnel, for their quick response to the situation that they had to deal with and manage. I can only imagine what that is like for them,” Stender said. “By the time I got to the scene, everyone was here. From DNR, sheriff’s office, Creston Police, our ambulance crew, emergency management. Everyone was there who needed to be and people were still coming to the high school where the incident was reported to have happened.”
Greater Regional Health readied to land multiple helicopters if necessary.
“Most of these people have children in our schools or they know someone in our schools,” Stender said. “Almost everyone in our front offices that has to respond has children in our buildings. Even from the outside when I got there, there were parents already accumulating, and I could see the fear.”
As law enforcement deemed the building safe and proceeded to other schools, the aftermath of the traumatic event began to set in.
“No matter what we do, we need to do this together as a community and as parents to make sure we work with our children, talk with our children, educate them about respectful actions, respectful ways to address things,” Stender said. “Nothing should ever have to resort to violence or threats of violence. There are plenty of adults in our schools and our community that will help. They just have to have the courage to ask for it.”
In addition to their additional services, the school district has counselors available for students or parents to talk through the incident. The Salem Lutheran Church across from the school had their sanctuary open and Pastor Evan McVann was available for prayers until 5 p.m.
“Unfortunately, it’s about a year ago that we had our false alarm, and we’ve learned significantly from that, and we’re going to learn from this as well,” Stender said. “I can already see many things we’re going to implement to help speed up the process and minimize the amount of time it takes a human to have to trigger something. We have so many drills that we do and so many alarms that we have that hitting the right button and wrong button is time, and we don’t have time to make the wrong decision.”
After speaking with her daughter, Kylie said the school should trigger the school shooter alarm even if they aren’t sure. “Sound the drill and you can sort it out later,” she said. “If there had really been something, we didn’t have everything really locked down.”
However, Kylie was impressed with her daughter’s knowledge of the ALICE (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate) drills. “They do understand, and I was proud to know that. It sounded like a lot of chaos yesterday in the way it went down,” she said. “It was important to talk to her about how this could happen. It’s not just fun and games, this is the world we live in. It was nice to see how much she did know to keep herself safe.”
Stender said one of the things he plans to address is the disconnect in communication between dispatch and the school. “Creston is one of the most proactive districts in the state in terms of our safety and security and the initiatives we have,” he said. “We’ll evaluate that again heavily. We do that every time we do a drill. We’ll go building by building, we’ll watch all our cameras and identify and fix those things.”
While the school has a long list of ways to address and improve from the drill, they need the help of parents to prevent an actual shooting situation. “When we have children that talk about bringing guns or weapons to school, we take that very seriously to avoid situations like this,” he said. “I would encourage our parents to talk to our children about this. This is no laughing matter. Threats of violence at school is no laughing matter and it won’t be tolerated.”
Despite the sense of relief the all-clear brought, the incident served as a reminder of the dangers children face around the country.
“I feel a lot of pain for our parents to have to deal with this, and our children,” Stender said. “That’s why our job in education is more than just the ABCs and multiplication. It’s being kind. It’s figuring out how to live with people and respect that. That’s getting more and more difficult.”