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Idaho superintendent reflects on Rigby school shooting: ‘It was hell, in all honesty’

Aug. 5, 2022 Updated Fri., Aug. 5, 2022 at 8:36 p.m.

By Carly Flandro Idaho Statesman

Chad Martin never thought he’d find himself cleaning up a student’s blood in the aftermath of a school shooting.

But not wanting to put that burden on others, the superintendent of the Jefferson County School District and members of his staff did just that after a May 2021 shooting at Rigby Middle School that left two students and a staff member injured.

There were more surreal moments, he said – like when FBI agents with machine guns were striding across the school campus, or when a parent saw his injured child being put in an ambulance.

More than a year after the shooting, Martin reflected on that unforgettable day with education leaders from across the state at the Idaho Association of School Administrators Conference at the Boise Centre.

The presentation this week was especially timely in light of the May 2022 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which left 19 students and two teachers dead.

With the school year around the corner and safety foremost on administrators’ minds, Martin discussed what Rigby has done to prevent violence, protect students and heal a community in the wake of a shooting that left indelible marks.

“It was hell, in all honesty,” he said of the shooting. “But if we can help another district to avoid that, it’s worth sharing.”

The shooting sparked change in Jefferson County

Another incident, which also occurred last school year, contributed to change in Jefferson County. In September, a second student brought a gun to Rigby Middle School.

“We thought the first one was bad, try doing that to your community twice,” Martin said. “That’s when all hell broke loose for us from a community level.”

One similarity from both incidents stood out: Both students brought guns to the school in backpacks. That drove Martin to make a decision that he said has been his most unpopular – banning backpacks.

Students could still bring guns to school in other ways, but Martin hoped to make it more difficult. Plus, he didn’t want other students to become anxious as they sat in class looking at backpacks and wondering what was in them.

Students responded by bringing their books to school in creative ways – using sleds or shopping carts instead. The backpack ban even made national news.

Community outcry prompted the district to switch to clear backpacks.

“It doesn’t fix everything … but it reduces student anxiety,” Martin said.

The district has made other changes, too. Rigby Middle School’s assistant principal, Whitney Wagoner, doubles as a student safety coordinator. Wagoner has helped develop initiatives like Dads on Duty and Hope Squad, a peer support program that empowers kids to help kids.

But Martin said the best thing the district has done is create a multidisciplinary threat team, which includes juvenile probation officers, local law enforcement, mental health agencies, counselors, and administrators. The team meets weekly to discuss students and “put puzzle pieces together.”

After a shooting, investigations usually show that a variety of people knew a little bit about the shooter, but they hadn’t connected those pieces to see the whole picture, Martin said. The team meetings are an effort to change that and “get ahead of things.” The hope is to identify kids who need counseling or interventions to stop issues before they become tragedies.

More school resource officers and deputized staff help the effort

Since the shooting, the district has added two school resource officers, for a total of four who work in schools. The day of the shooting, the SRO who usually works at the middle school was gone, and the other SRO was not on site at the time of the incident.

The district also has three staff members who are deputized and carry concealed weapons at their schools. Bryan Lords, the principal at Rigby High School, is one of them.

“We’ve got 2,100 students at our high school,” he said. “One SRO is not enough.”

In the event of a shooting, deputized administrators or teachers “become law enforcement at that moment,” he said.

Lords became deputized in 2018 after seeing similar programs in out-of-state districts where he’d worked. He went through a 16-week training program and spends 120 hours a year recertifying.

The day of the Rigby shooting, he grabbed his gun and went to help. He supervised the handcuffed shooter so another officer could help a wounded student.

Lords stressed that he already had a relationship with local law enforcement officers – otherwise, running onto campus with a gun during a shooting would be a bad idea. But, he added, the best way to prevent shootings is to form relationships with children and to talk to them.

“If one adult cares, they could be the person who helps minimize a shooting,” he said, giving the example of the Rigby teacher who hugged and disarmed the shooter.

Communication and

reunification are key

“Shootings are usually over before law enforcement gets there,” Martin told administrators Wednesday. “You are the first responders.”

When he arrived on scene of the May 2021 shooting, a victim was on the sidewalk and a teacher was already disarming the shooter. An officer arrested the shooter, and shortly after that parents started arriving.

Martin advised administrators to “be the calm in the chaos,” and that “communication is key.”

Martin notified the victims’ parents, then sent out a mass communication telling parents that if they hadn’t been contacted, their student was OK.

But community members were also getting misinformation from their students or social media, which was hard to manage.

Communicating with teachers and other schools proved difficult as well. For example, Martin inadvertently left the high school on lockdown for too long, and some classes were starting to get ready to use their emergency buckets as toilets.

The reunification process was also chaotic. Martin urged schools to practice that process and have a plan in place. He also added items to his district’s emergency supply cache – games for students to play while waiting for their parents, reunification cards for families to fill out when they pick up a student, bullhorns and extra batteries, snacks and identification lanyards for volunteers.

Volunteers come out of the woodwork to help during crises like this, and Martin urged administrators to appoint someone to coordinate efforts because the offers to help – while appreciated – can be overwhelming.

Martin also described weathering a storm of media members from across the country who relentlessly pushed for information.

He urged district offices to take as much off the plate of the affected school as possible in terms of managing parents, communicating with the community – or even cleaning up the scene.

But even once students are home safe and school has resumed, the work is far from over.

Mental health and active-shooter drills

The shooting created ripples of trauma throughout the community, Martin said. “Recovery begins when the event ends, and I don’t know when recovery ends because we’re not there yet.”

When school resumed after the shooting, the district brought in counselors, therapy dogs and additional substitutes in case teachers couldn’t finish the day.

Richard Howard, the principal at Rigby Middle School, said that for the first six months after the shooting, some students were especially sensitive. Even just hearing the word “gun” could trigger a stress response and interrupt learning.

One teacher asked to teach half days, and the district lost three to four staff members.

“Mental health is real,” Martin said. “Honestly, that’s where we’re lacking. That’s got to be foremost.”

And sometimes mental health priorities conflict with the need for practicing safety protocols.

The district will be conducting an active shooter drill in a few weeks, Martin said, and he is worried about the effect it will have.

“That scares me because it will reopen wounds, but it’s something we have to do,” he said.

In the past, the district has trained teachers to lock the doors, and hide themselves and their students during active shooter drills. This year, that will change. The district will be implementing ALICE training, which gives teachers response options like barricading doors, breaking windows and using alternative escape routes.

“We are not going to just lock doors and hope,” he said.

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