I had naively assumed that my chosen profession wouldn’t involve guns being pointed at me. Having grown up in England, I didn’t even see a gun in real life until I taught in an American high school. Now, however, teachers like me are being asked to see intense armed-police responses to hoax threats, like the one that took place last week at our high school, as routine. The rationale: We’re better safe than sorry. Unfortunately, the responses to these pranks cause pain of their own that educators are struggling to handle.
On the afternoon of Sept. 19, my sixth-period class had just formed groups to analyze a reading on the history of American immigration. They were mid-discussion when a pre-recorded announcement called for us to take shelter: “Locks, lights, out of sight!”
Initially, we were pretty relaxed. The previous Thursday, we received our annual training video on what to do in this situation. The timing was perfect for a drill. But the next five minutes would transform my cheerful teens into a crowd of shaking and sobbing children.
I first realized that this was no drill when I heard sirens and crawled over to the window. In front of the school was a full-blown SWAT response with dozens of police cars and armed officers with guns drawn running towards the building. At this point, I sought to reassure my students that Denver police must also be having a drill. My student later told me that my quivering lip gave away my true concerns.
“That’s why I can’t play poker,” I smiled and told him, “I have very obvious tells when I lie.”
Shouting in the hallway confirmed the threat. My classroom is next door to the library, and we heard officers yell at someone to “get down on the ground.” This commotion, amid constant shouting to open the door of the library and shaking of door handles, made us realize that the threat was just a few feet away.
I had positioned myself between students and the classroom door where police were shouting. Instructing the students to look at me and hold hands with one another, I told them that we were all going to be fine.
At that point, a second door at the back of the room flew open revealing multiple officers pointing handguns at us. This led to universal shock as none of us had ever seen that door open before. Opened in 1925, the Denver East High School building is filled with these kinds of doors that connect to offices and closets. Their original function has been lost to history so they remain locked with desks in front of them.
The officers yelled at us to leave with our hands above our heads. I hugged a couple of students briefly as they left and we did as we were told, looking down the halls for bodies on the way out. We filed out of the building and ended up on the football field where we spent the next two hours. Without further information, we still assumed there was a real threat. Officers surrounded the field and news helicopters photographed the mayhem from above.
Some students found friends and distracted themselves by joking around; others sat on the hot turf and simply cried. As someone who tends to walk when stressed, I focused on moving through the crowd of 2,500 traumatized teenagers. Other teachers did the same. Every few minutes, we found a child crying alone or having a panic attack. Taking kids by the hand, we walked around looking for somewhere to put them. We settled on a sliver of shade in the dirt. On a 90-degree day, this offered a small amount of relief. Teachers returned every few minutes to check on the students, and after a while, it became clear that several students were suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion. The police had long since realized the threat was over but had not communicated the news to us.
Educators, meanwhile, understood that so many traumatized children in one place created a crisis of its own.
Our school regularly receives untraceable hoax threats that require police investigation. They are not usually as extreme as this swatting hoax, though they are infuriatingly routine and extremely disruptive to student learning. I understandably felt some frustration when, during a debriefing, Denver police celebrated a successful operation with no serious injuries. The educators in the room were acutely aware that our work addressing student trauma had just begun.
To be clear, this swift police response is a good thing. With a shooter in the building, the physical safety of students should be the main concern, and I was impressed by their speed and efficiency. However, once it becomes clear that an incident is a hoax, the situation should pivot just as quickly to providing emotional support to students to help them feel safe and protect them from further trauma.
Having grown up in England, where most officers don’t carry firearms, I am not the first person to be alarmed at how much of a blunt instrument American police are. “I don’t even want a gun,” a London officer told my daughter when we were visiting the U.K. last summer. “In order to be successful, people need to feel calm and reassured in my presence.”
We used to have some semblance of this community policing in our school; the School Resource Officers at East appeared, from my vantage point, to work well with students. The Denver school board’s 2020 vote to remove SROs from schools was implemented with the best of intentions. After all, students of color had been referred to law enforcement at disproportionately high rates across the district.
An effect of this decision, however, is that most of our students now see the police only in crisis situations. This is unfortunate as it also increases the anxiety around police presence that factored into the decision to remove SROs from Denver schools.
As swatting hoaxes remain, we need to continue to put the physical safety of students first while acknowledging the psychological trauma that police responses can cause. During the two SWAT responses I have encountered as a teacher, police officers realized early on that the threat was unsubstantiated. Continuing to shout at students and point guns at them after becoming aware of this fact causes unnecessary harm. Meanwhile, those of us who work in schools need more resources and training in how to appropriately support students.
Two days after the incident, my sixth-period class returned to their groups to analyze the same readings they had begun on Monday. I quietly played some jazz in the background and worked hard to make the room feel safe. We all felt much more comfortable after an hour back together.
We were just settling into presentations when lights flashed and the fire alarm went off. “Don’t worry,” I shouted over the siren, “someone probably just burned something in a microwave.” A sense of normality is hard to create in a large school such as ours. Ensuring physical safety is essential. Emotional security is also absolutely necessary before learning can happen.
Matthew Fulford is a social studies teacher in Denver. He has been teaching since 2006.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.