Students and parents began texting a barrage of questions to each other and the broader Taos community Tuesday (Feb. 27) as police patrolled the halls of Taos High School after a threat was allegedly made the day before by a student to "shoot up the school."
Following the incident, at least the fourth one involving Taos students and various kinds of threats in a month, parents and community members are questioning the district's responses and plans for handling such issues moving forward.
In light of the most recent school shootings in Florida that left 17 people dead and one in Aztec, New Mexico in December in which two students died, communities like Taos are increasingly aware no town is immune to such violence. Several issues in Taos Municipal Schools have arisen in 2018 that have led parents to call meetings, keep their students home or go to the schools to ask exactly what is going on inside the schools. While no lethal weapon has been found after any of the previous reports, parents and school officials are wondering how to deal with the surge of incidents plaguing the schools and how to ensure everyone's safety.
"I'm concerned that the priority seems to be keeping the kids in line rather than keeping them safe," said THS parent Casey Martinez.
Martinez said her son attends THS and had his phone taken away when trying to text her after Monday's alleged threat.
Around lunchtime, Monday, the school resource officer, who works for the Taos Police Department, was called to investigate a situation at THS where a student reportedly overheard another student make reference to shooting up the school. No one else witnessed the event besides the student who made the report, but police detained one student for the alleged threat.
The school sent out an automated phone call to parents, according to Martinez, about three hours after the event, acknowledging the threat and saying the school would continue as normal the next day.
"We couldn't call (parents) faster than we did," TMS Superintendent Lillian Torrez said.
Despite the recent events, Torrez said the schools are doing everything they can to ensure the safety of the students. Each school has its own emergency action plan,and the police are familiar with each plan, should an incident occur.
The schools did not provide their written policy as to how threats are handled with The Taos News, fearing a potential attacker might use the plans against the schools, but did agree to give a basic rundown of what would happen if a threat or situation were to occur. These policies are determined by each individual school and are taken on a case-by-case basis. School officials said notifying the school resource officer is determined by each school's administration.
As five officers patrolled the Taos High halls Tuesday (Feb. 27) around lunchtime in response to the prior day's threat, superintendent Torres said the beefed-up police presence was to make students feel safe and comfortable coming to school.
According to a Taos Central Dispatch Report, a call was made around 7 p.m., Monday (Feb. 26) saying a student had heard there was going to be "four active shooters tomorrow". Students were ushered into the gym Tuesday afternoon for an assembly on the topic. Little information about the events was given out to students before the assembly.
Taos Police Chief David Trujillo said the number of threats has been more than usual in recent weeks. While he thought the most recent situation at Taos High was a "copycat" or "joking" by a student, he reiterated in an email that "the Taos Police Department is always going to take any threat seriously, in all cases, no matter how minor the threat may seem at the time. We will always approach a threat at the highest level of readiness, seriousness and boldness, where we will adapt and adjust to the situation as needed.
"We are hearing that kids are joking about it and making mockeries of it. Yet the phrases, 'school shooting, shoot up the school, bring my gun, etc.' when said inside schools have now become like saying the word, 'bomb' on an airplane," Trujillo said.
On Jan. 31, a Taos High athlete brought an airsoft pistol to wrestling practice and fired it at other wrestlers, nicking one in the arm with a pellet. The athlete said in a statement to the school resource officer five days later that he intended to hit a friend instead and had apologized to the student he hit. The athlete was suspended.
On Feb. 13, a student at Enos Garcia Elementary gestured at a teacher with one hand shaped in the form of a gun as if pulling a trigger. Only the parents of the student who made the threat were immediately notified by school officials, according to Enos Garcia Principal Gladys Herrera Gurule. The school reported the incident to law enforcement the following morning, but most parents never got a call from the school.
On Feb. 21, another student at Enos Garcia allegedly made a threat to a teacher, but no details were made public by the school or police.
The schools contacted parents after the situations were resolved, and often the events leaked to social media and were misunderstood, according to school officials. Despite the feelings of the community, TMS said their policies are to get the information out to parents as promptly as they are able.
"Any threat to students, the school or staff are(sic) investigated immediately," THS Principal Robbie Trujillo said in an email. "Interviews are conducted with thoroughness to determine next steps. Since each threat is unique, next steps are determined by the results of the investigation."
Threats have been circulating around schools in the state since the deadly Parkland, Florida school shooting and police in New Mexico have made several arrests for the students making the threats.
Martinez and other parents are concerned that the school alert system is not strong enough and that more attention needs to be paid on alerting the proper channels when a threat is presented. Martinez said she is alerted via text message hours before a potential school weather delay but is alerted hours after for a potential threat on student lives.
Torrez is stumped on the district's next move and says there is not enough money in the budget to staff more security or full-time police at every school. According to Torrez, schools are required to undergo lockdown drills to be prepared for a dangerous situation, but parents want more.
"Our goal is to ensure parents, students and staff that it is indeed safe to go to school," Chief Trujillo said. "We want our citizens, parents and students alike to rest easy, knowing that the schools will be safe. This is why we put further effort into the schools today and have had more patrols within the schools."
Trujillo and Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe made presentations at Tuesday's (Feb. 28) Taos Municipal School Board meeting about safety in schools, and Hogrefe touched on possibly teaching an out-of-school active shooter training for members of the community. The class would focus on the "run-hide-fight" response Hogrefe said is taught around the country. The practice teaches learners to run away from the threat if possible, hide if the option is presented or, as a last resort, fight the attacker.