Published Online: October 2, 2006
Published in Print: October 4, 2006, as Hostage-Taking Seen as Difficult to Prevent

Hostage-Taking Seen as Difficult to Prevent

Safety experts say best defense is trained staff.

The hostage-taking at a rural Colorado high school last week that left one student and the armed intruder dead was a rare event and one that would have been nearly impossible for school leaders to prevent, school safety experts said.

They also said law-enforcement officials on the scene used an appropriate strategy in dealing with the situation.

Colorado authorities said the 54-year-old gunman, Duane Morrison of Denver, held six hostages in a second-floor classroom for several hours on Sept. 27 at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo. Mr. Morrison killed himself after fatally shooting a 16-year-old hostage, identified as Emily Keyes, as police stormed the classroom.

“When you have someone who is suicidal, armed, and willing to die, there aren’t any procedures short of having the building locked and secured the whole day that would have prevented this,” said Del Elliott, the director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“And doing that is not practical, because these incidents, while so devastating, are very rare,” he added.

Mr. Elliott, whose violence-prevention center has worked closely with many Colorado school districts on safety issues since the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, said the 1,300-student Platte Canyon school district and its three schools were participants in a statewide hotline that was set up after Columbine to report threats of school violence.

“But in this instance, it appears that nobody knew this man and would have known of his plans,” he said.

Kenneth S. Trump, a school safety consultant based in Cleveland, said school leaders’ best defense from dangerous intruders is a “well-trained and alert staff.”

“No matter what kind of technology you have, that is always going to be a supplemental thing to having school staff members who know exactly who should and shouldn’t be at school,” he said.

But reducing access to schools is a tough issue for school administrators to resolve, Mr. Trump said, who is the president of National School Safety and Security Services.

“It’s very difficult to strike a balance between keeping an open, welcoming environment for legitimate users of a school while keeping out those who might want to do harm,” he said. “School leaders have hard choices to make.”

But, Mr. Trump said, any notion that random incidents of violence like the one last week at Platte Canyon High can’t happen is naive.

“Of course there are going to be limitations for what school officials can do in situations like this, but we do need to train them to recognize that a threat can come from within or outside a school,” he said. “There is a real continuum of threats to schools, from natural disasters to student shooters, and obviously, from an outside perpetrator. Schools need to be prepared for any of these.”

Both Mr. Elliott and Mr. Trump said that law-enforcement officials who responded to the incident followed a strategy that was adopted after the Columbine shootings. That approach, they said, is to go after an “active shooter” to isolate and neutralize him.

Colorado authorities said Mr. Morrison had no known connection to any of the hostages and was not known to anyone at the 465-student high school, located about 40 miles southwest of Denver.

‘Random’ Event

“It looks like it was random,” Park County Sheriff Fred Wegener told reporters during a news conference on Sept. 28. The sheriff said Mr. Morrison “did traumatize and assault our children,” but offered little detail other than to describe the assaults on some of the hostages as “sexual in nature.”

Sheriff Wegener said law-enforcement officials still did not know Mr. Morrison’s motive for the attack.

The four-hour standoff in an honors English classroom prompted the evacuation of two nearby schools and shut down the highway that leads to Bailey. The circumstances were not at all similar, but the scene of terrified students evacuating the school and police SWAT teams surrounding the building evoked memories of the killings at Columbine High School, 30 miles away in neighboring Jefferson County, Colo.

It was not clear late last week how Mr. Morrison, who police said was armed with a semiautomatic pistol and a revolver, entered the high school, which sits near the 350-student Fitzsimmons Middle School. Students who saw Mr. Morrison told local news media that he was dressed “like a student” in a hooded sweatshirt and carrying a backpack.

Sheriff Wegener said police would be looking at video captured by a school surveillance camera that might help better piece together what happened.

While holding the girls hostage, Mr. Morrison at first began negotiating directly with police, Sheriff Wegener said during the news conference. He then began communicating only through the girls, as he released them one by one, the sheriff said.

With two hostages remaining, the gunman stopped negotiating and told authorities “something would happen at four o’clock,” the sheriff said.

“That’s when I made the decision I did,” Sheriff Wegener said. “We had to go in and save them.”

PHOTO: Park County, Colo., Sheriff Fred Wegener, left, and Joe Morales, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, speak at a Sept. 28 news conference to discuss the hostage incident at Platte Canyon High School the previous day. Gunman duane Morrison, whose photo Mr. Morales is holding, killed himself and one student after a standoff with law-enforcement officials.
—Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 06, Pages 5,15

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