Published Online: April 17, 2009

Victims' Parents Take School Safety Into Own Hands

Ted Hochhalter nearly lost a daughter at Columbine. John-Michael and Ellen Keyes lost a daughter at another school shooting near the Colorado mountain town of Bailey.

They don't want other parents to be as helpless as they were. So they're starting a program to get parents involved in their children's schools, to be extra eyes and ears for school security, and to be ready to respond when a school emergency occurs — be it a storm, a mountain lion that forces a lockdown, or a shooting attack.

"The first response community — and I'm talking law enforcement, EMS, fire and also emergency managers — their plates are so full. One of the missing components of their efforts has been community awareness and preparedness," said Hochhalter, a former emergency management specialist for the Interior Department.

Hochhalter, his wife, Katherine, and the Keyes recently gathered around a dining table in the Hochhalters' home, looking out at a panoramic view of the Rockies that the Hochhalters carved out of heavily forested land. They say two years of cutting, splitting and hauling logs was therapeutic as they struggled after Columbine.

911 operators were overwhelmed during Columbine, dispatching police and rescue units and fielding calls from parents and children searching for each other. Agencies were unable to communicate with one another. No one could immediately tell parents or children where to go.

Hochhalter was on a business trip when students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on April 20, 1999, severely wounding his 17-year-old daughter, Anne Marie. His son, Nathan, was locked down in the school's science wing for four hours.

Hochhalter watched TV reports on the shootings at the airport as he waited for a flight back to Denver, not knowing if his children were alive. It wasn't until he got back to Denver and saw Nathan and Anne Marie in the hospital that things really started to fall apart for him.

"I had, in a sense, what they call survivor's guilt because I wasn't there and I had no control over the situation," he said.

On Sept. 27, 2006, Duane Morrison, a 53-year-old drifter, held seven girls hostage in a Platte Canyon High School classroom for nearly four hours and sexually assaulted them. He shot and killed Emily Keyes, 16, as a SWAT team moved in, and then killed himself.

Some parents were at a substation, others waited for news in a field near the school. Parents were crying and shrieking; it was difficult to get information, Ellen Keyes said.

She recalled trying to tell police that she knew Emily was among the hostages. "They were telling me to go to the elementary school to pick up my kids and I said, 'Well that's just silly because my daughter is in that classroom,'" she said.

"The chaotic thing is the parents who don't know what's going on."

The Hochhalters heard the sirens as emergency vehicles passed their home on the way to Platte Canyon. They jumped in a car and drove over to lend a hand.

"That's when I realized that parents really need to be involved," Ted Hochhalter said.

Because police resources were spread thin, the officer assigned to patrol Platte Canyon that day had to leave when he was called away on another emergency.

That's when the gunman entered the school, Ellen said.

"He had been waiting for an opportunity," she said. "A lot of this stuff boils down to eyes and ears."

Hochhalter — whose first wife, Carla, committed suicide six months after Columbine — reached out to the Keyes at Emily's memorial service. What started out as support turned into a partnership called the National School Safety Collaborative. They hope to establish their first chapter at Platte Canyon. They want to encourage parents, retirees and other volunteers to form other chapters to watch over as many schools as possible.

An Army of Parents

Parents would patrol parking lots, bus stops, the gym during after-school activities. They would learn how to work with first responders and how to deal with the media in an emergency.

"You have people involved — not vigilantes — but just people who are there, to be aware and looking for things that are out of the norm," said Anne Marie's stepmother, Katherine. "It's less likely that somebody's going to get into an area of the school they don't belong in."

An army of involved parents could have helped control hysteria during the 2006 attack, said Cathy Rheinberger, the Platte Canyon School District's director of educational services.

"We'll just never know" if a police officer on campus would have stopped it, she said. But a parent patrol that monitors people coming in and out and is an outlet for students looking for someone to talk to can only be a good thing, she said.

"The real stake holders, the parents and the kids, are pretty underrepresented in planning, in preventing and all of the stuff that's necessary for a safety program. And I totally understand it because parents don't have those skills — they aren't emergency managers. Well guess what? We can certainly point out where to get some of those skills," said John-Michael Keyes.

The collaborative will be funded through the I Love U Guys Foundation, founded by Emily's parents and named for the last text message she sent her parents and twin brother Casey during the standoff. The foundation has $40,000 in seed money for the collaborative but needs $140,000 more for outreach and program development.

Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake, Calif., said the Keyes and Hochhalters are on to something.

"Despite all the high-tech strategies, the single most effective strategy for keeping schools safe is the physical presence of a responsible adult," said Stephens. "People have to know that, hey, somebody's watching."

The couples hope the nation's recent spate of gun violence compels parents to step up and volunteer.

"There is some increased panic in this country and no doubt this is triggering some really erratic behavior," said Ellen Keyes. "We can't control what's going on with the economy ... But this (school safety) is something that's in our realm."

After Carla's suicide, Ted Hochhalter eventually married Katherine Zocco, whose own children attended both Columbine and Platte Canyon. The couple decided to home-school Katherine's youngest son after the Platte Canyon attack.

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