Behind The Decision That Shuttered Hundreds Of Metro Schools As A Vague, ‘Fluid’ Threat Seized Denver

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Photo: Sol Pais Manhunt 3 | FBI Dean Phillips - HVD
FBI Special Agent in Charge Dean Phillips talks to reporters at the agency’s Denver field office about the tips that put them on the trail of Sol Pais of Florida, and how authorities eventually found her body near Echo Lake below Mount Evans, April 17, 2019.

It wasn’t the next day that Westminster Superintendent Pamela Swanson worried about. It was the one after that.

More than 20 Front Range superintendents got onto a conference call at 10:30 p.m. last Tuesday to talk about how to handle a looming, but vague, threat sparked by a Florida woman. She had traveled alone to Colorado and bought a gun days before the anniversary of the Columbine attack.

The decision was made fairly easily to shutter hundreds of schools the next day. Half a million children stayed home from school that Wednesday.

The potential threat was resolved by midday with the announcement the woman had been found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Later, a Clear Creek County undersheriff determined she had "no master plan." But the question remains: How would the superintendents have handled Thursday, or Friday, if she had been still at large?

“How long do you go in a school system without having your kids in school and what additional procedures do you need should this type of thing come to pass again?” Swanson said. “It was fluid … I think what you do is take the information you have at the time, you make your best decision.”

Swanson said last week’s threat “felt different” because of the confluence of events. There was the approaching 20th Columbine anniversary, the fact the woman was “infatuated” with the school shooting, the fact she took a one-way flight to Colorado and went straight from the airport to buy a shotgun near the school, and her sudden disappearance ahead of the anniversary.

“I don’t think this event will trigger an additional piece of equipment or something like that, but I think it will affect training moving forward,” Swanson said. “There will be conversations in time to come about what additional measures we would put in place moving forward so we can open the schools.”

Asked by a reporter about the decision to shutter hundreds of schools and hold a half of million children “hostage,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Dean Phillips said parents should feel grateful.

“As a parent, I would say ‘thank you’ to the school system for protecting my child,” he said, hours after finding the woman, Sol Pais, dead near the mountains.

Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Jason Glass said every threat results in evaluation and learning.

Glass called this situation different because they had a “very credible” threat that was so vague — not only was there not a single school targeted, they didn’t even have specific information about where she was ahead of the anniversary.

“It effectively held an entire city’s education system hostage,” Glass said. “We may see more threats of this nature in the future … how are we able to adapt, meet this new challenge? How can we get school open to make sure they are super secure in the event something like this happens again?”

The Jeffco superintendent said starting early Wednesday, when the schools were closed and the threat still out there, he was working hard to figure out how to re-open schools if nothing changed. He said they were thinking about how to manage arrivals and dismissals, after-school activities, food deliveries and lunch hours if the person was not found.

“I may have not been able to do it that next day on Thursday, but we were working really hard on having them open on Friday at the latest,” Glass said. “We want our schools to be super secure but we also don’t wish anybody to be able to hold our whole education system hostage by these kinds of threats or else we sort of encourage this from occurring again.”

Jefferson County parent Shawna Fritzler said school districts need to be sensitive to how this affects parents and children.

Fritzler, whose daughter is a freshman at Lakewood High School, has sat on a safety committee and thinks about “scary stuff” often. But she was still surprised when, on the night before officials closed the schools, her daughter walked out of her bedroom and confessed to being really scared.

“Honestly when she came out of her room, my heart just dropped,” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s hard to still talk about actually. I did not expect it. I had no idea how much fear she had or how much the kids were still talking about it.”

Fritzler encourages school districts to be as transparent as possible with parents, and put kids’ first and their feelings.

“I think when you put information out that’s so vague there is a backlash,” she said. “There are still so many unanswered questions. As a parent, we have a long way to go … It’s scary. It would be nice to have our feelings as parents validated.