Lockdown at Steamboat High School adds to ongoing tensions
Following lockdown, student creates Change.org petition calling for new leadership at high school
Initiated during a tradition known as “the senior run-through,” a lockdown on Friday, May 20, at Steamboat Springs High School has left some students saying they felt terrified amid the confusion.
Ella Piret, a junior at the school, said her class was outside because the fire alarm had gone off, and when they returned to the building, the lockdown had already started. A teacher quickly ushered them into a classroom.
“We were all kind of confused and a little scared and didn’t really know what was going on,” Piret said.
District and high school administration met on Tuesday, May 24, to review the lockdown. In an interview with Pilot & Today after this meeting, Superintendent Brad Meeks said Assistant Principal Luke DeWolfe initiated the lockdown, not Principal Rick Elertson, as some students have suggested.
“Luke saw something happening. He was uncertain, and I have no problem with that decision,” Meeks said. “You’re right in the middle of it, and you’ve got to make a decision. You’re going to err on the side of caution and safety.”
The incident comes as tensions are high at Steamboat Springs High School. Last week, representatives from the Steamboat Springs Education Association shared an internal poll showing nearly 90% of teachers surveyed lack faith in Elertson’s leadership. Meanwhile, the district is working to bring in a third-party facilitator.
For Piret, Friday’s lockdown was a “final straw event.” She drafted an open letter to Meeks and the school board and started a Change.org petition calling for new leadership at the high school.
Elertson did not respond to emailed questions from Pilot & Today. Meeks said there is no talk about removing Elertson as principal, but the district is working to set up meetings between administrators and staff with the facilitator.
“The goal is that everybody has to work together for the common good, which is our students,” Meeks said. “We’re not there yet, so we need to take steps to do that.”
The senior run-through hadn’t happened since the spring of 2019 because of COVID-19. Meeks said school administrators had talked with senior leadership and were under the impression it wasn’t going to happen this year either.
But around 11 a.m., DeWolfe was informed seniors were gathering in the school’s common area.
DeWolfe then initiated the lockdown, which triggered blue flashing lights, locked doors throughout the building and alerted local law enforcement, according to Pascal Ginesta, facilities manager for the district.
This action prevented the seniors from running through the various classroom pods where other students were in class, Meeks said.
Still, some students described a chaotic situation where it was unclear why the lockdown was called.
“There’s an alarm that went off at first and then there’s blue lights flashing in the hallway, and that was like what happens when an actual lockdown is going on,” said Pacey Kuhlman, a junior. “My class and all the other classes started hearing screaming and running, so at that point we are all extremely terrified.”
“For the few seconds where I had only heard the lockdown drill and heard screaming in the distance, I had so much fear and panic instilled in my body that I did not know what to do,” said Katie Mclaughlin, who’s also a junior.
Ginesta said Elertson gave three announcements over the school’s public address system. The first asked seniors to gather in the common area, the second asked the seniors to go outside and the third informed staff and students that the lockdown was over. He estimates the whole incident lasted between 15 and 20 minutes.
The district’s lockdown protocols say “teachers and students should be trained to not open the classroom door until a first responder or school administrator unlocks it.”
Instead, the lockdown was released over the intercom system, Meeks said.
“(Was it) following the manual in what we would typically do, no,” Meeks said. “On that particular day, they used the intercom system.”
Ginesta said all lockdowns are reviewed to see what can be done better next time. Meeks said he created a list of aspects of this lockdown that he has instructed staff to further review.
As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, the petition for new high school leadership on Change.org had 605 signatures. Change.org is a for-profit organization that facilitates petitions but does not do any sort of background checks or release the names of signers.
Some teachers have also expressed a lack of confidence in Elertson. At Monday’s school board meeting, high school union representatives pointed to results from the Colorado Department of Education’s Teaching and Learning Conditions Colorado survey.
According to the survey conducted in January, 34% of staff responded favorably to the statement: “This school is led by an effective team.” About 38% responded favorably to the statement: “School leadership puts suggestions made by staff in to operation.”
Overall, 50% of staff responded favorably to school leadership — down 24 points from the last survey in 2020. The district average this year was 78%.
“The results of this survey corroborate the vote of no confidence that we took a few weeks ago,” said Deirdre Boyd, one of the high school union representatives. “When there’s doubt being expressed about the legitimacy of this vote, the question comes back to when are you going to listen to teachers, to staff and to students?”
At least 20 of the high school’s 73 staff members are leaving after this year. Of six resignations approved by the school board Monday, half were high school teachers. One of them was Jenny Shea, who has taught English for 17 years.
“I have decided to resign because the culture and climate at the high school is toxic,” Shea said in an email. “Leadership is dishonest, divisive and reactionary. The teachers are silenced and disrespected unless they show unquestioned loyalty.”
Shea said staff want Elertson replaced, a sentiment echoed by English teacher Ryan Ayala during public comment on Monday.
Meeks said that is not being considered, and the district hopes to schedule the first meetings with a facilitator before the end of the school year. The last day for staff is June 6. He envisions these meetings including all school staff and administration.
This work will likely continue through the summer, and Meeks said he hopes a plan will be in place by the start of next school year. An update to the school board about the facilitator is expected June 13.
“What I’m hopeful for is that, whatever the process, whatever we learn from this, that these are techniques, strategies that we can use going forward,” Meeks said. “I’m hoping that those things just become embedded in part of the culture, and everybody is part of that process.”
Shea said teachers are not confident about a facilitator being successful.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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