PLEASANT GROVE — An estimated 200 officers from 19 local, state and federal agencies responded.
They wore tactical gear and carried assault rifles as they went through Pleasant Grove High School Thursday afternoon, classroom by classroom, clearing each room and declaring it safe while many students crouched under their desks. Students later exited the building, single file, with their hands above or on their heads.
It wasn't until the operation was nearly completed — the entire school had been searched and all students accounted for — that a 15-year-old boy who had earlier reported seeing a man with a gun inside the school walking the hallways, admitted that he had lied, allegedly to get out of a class assignment.
Despite the massive law enforcement response for what ultimately turned out to be a hoax, Pleasant Grove Police Capt. Mike Roberts said Friday that officers responded appropriately.
"There's a lot of people with the opinion that it was overkill, and in my opinion it's not," said Roberts, whose daughter is a student at the school. "If there's a wolf amongst that sheep, we're going to send in as many people as we can to get that wolf."
Roberts also doesn't believe the large police response was influenced by the nation's shock over the shootings in San Bernardino, California, the day before.
"There's a lot of people who have asked that. And in my opinion, I don't think it had any" influence, he said.
Since the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, Roberts said the type of response police used on Thursday has become "kind of the norm."
In an era where school lockdown drills have become routine, law enforcement agencies across the state have been preaching to students for some time, "If you see something, say something," encouraging them to report anything that appears to be suspicious, no matter how insignificant it may seem.
Information prompts response
The Unified Police Department, for example, has responded to more than a dozen reports this year of a possible gun at or near a school, or a threat with a gun made toward a school or students. In several cases, the weapons turned out to be airsoft or BB guns, and in at least one case, a Nerf gun, according to police records. In other cases, the reports were unfounded.
The key to how police react is based on the information they receive, according to Roberts. If someone had called saying they thought they saw something that looked like a gun or overheard someone talking about a gun, the response would have been different.
"The kid didn't say, 'I think I saw a gun.' He said, 'I saw a gun.' If he says, 'I saw a gun,' that's the kind of response you're going to get, absolutely. It doesn't matter what high school it's at," Roberts said. "We'd rather have it be nothing than absolutely have it be something. It's unfortunate that that many resources were wasted for a time, but that's what we get paid to do.
"You can't just take for granted anymore someone just coming in and saying, 'There's a guy waving a gun around Smith's Marketplace,'" he continued. "We can't just say, 'Well, let's send a guy out and have him walk through there and see if he sees a guy with a gun.' It's just not that world anymore. If someone is reporting an active shooter, that's the kind of response you're going to get."
Roberts estimates that about half of the 200 officers who responded to the school on Thursday were on assigned teams. The others were officers who were either close to the area or wanted to help. Many came from nearby law enforcement agencies such as Lone Peak, the Utah County Sheriff's Office, Lehi, Springville, Orem, Provo, Lindon, American Fork, Spanish Fork and Saratoga Springs.
"If they have guys available, they're going to send them whether we ask or not," he said. "A lot of officers just see it and respond for help."
A West Jordan officer whose daughter attends the school also responded after receiving a text from her. FBI agents and Homeland Security officers responded, too.
The 15-year-old student who was arrested was booked into the Slate Canyon Youth Center for investigation of making a terroristic threat and for making a false report. Alpine School District officials said Friday his status with the school will be reviewed pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings.
Counselors were available at Pleasant Grove High School Friday for any students traumatized by Thursday's events. A few students and even parents chose to come talk about what they were feeling, school counselor Kurt Wollenzien said, while teachers kept an eye out for others who seemed uneasy.
"We've called them down and just processed with them and asked them how they're doing. A little stress, a little anxiety was caused, and so we've just kind of processed the situation and how things went and what's going on," Wollenzien said.
At first glance, Friday appeared to be just another day at the school. However, Wollenzien said he noted subtle signs that students are still sorting through the experience.
"I think if some people walked in they wouldn't be able to tell anything happened yesterday," Wollenzien said. "Some, you can just see, are a little more shy. … You can kind of see maybe a little daydreaming, a little thinking in their mind of kind of processing on their own, 'What did I see? What did I just go through?'"
Counselors also sought out any students they know who have pre-existing anxiety and will continue to follow up with them, Wollenzien said.
Despite the disruption, the school has returned easily to normal operations. In fact, after the lockdown was lifted Thursday, the varsity wrestling team went ahead with that night's meet as planned, said Kimberly Bird, assistant to the superintendent.
"It was amazing to see how resilient kids are and they bounced back," she said.
Thursday's incident happened almost one year to the day when a SWAT team from the Weber County Sheriff's Office responded in similar fashion to Fremont High School on a report that a student had witnessed a 16-year-old boy carrying a gun. That teen was later found and indeed had a gun and planned to open fire on students. Officers dressed in full SWAT gear walked through the school, clearing each classroom individually. Many students were forced to wait up to four hours in their classrooms before they were allowed to leave the building.
In the days following the Fremont lockdown, the school's counseling team and representatives from the Weber School District were on hand for any students who were troubled by the event. The number of students who asked to talk to counselors was relatively low, according to school officials.
"For a couple of days, we had probably a little more tension in the school, a little more anxiety, and we had a few people calling in saying they didn't want to send their kids back to school," said Dale Gibb, the school's head counselor. "The way the kids responded, it kind of surprised us. They said they felt safer after seeing the response from law enforcement and how seriously they take that threat."
Teachers also led discussions with students in their classrooms, Gibb said, reassuring them they were in a safe place and that help was available if they needed it.
For the small group of students who did ask to talk to a counselor, anxiety over the lockdown was coupled with concern about the state of the world in general, said Fremont High Principal Rod Belnap.
"I think they just wanted to talk through some of their concerns about the world generally," he said.
The principal noted that counselors continued to follow up over time with any students who were distressed by the lockdown experience.
Belnap believes a drill at the school just days before had prepared students and staff. Whether in response to a high-stress scenario like the lockdown or any other issue, administrators and teachers hope to create a reassuring atmosphere day to day.
"Being highly visible and going about business as usual as you can afterward was a focus, so (students) could feel like everything was OK," Belnap said. "The main thing, schoolwide, was providing a climate where they feel supportive and have a familiar face, someone they trust, so they can get back to feeling like it's school."
Pleasant Grove school officials also met Friday to review the event. Bird said one of the big talking points was how to improve coordination efforts between the schools and police. Police on Thursday night also talked about ways of improving communication when so many different agencies become involved in an incident.
Several police agencies told the Deseret News on Friday that they would have launched a similar response had they received a call of an active shooter or a report of a gunman.
Although one officer was involved in a traffic accident while responding to the Pleasant Grove incident Thursday, both law enforcement and school officials were pleased that no one was injured during the tense situation.
"To go through something like that without anyone really being hurt or harmed, that was so helpful. It's so different than doing a drill," Bird said. "It's something we'll be able to learn from. We're fortunate that nobody was really in harm's way or even harmed."
Contributing: Nkoyo Iyamba