For a few terrible hours last spring, folks in Nebraska City thought they were next.
A student called police dispatch and said she was in a hallway at Nebraska City Middle School and intended to shoot her social studies teacher.
Dozens of law enforcement officers descended on the school.
That was the start of a tense, confusing day that resulted in lockdowns at the middle and high schools, with police teams searching both schools and escorting high school students out at gunpoint.
The day, April 26, ended with no shooting, no injuries, two arrests and a lot of lessons learned, officials said.
School officials shared those lessons with other Nebraska educators during the annual Administrators’ Days conference in Kearney last week.
The incident revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the community’s preparedness for an active shooter.
It also presented some surprises that aren’t found in the training manuals.
Circumstances that day helped to create “the perfect storm,” said Jeff Edwards, superintendent of Nebraska City Public Schools.
The country’s nerves were still raw from the Feb. 14 massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
The district’s leadership was spread thin when the threat came in about 10 a.m., Edwards said.
“I was home sick,” he said. “Middle school principal was on a field trip. Dean of students was at a track meet. School principal was at the track meet. ... The police chief had food poisoning, so he wasn’t available all day. You can’t make this stuff up.”
Confusing matters further was a second unrelated report of threats that came in to police about the same time.
A woman who attempted to pick up her niece at the middle school, but was denied access because she wasn’t authorized, was making threats, officials said. Police learned later her threats were not specifically directed at the school, but at the time they assumed she might be involved.
The two reports “blended together,” Edwards said. “We really didn’t separate them until about 3 o’clock.”
Police, guns drawn, proceeded to search the middle school.
Meantime, an alert dispatcher figured out that the student had called from inside the high school, Nebraska City Police Capt. Lonnie Neeman said.
While the girl was making a threat call to police, the dispatcher heard over the phone an announcement the high school was going into lockdown, he said.
The middle school was already in lockdown, and police realized they were at the wrong school.
They drove over to the high school and entered.
The building was “dead quiet,” Neeman said. It was so quiet that police weren’t sure where to start searching, he said.
“When we entered into that building — thank God — we had no screaming, no yelling, had no gunfire,” he said. “We had nothing to direct us to one specific area.”
Police set about to search not just classrooms, but two gyms, offices, janitors’ closets and boiler rooms, he said. All the classroom doors were shut and locked.
“You’ve got a 141,000-square-foot building to search, and quickly,” Neeman said.
Once police started letting students out of the building, police worked with school administrators to identify the girl who threatened the school, confirming that calls came from her phone that she left in a classroom, he said.
Both the girl and the woman were arrested.
The day was a learning experience for everybody.
One area ripe for improvement is communication, Neeman said.
More than 30 law enforcement officers responded to the incident from different agencies.
“In our town, the fire department, the rescue squad, the police department, sheriff’s office and definitely the State Patrol, we’re all on different radio frequencies,” Neeman said. “Totally different radio systems in a couple of cases. They can’t even monitor the radio traffic.”
That needs to be addressed “so the right hand knows what the left hand is doing,” he said.
Edwards said social media both helped and hindered. Rumors flew that there were shots fired and that a police officer had tackled someone on the playground, he said.
“Imaginations run wild,” he said.
But social media also gave students holed-up in classrooms a way to communicate to parents that they were OK, Edwards said.
Officials had to deal with other situations: news media pressing for information, cooks and custodians not familiar with procedures, a student having a panic attack and a parent nearly tearing a middle school door off its hinges trying to reach a child.
On the positive side, students and staff were familiar with terms like lockdown and lockout.
That’s because the district and law enforcement have adopted a Standard Response Protocol, so everyone involved uses a common language.
Law enforcement worked well together, responding quickly, though some officers were not familiar with the buildings, Edwards said. The district doesn’t have a police officer assigned full time inside the high school.
Edwards said the incident will help sharpen the response in the future.
“End result, no one got hurt,” he said. “We were able to go through this incident and learn.”