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What does the future of school safety in Colorado look like?

Posted at 1:01 PM, Oct 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-22 00:53:36-04

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DENVER – School shootings are an unfortunate reality for students in the United States. In 2018, there were at least 12 shootings at schools, resulting in dozens of deaths.

On Feb. 14, 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. became a crime scene when a gunman murdered 17 students.

So far this year, there have been at least four school shootings, including one at STEM School Highlands Ranch, in which Kendrick Castillo was killed. With every tragedy, a single question arises for most: How do we prevent this from happening?

There is no shortage of suggestions for how to keep students safe — from arming teachers, to securing campuses better, to adding social workers. Lawmakers, parents and school districts are all looking for possible changes to make.

So, how should Colorado and the school districts within it move forward with school safety to keep parents safe?

A statewide response

The Colorado Attorney General’s Office has been seriously considering the issue of school safety since the shooting at Columbine High School. Afterward, the office came up with the Safe2Tell program to give people a place to call anonymously with reports of threats.

“We were an innovator here. A bunch of states have adopted it,” Attorney General Phil Weiser said.

The attorney general’s office has dedicated time and resources to get the word out about the program, how it works and the fact that callers can remain anonymous. Weiser believes their efforts are working, with a record number of reports submitted in the most-recent months.

“Every year, we’re getting more and more threats because we’re getting the word out about Safe2Tell,” Weiser said.

The increase in the number of calls could be a good or a bad thing; it’s hard to say for certain whether the rise in the number of tips coming in is a result of the program working or whether there really are more threats happening at schools.

Along with the office’s focus on Safe2Tell, it has also compiled a 151-page list of recommendations for how to move forward with school safety in the state. The list ranges from increased mental health services, to transferring behavioral records of students between schools, to how people respond to a tragedy.

While the list of recommendations is comprehensive, it is not mandatory for school districts to follow them and some do not.

Weiser is uncomfortable with the idea of forcing districts to comply.

“The reason it’s uncomfortable is because we leave schools underfunded and schools are making a series of difficult decisions about, ‘Do I do a four-day-a-week school week or do I cut out my arts program? Do I cut out sports programs?’ Whatever the choices are, school safety is one of those choices,” he said.

Weiser believes that as a whole, the state is more prepared to prevent and respond to a tragedy than it was 10 years ago.

He is now trying to make the case to districts to understand why school safety is so important to invest in.

“What we want all schools to know is that school safety is now part of the world that we live in; we can’t ignore it,” Weiser said.

The attorney general’s office is now looking at what it can do on a state level to provide tools, programs and teaching to help districts. Part of the discussion surrounds awareness and whether schools know what they can be doing, or the possibilities available to them.

Another big factor in the discussion is the resources and whether more needs to be dedicated to districts to make improvements. Weiser believes there needs to be a focus on improving the overall school environment to prevent bullying and make students feel comfortable reporting threats.

Mental health is also a topic that has historically been overlooked in the discussions on school safety.

“We need to talk about the mental health – recognizing that mental illness, just like physical illness, can be addressed,” Weiser said. “All too often, people miss that one of the biggest threats to our kids is suicide – more people dying at their own hands than at the hands of a shooter.”

That’s why he believes a critical part of school safety starts at home, with parents having honest conversations with their kids.

In the end, Weiser says it’s up to the entire community — from lawmakers to schools and parents — to help prevent another tragedy, whether it’s a suicide or shooting.

“The wrong way is to ignore the issue (and say) it could never happen here. Students, if you talk to them, they’re waiting for it to happen. They are living in a world where shootings are a reality,” Weiser said.

One district’s approach

For Denver Public Schools, safety is a top priority; the district oversees 210 schools with around 94,000 students.

For Michael Eaton, the chief of the department of safety for the district, school safety is personal.

“We are at Ground Zero right here in Colorado for school shootings, unfortunately,” Eaton said.

Along with leading the security team for the past 8 years, Eaton is also a father. Two of his sons were at Arapahoe High School in 2013 when a shooter entered the school and opened fire, killing senior Claire Davis.

“I’ve had the unique experience of both being a school safety leader and also a father during that time and so this really made me appreciate what parents go through in a tragic situation,” Eaton said.

Eaton sees school safety as something that begins at home and continues through the entire community.

“I mean just last year, we did almost 500 home visits with kids that were displaying concerning behavior. We don’t wait. We go out, we contact them, we get parents involved, we get kids help they need immediately. But also we mitigate that threat,” he said.

Eaton sees school security as something that is constantly evolving.

Part of that evolution is in physical security. This year, Denver Public Schools have added even more security measures to protect students.

“I think every district has to make decisions that are in the best interest of their school community and what works for their school,” Eaton said.

Schools are installing outdoor notification speakers so that students and staff who are out on recess, for instance, will know exactly what is happening inside of the building in the event of an emergency.

Blue flashing strobe lights are also being added to the front entrance and employee entrance to alert parents and staff of unsafe situations. The lights will blink when there is an emergency to warn people not to enter.

Beyond that, DPS is installing contact alarms on all exterior doors of schools that will go off if a door is left open for too long.

And this summer, the district spent $6 million on upgrades to the locks on all classrooms, offices, libraries and other rooms so that the doors can be locked from the inside with the push of a button.

The reason for all of this change is simple: seconds save lives. That’s why the district is turning to prerecorded emergency alert messages for things like lockdowns, doing anything it can to save seconds.

All of this is part of a layered approach to physical safety at the schools. However, Eaton says there are certain things the district will not do – like install metal detectors in schools.

“We don’t want to go to school and feel like they are walking into a jail or they are walking into a compound,” he said.

Along with the physical security, the district performs drills with students and staff to help them understand what they need to do in the event of an emergency. Within the first 30 days of each semester, every school must complete an unannounced lockdown drill to test their readiness. If the school fails, it has two weeks to make corrections and get it right.

DPS also partners with Denver police and emergency workers to run live-action drills, including an active shooter drill in 2018 and a student/parent reunification drill this summer.

It’s also partnering with neighboring counties on their emergency response plans.

“You have to have those partnerships built because, quite frankly, there’s never enough resources in an emergency,” Eaton said.

However, one of the biggest areas the district is trying to improve is communication between districts about potentially problematic students. For years, school districts only transferred performance records to other districts when a student moved.

DPS is stressing the need for districts to share information about documented safety plans and threat assessments for students, particularly in the era of school choice. Eaton says he doesn’t want schools or districts to label students, but says safety information needs to be shared between districts.

Along with allowing schools to better protect themselves, Eatons says sharing this information allows districts to make sure the student is being provided resources to support them, like mental health help. DPS is now working with the attorney general’s office to make sure threat assessments are included in transfer records.

In the end, Eaton stressed that schools are safe and that millions of students go to class each day and come home without any problems.

“We don’t want parents and we don’t want people to live in fear, but we want them to be prepared in the event that something was to happen,” he said.

A different approach

Ascent Classical Academy in Douglas County is taking a different approach to school safety.

About a year ago, its governing board approved a security officer program at the school which will allow for some trained staff to carry firearms with them. It’s an idea that the school’s executive director, Derec Shuler, says is allowed by state statute and the school’s contract.

“It’s a program our parents have overwhelmingly supported, and they want in the face of what happened last year at STEM, especially in our own community down there. Our parents are really concerned,” Shuler said.

This is the first school year that program has been in place at the school. The staff members who were chosen for the program are anonymous. Each of them already had a concealed carry permit, volunteered to participate, and were required to go through training and an assessment.

The school security officers were trained through the FASTER Colorado program.

The decision to arm staff has been a controversial one; the school has been left the Douglas County School District as a result of the decision and to transition to state oversight. Despite this, Shuler says he believes the school made the right decision.

“It is our solemn responsibility to do everything we can to ensure all of our students and the children of our parents come home safely every day. We know that’s Douglas County’s intent as well, we just have a different approach,” Shuler said.

Thinking long-term

While schools and districts try to come up with ways to keep students safe, the state legislature is also taking a closer look at what it can do on a larger level.

An interim school safety committee met four times over the legislative recess in the wake of the STEM School shooting.

Lawmakers heard from parents, students, districts, experts and others to try to identify areas that can be improved.

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, is the chair of the interim committee.

“I believe that my charge is that not one more child die by violence in school,” Michaelson Jenet said.

Michaelson Jenet says part of the issue comes down to bullying in schools, which often times these days goes beyond the building itself and continues on social media. She believes it’s up to parents to teach their children about appropriate social media use and common decency.

Another major focus for the interim committee is mental health and how to better address it in schools.

“There’s one consistent thing that we’ve heard over and over again: We need more behavioral health resources in schools,” Michaelson Jenet said. “We know that we have a crisis here in Colorado with behavioral health.”

However, Michaelson Jenet says it’s important to note that people suffering from mental illness are more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator.

Suicide is also a major mental health concern; Colorado has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the country and that number is rising faster than the national average.

Mental health is such an important issue for Michaelson Jenet to focus on because her son attempted suicide when he was just 9 years old.

“I believe every school shooting is a suicide mission. So, if we can address suicidality maybe we stop not only the 2% of the shootings that happen in schools, or the deaths that happen at school, but the 98% that happen out in the community as well,” Michaelson Jenet said.

Funding for school safety and behavioral health is something at which the committee is also taking a close look. Michaelson Jenet is looking at other states like Florida to see what they are doing and whether there is something Colorado could be doing differently to help schools.

Most importantly, Michaelson Jenet wants the committee to come up with actionable legislation that has measurable results to keep kids safe.

“We will make funding available; we will make training available; we will come to your school district; we will do everything we can to make it a positive experience for you to be able to engage in what we think are the best tools in the market,” she said.

Focusing on response

While state lawmakers, parents and districts concentrate their efforts on how to prevent another school shooting, experts in law enforcement are focused on better responses when an emergency does happen.

Grant Whitus is a former SWAT officer who was the first person in the door at Columbine High School when two shooters murdered 12 of their classmates and a teacher.

“I focus on how to stop it once it started,” Whitus said.

Since 1999, law enforcement has changed the way it responds to these incidents. Before, officers would wait for backup before entering the school.

“There’s no more waiting for two or three cops to show up. They’ve got to get in there immediately, engage that shooter and wait for more cops if they can’t take them down,” Whitus said.

Law enforcement has also improved their communication in the two decades since the Columbine tragedy occurred. Agencies now have a more uniform way to communicate with one another in an emergency.

Training has also improved for officers regarding how to engage these shooters. Whitus now works with law enforcement agencies across the country to look at ways to improve their training and response protocols.

“We certainly have a long way to go to get all the agencies up to speed,” Whitus said.

Whitus says while prevention is key, law enforcement response can mean all the difference in how quickly a shooter is taken into custody and a potential tragedy is stopped.

“Evil is always going to exist. We have to understand that and it’s constantly getting worse, and so we have to prepare ourselves and prepare ourselves mentally for this,” Whitus said.

The future of school safety

There are no easy answers for how to keep students safe in schools. Some believe arming teachers or better fortifying buildings is key. Others believe focusing on mental health and bullying will better protect students.

In the end, no one wants to see another shooting tear families and school communities apart. It may take a combination ideas and strategies to keep students safe.

Until these tragedies stop, parents, teachers, lawmakers and others will continue to look for new ways to keep students safe while they learn.

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