Bullet-resistant glass to guidance counseling: Keeping Routt County students safe amid a national crisis
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Last week, FBI agents spoke with students from schools across Routt and Moffat counties, all of whom convened at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport.
The discussions were not part of a criminal investigation, but an introduction to a state-sponsored Student & Staff Safety Summit. It marks one of the latest efforts to address a national rise in school violence and equip students with the knowledge and resources to combat a range of issues, from suicide to cyberbullying.
Across Colorado, the number of anonymous tips from students regarding safety concerns through the state’s Safe2Tell program has increased in the last year. In November, the program received 2,595 tips, according to a Tuesday news release from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. That marks a 13% increase compared to November 2018. The most common safety concerns remain consistent and include suicide, bullying and drugs, according to program’s data summary.
To many, the situation is one of chaos, of a nation that has gone mad with violence.
April 21 marked the 20th anniversary of the infamous Columbine High School shooting. Days earlier, a Florida high school student whom authorities said was infatuated with the mass shooting had flown across the country to Colorado and bought a gun, allegedly to commit violence. Even Routt County schools had increased law enforcement presence amid the incident, marring a day that was supposed to be set aside for prayers and memorials.
Then in May, two students allegedly opened fire at a STEM school in Highlands Ranch near Denver, killing a fellow student and wounding eight others.
Rather than being paralzyed by these incidents, Routt County schools have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in added security measures to protect students. They also have deployed new emergency drills to prepare students and staff for a variety of disasters, natural or otherwise.
Steamboat Pilot & Today spoke with representatives from the Steamboat Springs, South Routt and Hayden school districts to find out what they are doing to ramp up security.
Amid the safety crisis, several themes have emerged. Law enforcement is now a more regular presence at schools. Locally, schools have student resources officers who have an office on campus and are available to address any safety concerns or respond immediately to threats.
There is a greater focus on the mental health of students with the idea of being proactive in recognizing concerning behavior and addressing any issues before they spiral out of control.
Schools also have expanded the kind of emergency drills they conduct. In addition to the fire drills many adults will remember from their school days, students now practice responding to attackers on or around school property.
Chris Harms, the director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center who oversees the Student & Staff Safety Summit, said five drills typically are practiced in the state’s public schools. These include drills for lockdowns, lockouts, sheltering in place, evacuation and reunification. The last of these, reunification, is the latest drill and has yet to be deployed in many schools. It involves the practice of connecting students with their primary caregivers following a safety incident, Harms said.
Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Brad Meeks could not be reached for comment. Instead, Steamboat Pilot & Today spoke with Steamboat Springs Middle School Principal Heidi Chapman-Hoy, who attended the Safety Summit with four teachers and 20 middle and high school students.
She said the event offered a rare chance for students to voice their concerns to federal and state safety officials.
“It’s great to see students get together and feel empowered about sharing their ideas,” Chapman-Hoy said.
Giving students more say in school policy has been a goal for her and fellow education officials. To that end, she asked the students who participated in the summit to turn in reflection papers, which are due next week.
Already, Chapman-Hoy has learned that students want more opportunities to debrief following emergency drills. She said these simulations can cause emotional distress, something officials are trying to be more cognizant of.
The middle school also has increased counseling resources thanks to several grants in an effort to address minor problems before they become major. Supporting students’ mental health is a necessity, Chapman-Hoy said, something that was not as appreciated years ago.
“They really do need that adult connection, a person they can trust,” she said.
Hayden’s new pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade campus made state television two months ago after receiving a $44,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to prevent school violence. It was the only school district in Colorado to get the grant, according to Hayden Superintendent Dr. Christy Sinners. That money is on top of more than $500,000 the district received this year through Colorado’s School Safety Disbursement program.
The money will go toward security upgrades at the new school, slated to open for the 2020-21 school year. Bullet-resistant and fire-resistant glass, cameras and specialty training for staff are among the safety measures the district will implement with the funding, Sinners said.
“The No. 1 issue in schools is the safety of students,” she said. “If they are not secure or safe, education is not going to happen.”
Still, the district has struggled to provide adequate mental health services to students. A grant-funded counseling position has remained unfilled for months, Sinners said, because no qualified candidates have applied. It is a shortage many rural areas face, not just in schools but entire communities.
Instead, the district has partnered with local mental health organizations to try to fill the gaps.
“That is a key component of security and safety,” Sinners said.
Rim Watson, superintendent of the South Routt School District, has worked in education for 33 years. Safety has always been a top priority, but the urgency of keeping students safe has grown to new levels in the past decade, he said.
“You have to have procedures in place and do everything possible safety-wise,” Watson said.
In November, when a high school student allegedly threatened to bring a firearm to campus, the district immediately initiated one such procedure, its safety crisis plan. Local law enforcement took the student into custody and increased school security the following day.
Watson and his staff have been preparing for such incidents for years. He stays up to date on shootings and other security incidents at schools across the world as a way to better inform his district’s procedures. Safety trainings for him and his staff are almost a regular occurrence.
“We are always trying to be informed any way we can,” Watson said.
Over the summer, the Soroco middle and high school campus conducted a first responder active shooting training. The Oak Creek Police Department and Routt County Sheriff’s Office joined the school district’s directors, supervisors and some school board members in the drill, according to Watson. Together, they simulated a violent scenario that would, in a real situation, put student and staff lives at risk.
“The idea is for us to learn what the law enforcement response actually consists of and for the responders to become more familiar with our facilities and personnel,” Watson said.
All of these measures hold student safety as the highest priority for schools. As Sinners said, if students do not feel secure, they cannot receive an adequate education. Colorado lawmakers also are feeling the urgency to protect children. This year, the state’s school safety committee produced five bills aimed to make schools safer, which range from expanding mental health training to improving response to threats.
Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver and Arapahoe County Democrat, told The Denver Post she was disappointed her committee was not able to address the “elephant in the room,” which is students accessing guns and bringing them to school.
A solution to that issue extends beyond the confines of schools to rights that many Americans are not willing to give up, even if it could save lives.
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