Planning for the unthinkable in Steamboat; school shooting in Florida prompts reflection in Routt County
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Hayden Superintendent Christy Sinner was sitting in on a preschool class Thursday morning when out of the mouth of a babe came evidence of how deeply American society has been affected by school shootings.
“The teacher was going through that morning’s Steamboat Today, reading some of the articles, and a little girl, 4 or 5, she will go to kindergarten next year, piped up,” Sinner said. “She knew quite a few of the details” of the Wednesday shooting that claimed 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida.
Upon hearing that story, Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins lamented his inability to provide deputies to school districts throughout the county to help increase the law enforcement presence in the schools.
“In a perfect world, I’d love to have a school resource officer in every school,” Wiggins said. “But it’s not feasible. If I did that, I wouldn’t have enough road deputies.”
Steamboat Springs Police Department Patrol Commander Jerry Stabile said that Officer Brent Hunstad, who serves as the school resource officer at Steamboat Springs High School and works to build trust with students, faculty and administrators, is the first line of defense.
Because Hunstad spends his working days in the high school, mingling with the students, he represents the first level of security, not just because he is a law enforcement officer specially trained to respond to a lone wolf gunman in the school, but primarily due to the relationships he builds.
“In law enforcement, we’re only as good as our eyes and ears in the community,” Stabile said. “That’s why you try to foster great trust with the community. It’s beneficial to everybody.”
In Hayden, recent initiatives to improve school security have included requiring students to park their cars in designated lots to make it easier for the town’s police officers to recognize vehicles that don’t belong there.
And there is increased emphasis on strict adherence to requiring visitors to stand before a surveillance camera and stating why they are at the school before being granted admittance.
Between the high school and middle school in Hayden, there are an unusual number of exit doors — 19 of them — that lock from the outside, which is a problem to begin with, Sinner said. Now, students are being broken of the bad habit of placing small rocks or other obstructions in the door jams so they can enter as they please.
In the Steamboat Springs School District, Strawberry Park middle and elementary schools are outside the city limits and lie within the sheriff’s jurisdiction, while Steamboat Springs High School and Soda Creek Elementary School are located within the jurisdiction of Police Chief Cory Christensen. That circumstance has brought the two departments together in the effort to keep local schools safe.
The two departments combined the resources of their emergency response teams in 2012. The team has 14 members. But every certified law officer in the county, including Colorado State Patrol and Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers, are encouraged to join the team in an annual training exercise at one of the schools. The training is intended to approximate a real emergency as closely as possible.
Stabile, who oversees the team, said the annual drills are designed to approximate the stress that officers responding to a real mass shooting might experience.
“We have simulation rounds to create as real a scenario as possible,” Stabile said.
The weapons used by the law enforcement officers and the “bad guys” in the simulations are loaded with rounds, which are smaller than a paintball round but leave a chalk imprint when they strike one of the participants in the drill.
Less dramatic, but critical, is familiarizing officers with the interior of school buildings.
Keeping worshippers safe
Americans have been made painfully aware that even places of worship are not safe from mass shooters.
Sheriff Wiggins has made his department available to advise businesses and church leaders on keeping their employees and congregations safe.
Wiggins said that in the case of churches, he advises that the people who typically greet worshippers at the door be trained to recognize suspicious, or odd, behavior — things that are red flags — and to have an action plan.
“Maybe you step inside and lock the doors,” he said. “If someone came in and you recognized a bad situation, use a phone alert to notify security people. A lot of churches have people with concealed/carry permits. Oftentimes, they are full-time peace officers in their daily lives.”
Stabile and Wiggins acknowledged that the typical mass shooting is over quickly — lasting just six minutes on average — and by the time law enforcement is summoned, “something bad has happened.”
That’s why preparedness is so important, they agree.
“The last thing you want is to have this philosophy that, ‘This is Steamboat, it’s not going to happen here,’” Wiggins said.
Stabile said that every time news of a school shooting breaks, he feels a little down.
“God forbid that something like that happens here,” he said. “Every time these happen, I have a cloud for a couple of days — just a little gloom — and a tear now and again.”
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