Safety a main priority
Administrators, law enforcement plan to ensure school security
Superintendent Donna Howell and public safety director J.D. Hays talk about safety in Steamboat Springs schools.See audio slideshow
Soda Creek Elementary will perform a lockdown drill at 3 p.m. Monday. Law enforcement will be present on the streets surrounding the school.
Steamboat Springs — Columbine. Bailey. The words incite emotions among Northwest Colorado school administrators and law enforcement officers.
For some, that emotion is sadness – sadness for lives lost and communities torn apart by school shootings of which victims and their families had little or no warning. For others, it is distress – distress in the realization that no school is immune from unstable adults or children with weapons and a plan.
Two and a half weeks have passed since Duane Roger Morrison entered Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, killing one hostage before shooting himself.
More than six years have passed since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed or wounded nearly three dozen peers and teachers before turning their guns on themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton.
Steamboat Springs High School principal Mike Knezevich was at Hinkley High School in Aurora on the day of the Columbine shootings.
That April day is a blur. It is the day after that he remembers.
“It was about 1:30 p.m., and a kid comes up to me and says, ‘Mr. Knezevich, there is a locker ticking.’ My heart just dropped,” Knezevich said. “He showed me where this locker is. Sure enough, I hear this locker. We evacuate the building. They bring in the dogs. Every media outlet is there.”
The ticking was a cassette player stuck on play, and the tape inside had reached the end of its roll. It was nothing, but Knezevich didn’t know.
“We just don’t mess around when it comes to kids’ and staff safety,” Knezevich said.
Plans in place
The situation at Columbine opened people’s eyes to the importance of school safety and the necessity of emergency plans. The recent shootings in Bailey, Cazenovia, Wisc. and Paradise, Pa. are proof that school violence isn’t isolated to a religious group, socioeconomic class, or region of the United States.
Local school administrators and law enforcement officers wish they could guarantee immunity from school violence, but it would be irresponsible to expect the best without preparing for the worst, they said.
Consequently, the Steamboat Springs, Hayden and South Routt school districts have had emergency plans in place for at least five years.
On Monday, each district will review its specific plans with its staff. Steamboat, Hayden and South Routt scheduled October staff development days for emergency plan updates prior to the Bailey shootings.
But the Monday drills, while a coincidence, are timely.
“You can’t sit back and watch national tragedies without responding to them,” Steamboat Springs Superintendent Donna Howell said.
Lockdown or evacuate
In some emergencies, students in all three districts will evacuate from schools and district buildings quickly. In other emergencies, students will be in a lockdown where they and faculty will remain inside the building because the safety threat is outside.
In many emergencies, students will be in a lockdown to keep them away from danger, but they will be evacuated as soon as the threat is contained to one room in a school or building.
“One of the criticisms (of the handling of the Columbine shootings) was that the police got there and didn’t do anything,” said J.D. Hays, director of public safety for the city of Steamboat Springs. “The mindset was when you have some kind of event like that, the initial responding officers secure the area, but they don’t do anything until the experts – by experts, I mean a SWAT team – get there. In Bailey, the cops were in there right now. They contained the guy to one room and that’s what has changed.
“I’m confident in our response because all our officers have been through active shooter training, which means they are trained to make entry to the school and immediately confront or contain an individual who’s in there.”
Hays is one of the men responsible for local law enforcement’s response to emergencies at Steamboat Springs High School and Soda Creek Elementary School because those buildings are within city limits.
Strawberry Park Elementary School and Steamboat Springs Middle School are in the county and are the responsibility of the Routt County Sheriff’s Department, although both agencies likely would work together regardless of which school is involved, Hays said. The Colorado State Patrol also would be used if necessary, Hays added.
Hays and Steamboat administrators said they are confident with the plans they have designed, and they practice those plans several times a year. There is a lockdown drill at 3 p.m. Monday at Soda Creek.
Getting administrators and faculty to understand the importance of safety drills isn’t difficult. The students are another story.
“The problem is there is a mentality that it isn’t going to happen here,” Hays said. “People don’t think there’s crime here. Everything happens in Steamboat that happens in Denver, just not as frequently. I have to strike a balance and not come across as a gloom and doom type of person.”
Local law enforcement responds when there is an emergency in Steamboat, but the schools are doing their part to prevent violence from happening.
Each school requires visitors, including parents, to check in at the office upon entrance to the school. At each district school, doors are locked except for main entrance doors and doors used to access outdoor classrooms or facilities.
The high school has a student resource officer who is responsible for the safety and safety concerns of students and faculty. Debbi Funston is in her fourth year as SRO at the high school. Her office is in the school’s main office, but there is talk of moving her office closer to the front door, she said.
“The biggest part of my job, really, is to foster relationships with the kids so I can bridge the gap between the youth of the community and the law enforcement,” Funston said.
Knezevich called the SRO his “left hand,” saying the position, which is funded by the Steamboat Springs Police Department, is an essential component in the building’s safety plan.
“It’s the relationships she builds with the kids,” Knezevich said. “If something is going on in the building, they will come to her and say something isn’t right.”
Students’ help key
Using students’ eyes and ears is important in other buildings’ emergency plans, as well. Steam-
boat Springs Middle School principal Tim Bishop has fielded questions from students on school safety, which he is pleased to answer because it means students are thinking about their role in the process.
“We want kids trained to see if there is someone in here without a pass, that they tell a teacher,” Bishop said. “We are the ones who have to be aware of our surroundings. We have a reactive plan in place. Now, we are working on being proactive. Having students and teachers pay attention is proactive.”
The elementary schools have slightly different plans because they do not want to inadvertently scare the children. Instead, administrators trust teachers to be calm leaders in a dangerous situation.
“We need to work as a community to be watchful,” Soda Creek principal Judy Harris said.
South Routt and Hayden
South Routt Superintendent Kelly Reed and Hayden Superintendent Mike Luppes acknowledge the remoteness of their communities presents a challenge in emergency situations.
What they can control is the safety of their schools, the training of their faculty and the awareness of their students to suspicious people or dangerous situations.
“We are currently in the process of updating, revising, et cetera, the plan,” Reed said. “The administrative team is working on it as we speak. We wanted to make certain that all the instructions were relevant and understandable so everybody knew precisely what we needed to do. We will address the staff on the changes and revisions and go through a series of drills involving the students and staff.”
South Routt recently checked all its intercoms to ensure they worked properly. Security cameras are used at the Soroco High School and Middle School campus.
“I’m also in the process of writing a Department of Homeland Security grant to see if we can get updated equipment,” Reed said.
In Hayden, visitors are funneled toward the office upon entrance. The district recently decided to lock additional doors to minimize outside access.
The new locks, which recently were installed in all district buildings with the help of a grant, will improve security, Luppes said.
“Our staff now has the capability to lock the door from inside the room,” he added. “That’s a biggie for us.”
While South Routt and Hayden are challenged by their location, Steamboat is challenged by more district buildings and more students to protect. There are no cameras in district schools, and the buildings are relatively easy to access.
That could change. Howell is interested in community feedback on the current level of security at the schools. There is talk of installing buzzers on the doors, so people wouldn’t be able to enter until buzzed in. Installing cameras is a possibility. Hiring an additional SRO for the middle school has been discussed.
But nothing is finalized.
“Do you put that level of security in place to basically tell kids you can’t trust them? Philosophically, that’s the debate,” Howell said. “I think when you look at it, it’s really a complex issue. I’m recommending all principals sit down with staff and enhance safety as soon as possible and put those in place in the short term. In the long term, we have to have conversations about what level of security we want in this community.”
According to a HarrisInteractive poll conducted last spring, Steamboat’s parents and students perceive Steamboat as a safe school district.
If voters approve the $29.7 million bond issue in November, Soda Creek, which will be rebuilt, and Strawberry Park, which will be renovated, would have improved security.
Strawberry Park’s administrative offices would move to the main entrance, and students would no longer have to walk outside to access modular classrooms, many of which don’t have plumbing, Doors have to stay unlocked so students can walk freely between the modulars and the school.
“I think people need to be aware that safety will be increased,” Strawberry Park Principal Mark MacHale said. “We don’t want to capitalize on anyone’s tragedy, but people should be aware that we would, in my opinion, have a safer campus.”
At Soda Creek, administrative offices would remain at the front of the building, but the new school would have better ventilation, so teachers wouldn’t have to open doors for outside air.
The school also would have pods, which could be closed off immediately by pushing a button in the office, Harris said.
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In an effort to make Steamboat Springs Transit buses safer and more accessible, solar-powered lighting in bus shelters and a GPS-triggered automatic voice system that will announce stops in English and Spanish are being implemented.