District 51 putting safety goals in place
The shooting one year ago today at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., spurred School District 51 executives to re-examine security in local schools and led to the formation of the School Security and Safety Work Group.
The work group, which consisted of 25 citizens, district employees and law enforcement officials, met seven times this February and March to research and hear suggestions about potential school safety measures and discuss their merits or lack thereof. The group presented a long list of suggestions for the district at a school board meeting March 19.
Several of those suggestions have been checked off the list or are getting close to happening, according to District 51 Safety and Transportation Director Tim Leon.
Crime Stoppers programs that encouraged students to report suspicious activity have been revitalized at all middle and high schools in the district. The district hired a safety coordinator, Tanny McGinnis, in July to conduct building walk-throughs to look for potential impediments to safety. The district rolled out an auto-caller system to tell parents about school incidents and a text alert option is coming soon.
Interior walls have been installed outside the offices of Scenic and Rocky Mountain elementary schools. The national Watch DOGS program has been rolled out at Fruitvale and Shelledy elementary schools and Fruita Middle School to encourage fathers to volunteer in classrooms and to patrol hallways. The district has set a goal of rolling out the program in half of the district’s elementary schools by the end of the year and in the other 12 elementary schools in the district by the end of 2014-15.
The district hopes to hear within a month if it will receive a grant to install panic buttons at every school. If they don’t get the money, Leon said the district still plans to install the buttons, which alert law enforcement of an incident, but the process will take longer.
Funding for keyless-entry locks, radios and video cameras isn’t readily available so those changes will have to wait a bit, Leon said. New Emerson Elementary’s parent-teacher organization, though, is fundraising for keyless locks at that school.
The working group focused on prevention through counseling as well as prevention through physical barriers. Suggestions from the group included more suicide and bullying prevention training, better identifying students at risk of harming themselves or others and counseling them, and improving student and staff relationships.
District 51 Prevention Coordinator Cathy Haller said the district has introduced new suicide and bullying prevention programming this school year. Fruita 8/9 School is piloting an anti-bullying, pro-social involvement program called SOS, Sources of Strength.
Adults in the schools volunteer to lead about 50 student leaders from various peer groups to support each other and encourage peers to make positive connections with adults in the school. The program may expand into eight schools if the district gets a grant, according to Haller.
The district also finalized a standardized protocol to identify and document student behavior that may indicate a student is suicidal. All school counselors and psychologists in the districts have been trained to use the new protocol. Also, suicide prevention programming has expanded into the fifth grade, where students take the “Riding the Waves” program, which does not specifically talk about suicide but focuses on resiliency.
Many of the items mentioned by the working group simply asked the district to expand or continue actions already being taken, such as continuing to host routine lockdown drills at schools, training staff to prepare for the possibility of a school shooting, and encouraging staff to be more aware of potential threats.
Leon said drills and training have continued, but select parents and more staff are now being exposed to the drills and more teachers and staff members have attended at least some of the trainings this year instead of limiting threat assessment training to administrators.
Trainings since the working group convened have included Active Countermeasures Training to teach employees how to react to an intruder and crisis response Incident Command Training.
Local law enforcement have also become more involved in training, shifting the focus of monthly meetings with administrators from dialogue about potential safety risks both sides have seen on school property to more of an advisory role, with law enforcement teaching administrators how to spot risks.
Officers have continued to have a greater presence in schools since Sandy Hook at the request of the district, whether that means stopping by for lunch or filling out reports in a car parked outside a school. Working group requests for more counselors and school resource officers are contingent on when funding will become available. Sgt. Wayne Weyler, who oversees the four school resource officers from the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, said he doesn’t see numbers increasing any time soon. Still, officers and deputies are in schools more often.
“After Sandy Hook we had each deputy adopt three to four schools,” Weyler said. Deputies visit the schools regularly to eat lunch, file reports or just drop in.
Weyler said local law enforcement also is more involved in training school staff to prepare for active-shooter situations and advising administrators on what to look for during a walk-through.
Improvements in school safety for district staff and law enforcement are constantly moving forward, he said.
“I think they’re more cognizant of safety issues. Each year we learn more than what was learned from prior active-shooter trainings,” Weyler said.
Although safety measures have improved, Leon said, he believes all the precautions in the world cannot put an end to school shootings.
“The reality is we’re schools; we have to have movement, we have to let parents in and out of schools,” he said. “It could happen at any building at any time. Everything we so is designed to minimize (catastrophe).”
Leon said the district learned from Sandy Hook that they are doing some things right. Lockdown procedures taught to Sandy Hook staff and in District 51, for example, kept more students from losing their lives, he said. The district also learned other steps being taken here that were in place at Sandy Hook, such as entryways that require a person to be buzzed in, can be defeated.
Potential disaster can keep him up at night but Leon said he is still confident sending his own children to local schools that have trained staff and a variety of safety measures in place.
“Schools are still one of the safest places for kids to go during the day,” he said.