Group studying security, prevention in District 51
Two handguns were carried into Fruita Middle School the morning of Nov. 19, 2004.
Six teenage boys, all students at the school, were arrested within a week. Prompted by a student tip, administrators and police found one of the guns and learned that another weapon was on campus before one of the boys took it home. Rumors of a “hit list” of 33 potential victims also surfaced.
It’s the closest School District 51 has ever come to a school shooting, as far as anyone knows. Other districts haven’t been so lucky.
The Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting that left 20 first-graders and six school employees dead at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., compelled District 51 and school systems across the country to re-examine their security practices. After weeks of consulting with law enforcement and internal examination, District 51 gathered a group of 25 local parents, community members, attorneys, police chiefs, school board members, school staff and district executives to weigh a growing number of suggestions for enhancing school safety.
The group convened with 22 active members and three alternates Feb. 6 and will have its final meeting Monday before presenting recommendations to the District 51 School Board at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Basil T. Knight Center.
Over the course of six meetings, the group gathered data, presented ideas for safety changes and whittled a list of proposals. Not much has been chiseled off the extensive list, which includes the possibilities of armed or unarmed volunteers patrolling schools, allowing teachers or administrators to carry concealed weapons, adding school resource officers and expanding staff training for crisis situations. Other suggestions include trying to reach potential shooters before they spiral out of control by strengthening bullying and suicide prevention programs, encouraging students to tell someone if they hear about a potential shooting and implementing a lengthy roster of physical changes to buildings such as installing panic buttons, special locks and more surveillance cameras.
Guns in schools
As of last week, the school district had received 90 email comments pertaining to the safety work group. Eighty were from people asking the school board not to allow volunteers, teachers or administrators to carry guns in schools.
“Our children need the care and role-modelling (sic) of loving, wise adults trained in education, not gun-toting Rambos,” read one comment.
“Any guns in school, with the possible exception of trained police officers, would actually make our kids much LESS safe, because of the risk of accidents,” read another.
A few commenters threatened to take their children out of school if the board allows anyone but school resource officers to be armed in schools. Lucy Graham, the mother of two children in District 51, said she counts herself as one of the parents who would consider relocation.
“If you’re going to have a weapon, you have to be expertly trained and that’s up to the police officers,” Graham said.
David Cox, a Palisade farmer and member of the safety work group, agrees that anyone with a firearm on school property needs to be well-trained. He presented to the safety group the idea of allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons at school, a responsibility he said would have to be paired with rigorous shooting instruction and training on how to keep a calm head and steady hand during a school shooting.
Physical and psychological standards would also have to be set and administrators or teachers should be able to opt out of the concept, Cox said. He suggested teachers carry a gun in their crotch, upper calf, bra or possibly on the hip to keep students from seeing the gun.
“Teachers are already background checked and highly trusted and have a vested interest in protecting our children,” Cox said.
Cox said a “guardian” proposal that would allow volunteers with a concealed weapon to patrol schools would probably come with a bigger price tag than allowing school staff to carry guns but he would support that idea as well. The guardian program was proposed by group member and former police officer Rich Bacher. Bacher was the only one of the committee’s 22 active members who did not respond to an interview request for this article.
Grand Junction High School Principal Jon Bilbo, also a member of the safety group, said he isn’t in favor of the volunteer program, and he doesn’t think it would get off the ground anyway because it’s hard to get volunteers on school campuses, with or without guns. School Board and safety group member Jeff Leany said the idea may gather some volunteers at first, but volunteer numbers usually dwindle. The 500 Plan, for example, tried nearly three years ago to get 500 people to volunteer to read to children but has yet to get even halfway to that goal.
“It may start off good but how long does it stay hot and heavy?” Leany said. “We have to think about sustainability.”
A big responsibility
Colorado Mesa University professor and parent Adam Cochran said he is comfortable with CMU allowing people to carry concealed weapons on campus and he wouldn’t mind seeing District 51 follow suit as long as teachers are punished if they pull out their weapon when it is not warranted.
“It’s a non-issue (at CMU) and that’s how it should be,” Cochran said, referring to allowing concealed weapons on campus.
National Rifle Association instructor Linn Armstrong of Palisade said he supports allowing teachers and volunteers to carry guns. He would suggest a three-day training for teachers that would go above the training given to people earning their concealed carry permits and more closely resemble law enforcement training. The training could be repeated every six months, he suggested.
“I have no problem with teachers being armed because they’re on the scene,” Armstrong said.
Fellow NRA instructor Robert Lesko, a Redlands Middle School custodian and member of the safety group, said he carries a firearm when he’s not at school. But he isn’t sure he’s ready to carry it at work.
“It’s a huge responsibility. I’m an advocate for non-lethal ways to protect kids,” he said.
Bilbo said he would not feel comfortable carrying his .357 with him to school and he wouldn’t want teachers doing it either.
“I want to focus on my job,” he said.
Rick Peterson, a group member and Central High School science teacher, said he has a security background from his time in the military and as a criminal justice major in college. But he wouldn’t want to carry a gun at school.
“The mindset of a teacher is so different from a security guard on duty that I think they’re mutually exclusive,” Peterson said. “If you carry a weapon, you’re supposed to be hyper-vigilant walking the hallways — that is not conducive to your role as an educator.”
Worries about accidents
Safety group discussions have included concerns about students overpowering a person with a concealed weapon and using it against the teacher or others, an armed person accidentally discharging a weapon, or an armed person failing to hit an intended target under pressure. A RAND Center on Quality Policing study found 18 percent of U.S. police officers involved in a gunfight between 1998 and 2006 hit their intended target. Earlier this month, a school resource officer in New York was suspended after accidentally discharging his gun in a high school hallway.
Seventy-one percent of the 440 teachers who responded to a Mesa Valley Education Association survey earlier this month said they would not support the idea of armed teachers in local schools. MVEA President Jim Smyth said another 63 percent of those polled said they would not support armed volunteers in the district.
“It just blows my mind that people would consider that with all the statistics and police officers’ biggest injury coming from losing their gun and getting shot with it. And they expect teachers and retired people to have guns?” Smyth said.
Group member Mike Lowenstein, a retired professor and energy research worker, said at last week’s safety meeting he discounts the argument that concealed weapons in schools will lead to accidents. A 1997 Pearl, Miss., school shooting ended when an assistant principal retrieved his gun from his truck and confronted the shooter, and a small Harrold, Texas, school district that has allowed teachers to carry concealed weapons since 2007 has yet to report a shooting accident.
“I know hundreds of people who conceal and I’ve never seen an accident,” Lowenstein said. “There are stupidity discharges but that’s because those people aren’t following the rules.”
Students aren’t part of the group, but they have opinions on guns in school. Deanna Wright, an 18-year-old senior at Central High, said she feels safe in her school as it is.
“The thing that would make me feel unsafe is if teachers were armed or if volunteers were armed,” she said.
Grand Junction High junior Kaleb Johnson and senior Shristi Adhikari, both 17, said they worry a class of students or even one burly student could overpower a teacher and take a gun.
“I think that’s taking it too far,” Adhikari said of arming teachers.
Johnson said he feels his school does enough to counsel students who may be tempted to carry out a threat at school. Adhikari, though, said extra anti-bullying presentations couldn’t hurt.
“Awareness is a big thing. People need to be aware they don’t need to do that,” she said, referring to violent acts.
Looking for signs of danger
More often than not with school shootings, the enemy comes from within.
Ninety-five percent of school shooters were current students, according to a report compiled by the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education. Three-quarters of shooters felt bullied or threatened by others and 27 percent were suicidal. Less than a quarter were motivated simply by a desire for attention.
A student threat to harm a specific person used to warrant expulsion under zero-tolerance policies. Now, school officials write a threat assessment that documents the threat and what is done to try to prevent a student from acting on the threat. Law enforcement may investigate the threat. The student may be referred to mental health resources or receive counseling at school.
Threat assessments and the threats that prompt them are not common, according to safety work group member and District 51 psychologist Pat Schniederjan. But the more people looking out for signs a student is in trouble or may be headed down the path to making a threat because they feel bullied, suicidal or depressed, the better, he said.
“With budget woes and class sizes it makes it difficult, but most teachers I know try their best to create positive relationships with students, and the more that happens, the less violent and aggressive behaviors we’ll see among kids,” Schniederjan said.
Students are trained to look out for their fellow classmates as well. Anti-bullying curriculum is common in all schools and all district seventh-graders go through SOS training, which stands for Signs of Suicide. The suicide prevention training is scheduled to expand soon to high school underclassmen.
School resource officers also balance discipline with creating bonds with students so they feel comfortable reporting suspect behavior to officers. Grand Junction police officer Jeff Grady, a resource officer at Grand Junction High, said he has recovered firearms from three students because other students told him about the presence of a gun.
“What’s missing right now (with fewer school resource officers) is relationships,” Grady said.
Budget cuts take away eyes and ears
The number of school resource officers dipped to eight this year, and half of the district’s high school liaisons were cut a couple of years ago, leaving one at each traditional high school in the Grand Valley. Bringing back some liaisons, who patrol schools unarmed and take reports from students, or gathering liaison volunteers is one of the safety group’s suggestions.
Bringing back a few counselors lost in budget cuts over the last four years is not on the group’s priority list. But it is an idea supported by some group members, pending a funding source.
“We have ill people and ill children and we need to help them,” said Sarah Shrader, a safety group member and member of local parent group Save Our Students. “If we had more counselors, that would be so great. We have part-time counselors that split their time between schools.”
District 51 has 2.8 counselors for every 1,000 students, above the Colorado average in 2009-10 of 2.55 counselors for every 1,000 students but below the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of four counselors for every 1,000 students. Safety group member and Colorado West Mental Health spokeswoman Kathy Capps said as a therapist and a mom of two students she wants to see the local student-to-counselor ratio improve.
“I would love to see more counselors identify kids with social/emotional difficulties” before they become distraught, she said.
Counselors often are absorbed with paperwork and academic scheduling duties, group member Tim Casey said. The CMU professor and father of three said seeking and counseling students who are bullied or suicidal may help stop some students from considering a school shooting.
“The one thing it doesn’t solve is how to stop that lone gunman” who is not a student, he said. “I don’t know how you stop that.”
Group member and Orchard Mesa Middle School secretary Bernadette Hendrickson said counselors at her school are limited to 15 minutes with students for most counseling sessions. They’re also in charge of suicide prevention, testing, getting students transferred between school levels and promoting programs like the Crime Stoppers tip line and Colorado West’s mental health hotline. Handling all of those duties leaves little idle time, according to Peterson, the Central teacher.
“I don’t see a lot of counselors with their feet up on the desk wondering what they’re going to have for lunch,” he said.
Relationship-building is something everyone in a building works on, Peterson said, even if it’s not easy.
“You do get tired and you do wish you could work through a lecture and have a discussion about momentum and share a joke and send them home to warm and loving families and not have to worry about them,” Peterson said. “But we need to monitor where kids are at, seeing if they are troubled in mind and spirit, and jump on those problems aggressively.”
In District 51, six schools have keyless lock systems that can lock every door in a school with the swipe of a card. Five schools have panic buttons that can immediately contact law enforcement. There are 274 surveillance cameras perched around the district.
There are more than 500 radios that cost $320 apiece distributed to staff to report activity to one another. The $3,000 radios police use are out of most schools’ price range, but Grand Junction High and Fruita Monument High School are piloting a $10,000 software program that allows the cheaper radios to connect to police radios and connect school dispatch with law enforcement.
One school — Orchard Mesa Middle School — has an electronic sign-in system that prints badges and can track how many people are in a building at any time. The computerized system is 15 or 20 years old, estimated OMMS secretary Hendrickson, but newer versions allow schools to incorporate criminal or sex offender registry information into the system and send a warning email to a secretary when a person signs in by swiping a driver’s license that shows they are not authorized to pick up a child from school.
Four lockdown practices are required every year at every school and each school has to perform a walk-through assessment once a year and search for signs that the school could be safer. The district is “slowly chipping away at recommendations made during walk-throughs” as budgets allow, according to District 51 Safety and Transportation Director Tim Leon. As a member of the safety group, Leon has detailed for the committee what the district has to offer already in the way of safety. He admits there is room for growth but added the district has come a long way since the state and the nation’s most notorious school shooting nearly 14 years ago at Columbine High.
“Just the fact that we haven’t had a situation says something,” he said.
Time and money
There have been close calls. Safety group member and Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said he can recall four or five cases since his tenure began in 2004 that involved a specific threat at a specific school involving a particular student.
“I’m encouraged that we’ve identified that many,” Hautzinger said. “We have a good track record of people identifying and not being afraid to pick up the phone and say, ‘You might want to look at this kid.’”
Promoting tip lines like Crime Stoppers, installing bulletproof doors and windows, adding keyless lock systems and panic buttons at all schools, purchasing better radios and adding cameras are among the safety group’s suggestions for improving school safety through physical and preventative means. Carl Mitchell, a safety group member and former representative for lock manufacturers, said he would like to see the group’s suggestions go a step further to include wireless lock and camera systems, walls made of special fire-proof and bullet-proof material and walk-through and wand scanners. He suggested leasing the equipment and searching for grants to make these items affordable.
Some in the group discounted the idea of scanners by saying schools don’t have time to scan every student or person who comes through the building in search of metal weapons. Mitchell said schools could have selective screening and make a game out of it for kids to make the process go smoothly.
“I don’t live with the excuse we don’t have the time, we don’t have the money,” he said.
Physical changes to buildings may be pricey, but the district has already applied for a grant that may pay for all remaining schools in the district to install panic buttons and cover the cost of bringing keyless lock systems to 10 more schools. Group member and parent Andy Nikkari said the key is to pay for changes incrementally.
“We can figure out which buildings could use money more than others and prioritize,” he said.
The cost of safety
The safety group’s work will be done Tuesday when members make a presentation to the school board. It then becomes the board’s decision on what to change about safety procedures in the district.
John Marshall, co-chairman of the safety group and vice president for student services at CMU, said the presentation will focus less on advising the board to take specific actions and more on suggesting what criteria the board should consider if it selects any of the group’s suggestions. For example, the group did not reach a consensus on recommending or rejecting armed volunteers or staff, so the group will focus on telling the board what criteria any teacher or volunteer should meet if a program were implemented.
“Principals can figure out the ‘who’ if they know the ‘what,’” Marshall said. “It allows schools to tailor solutions to their environment. We can’t put out blanket policies.”
How schools will pay for those policies is another suggestion group members haven’t been able to settle. Aside from grants and pushing some items out of the district’s budget to accommodate new items, one suggestion the group has flirted with is asking voters for more tax revenue in the form of a bond issue. Parent Jennifer Fox-Colwell said she would vote for the bond but she’s not sure others outside her circle of friends would do so.
“We couldn’t even pass the last (bond issue in 2008) so I’m not optimistic,” she said.
District 51 Superintendent Steve Schultz said he wouldn’t be opposed to the idea of a bond proposal.
“Would the community support it? I don’t know,” Schultz said. “If we’re wanting to increase safety, it costs money and you have to include that (in safety proposals) and take care of it.”