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School safety after Sandy Hook

Many Colorado school districts have taken a fresh look at security measures and emergency response procedures since the shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School left 20 students and six staff members dead in mid-December.

A local police officer conducts a security review at Animas Valley Elementary School in Durango.<br /><em>Photo courtesy of Kathy Morris</em>
A local police officer conducts a security review at Animas Valley Elementary School in Durango.
Photo courtesy of Kathy Morris

Some districts are locking front doors, installing video buzzer systems, or implementing tougher rules for school visitors. Other districts are partnering with local law enforcement agencies to conduct staff trainings, emergency drills or building security reviews. In a few, measures such as bullet-proof glass or school marshals, similar to air marshals, are under consideration.

In many communities, questions and concerns voiced by parents immediately after Sandy Hook helped drive security-related changes, or speed up changes that were planned but not yet implemented.

“This struck home with people all across the country and Douglas County was no different,” said Sgt. Kevin Moffitt, supervisor of the School Resource Officer Unit with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. “We had parents crying on the phone, ‘Our children are out there unprotected.’”

The response was similar in the Durango area, said Kathy Morris, the regional safe school coordinator for the San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

“The questions started coming: ‘What are you doing about safety and security on my child’s campus?’”

With nine districts in her jurisdiction, including one with just 50 students, the answers vary. They include “vulnerability assessments” of school buildings, a review of open campus policies and a look at hiring school resource officers for the six districts that don’t already have them. Also, two elementary schools, both of which are on highways, have installed video buzzer systems at their front doors.

Morris said her districts have also continued efforts to educate students about Safe2Tell, an anonymous statewide system that allows students or parents to report threats of school violence or other dangerous situations.

Reviewing building security

Many school administrators have conducted walk-throughs of their buildings with law enforcement personnel to familiarize them with the facilities and evaluate security weaknesses.

In the Fremont R-2 School District in Florence, officers from three local police departments, the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office, the Colorado State Patrol and even wildlife officers have toured district schools in recent weeks, receiving packets with aerial photos and maps of the schools and protocols for different types of emergencies.

Ultimately, every potential first responder in the county will have received the same training about school emergencies, said Florence Police Chief Michael DeLaurentis.

“If it ever does happen, we’re ready for it,” he said.

In addition, local police officers have stepped up their presence at Fremont school buildings, stopping by at unscheduled times to chat with staff or eat lunch with students.

A similar effort to increase police presence at schools has been underway in Douglas County since shortly after the Sandy Hook shootings. It came out of a meeting between district administrators and law enforcement personnel the Monday after the shootings, Moffitt said. Participants expressed particular concern about the district’s elementary schools, which don’t have school resource officers like the middle and high schools do.

The district and sheriff’s department quickly launched a program in which six patrol officers monitor 38 elementary schools every day, “walking hallways, giving knuckles to the kids, having lunch with them,” said Moffitt.

In addition, all officers were encouraged to pull into elementary school parking lots to write up reports instead of doing it at their substations or another location.

“The response from the public has been very supportive,” Moffitt said. “It’s brought the officers closer to the community.”

Exploiting the front door

John Nicoletti, an expert on school and workplace violence prevention
John Nicoletti, an expert on school and workplace violence prevention

John Nicoletti, an expert on school and workplace violence prevention, said that in most shootings by outsiders unconnected to the school, attackers “come right through the main entrance.”

For this reason, many districts are re-evaluating open-door policies that have long been in place. In addition to locked doors, districts are developing stricter rules for monitoring visitors and asking staff to step up enforcement of existing policies.

In Boulder Valley schools, more front doors have been locked in the last few months and visitors are now more likely to be asked for identification before entering. Twenty-three of the district’s 55 buildings have phone cameras at the front door, requiring visitors to be buzzed in by staff. In some schools, interior doors leading to classroom wings are also locked during the day, with staff unlocking them to admit visitors as needed.

Last week, the Brighton 27J School District finished installing visitor screening systems in 16 district schools, including 2 charter schools. The systems, which were already in place at four schools, require visitors to present identification at the school’s reception desk, undergo a background check of sex offender registries and wear a visitor’s badge that includes a photo.

“We made the decision in January following the Sandy Hook tragedy that we would implement that at all our schools,” said Kevin Denke, the district’s public information officer.

If visitors are flagged by the system, it doesn’t mean they will be prohibited from entering the building, he said. Instead, staff members will be alerted and may take precautions such as escorting visitors to their destination and back.

Keeping a community hub inviting

It’s not easy to lock school doors or tighten visitor rules without compromising the friendly, welcoming atmosphere that many schools seek to foster. That’s the fine line district leaders are walking right now as they update safety procedures or install new security systems.

Morris said there has been some resistance from parents who are not used to the stricter rules about signing in at the front desk and wearing a visitor badge.

“I’ve had some parents say, ‘I don’t have to sign in.’”

They relent once they’ve been briefed about why the procedures are in place, which is both for student safety and to ensure emergency responders know the number and identity of people inside the building in case of an emergency.

“Once the principal talks to the parents, they totally get it,” she said.

In the Brighton district, the biggest concern voiced about the new background check system was whether it would block access by parents who may lack an acceptable photo id because of undocumented status. Denke said the district may address that problem by issuing its own photo id card that affected parents could use in the schools.

Colorado schools ahead of the curve

It can be chilling to hear about active shooter drills or on-the-spot background checks for parent volunteers, but after Sandy Hook, the Aurora theater shooting and the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, few school leaders believe their districts are immune to violence, including mass murder.

“It could happen anywhere,” Morris said. “It could happen here and I do prepare for that.”

Insights like this have produced a focus on violence prevention in many school districts. In fact, experts say Colorado is ahead of other states in terms of school safety.

Columbine changed everything, said Nicoletti. In particular, many school districts got proactive about identifying and handling “insider” threats, or students, parents or other members of a school community whose behavior or communications prompt concern. Insider threats make up about 70 percent of shootings, he said.

Chris Harms, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center, said aside from Columbine, a 2006 hostage crisis at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey and a 2010 shooting at Deer Creek Middle School in Littleton have also impacted school safety efforts across the state.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had more than our share in Colorado,” Harms said.

Harms said the renewed focus since Sandy Hook on preparing for school emergencies is “the silver lining to the very bleak tragedy that was.”

“It got people to think about this again.”

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