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School safety experts to lawmakers: Prevention is vital

The Arapahoe High School shootings fresh in their minds, members of the legislative education committees got a briefing on school safety Wednesday.

Safety experts from the state and two school districts, plus a veteran school resource officer, discussed the issue and took questions from lawmakers. Panel members generally agreed that schools are more secure and better able to respond to threats than they were before the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999.

They also agreed that much work needs to be done on identifying threats before incidents happen and on improving mental health services for troubled students.

“Colorado is a national leader” in school security, said Chief Deputy Assistant Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. The chief challenge for schools is making time for necessary training and drills. “Time is the most scarce resource,” she said.

Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, asked what was being done to involve students in school safety. “We are really trying to draw out from students what they would want,” said Christine Harms, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center. She surveys indicate that students want more safety drills.

Lawmakers asked Sgt. Douglas Ross, a Longmont Police school resource officer, about the training and possible arming of school security guards and other staff. He also was asked if it’s helpful for schools to use police officers who aren’t necessarily trained as resource officers.

“We’re open to being as creative as we can,” Ross said. But he cautioned that school personnel who carry guns would need extensive training and that resource officers who are trained to work with students are more valuable than police who have no such special preparation.

“Our reservation would be, can we hire the correct people and be able to provide initial and ongoing training?” Ross said.

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, asked if school employees should carry Mace or pepper spray.

Julie Bolding, a Jeffco school psychologist, replied, “Items that come into schools often change hands. … I would just have the fear that students would misuse that object.”

Samantha Haviland, Denver Public Schools director of counseling support services, said arming teachers is “a reaction, but that’s not going to stop what’s going on in our schools.” More important, she said, “it’s not possible for us to ignore the fact that we are looking at prevention.”

The only school safety bill introduced so far this session is Senate Bill 14-002, which would provide funding for the Safe2tell program and move it into the attorney general’s office.

The program provides a way for students to anonymously provide tips about potential threats. Coffman said reports about depression and suicide now outnumber school threats on Safe2tell.

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