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School safety panel ramps up for summer of study

A local police officer conducts a security review at Animas Valley Elementary School in Durango. File photo courtesy of Kathy Duncan
A local police officer conducts a security review at Animas Valley Elementary School in Durango. File photo courtesy of Kathy Duncan

A panel of legislators and experts Tuesday started to get up to speed on one of the touchiest issues of the 2015 legislative session – school security and districts’ legal responsibility for keeping students safe.

“Nobody on this committee hasn’t been hurt and deeply affected by school violence,” said panel chair Mark Scheffel, a Parker Republican who is Senate majority leader. “Not all of us agree 100 percent on everything. That’s a positive thing.”

The 16-member School Safety and Youth in Crisis Committee was created by the 2015 legislature, which also passed a measure (Senate Bill 15-213) that makes school districts liable for violent incidents on school grounds.

District leaders are nervous about how they can meet the standards of security and liability created by the bill.

“I know schools are very concerned about Senate Bill 213 and about how this committee will define reasonable care,” said panel member Christine Harms, director of the state School Safety Resource Center.

Republican Rep. Yeulin Willet of Grand Junction noted, “I have some serious concerns about this legislation,” including the possible burden of higher insurance premiums for districts.

Interestingly, the eight legislators on the panel were split on SB 15-213, with four supporting it during final floor votes and four voting no.

But the liability law was discussed only briefly, and the group spent most of its time on preliminary briefings about school violence.

Harms discussed the work of her agency and said, “I think the information [on school safety] is out there and our schools are doing their best to be safe places.” But districts, particularly smaller ones, face challenges in adequately training staff, she said, and “We do need more mental health services in our schools and our communities.”

She also cautioned that making threat assessments of potentially violent students can’t prevent every incident.

“A threat assessment is a snapshot in time. It does not predict future behavior,” she said. “There is no profile of a school shooter. Instead we look to changes in behavior.”

Susan Payne, executive director of the Safe2Tell program, agreed. “There is no profile” of a student who commits violence, she said. “We know they make plans. They don’t just snap.”

Both agreed that schools need to pay more attention to suicidal students, noting that teens who commit violence often are suicidal. “We do not see a consistent response to handling a child who is struggling and suicidal,” Payne said.

The voting members of the committee are the eight legislators, evenly split between House and Senate members and Democrats and Republicans. They include House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran of Denver and Reps. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, Willet and Jim Wilson of Salida. Senate members are President Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs, Scheffel, Andy Kerr of Lakewood and Linda Newell of Littleton.

Non-voting members, chosen for their professional backgrounds, include:

  • Gregory McDonald, a Boulder Valley school counselor
  • Sharyl Lawson, a Brighton special education teacher
  • Heidi Ganahl, a parent and businesswoman from Superior
  • Melissa Silvia, a Sheridan parent who’s also on that district’s school board
  • David Crews, superintendent of the Norwood district on the Western Slope
  • Linda Weinerman, executive director of the Office of the Child Representative, a program of the state court system
  • Kate O’Donnell, a mental health counselor at Colorado Academy
  • Harms

At the request of Gov. John Hickenlooper, the committee agreed to name Desiree Davis as a non-voting “special adviser” to the group. Davis is the mother of Claire Davis, the student who died in a December 2013 shooting at Arapahoe High School. Her death was the catalyst for SB 15-213, which is named in her honor.

The committee meets next on Aug. 27 and can hold up to four more meetings before the end of the year. The legislative members can propose up to five bills for consideration by the 2016 legislature.

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