Lawmakers look to experts to improve school safety

Colorado lawmakers

DENVER — In a session that’s already been marked by harsh partisanship, Democrats and Republicans huddled together Wednesday morning to hear from experts on how to improve school safety.

Just a month after the shooting at Arapahoe High School, lawmakers invited counselors, school resource officers and the state’s deputy attorney general on what leads to violence on school campuses and how the state might better recognize warning signs, prevent shootings and, should they occur, limit the death toll with a fast, targeted response.

While debates about arming school teachers and staff members are likely to draw headlines, much of the focus at the joint hearing of the House and Senate Education Committees was on mental health resources and how better to prevent school violence by providing troubled students more of an outlet for their emotions.

Samantha Haviland, the director of counseling support services for Denver Public Schools, told lawmakers that there aren’t enough school counselors.

“Almost half of my students don’t have a school counselor at all,” Haviland said. “And I have schools with counselors in there with up to 1,000 kids. What kind of impact can you make?”

According to Haviland, a 2000 Columbine High School graduate who was a student the day two of her classmates killed 12 people on April 20, 1999, schools faced with budget shortfalls are more likely to keep a math teacher on staff than a counselor, especially given academic accountability standards.

In the past several years, the recession forced large cuts in education spending by the state.

And federal resources have dried up too.

“What we have seen in the years I’ve been working on school safety is a dramatic decrease in the amount of federal funding that is available for school safety,” said Cynthia Coffman, the state’s deputy attorney general.

“Although our federal partners talk about the importance of school safety, they aren’t backing it up with resources, so it falls to us at the state level to be creative.”

Lawmakers have already introduced Senate Bill 2, which will put state funding behind the Safe 2 Tell anonymous tip line that allows students to report suspicious and threatening behavior.

It’s currently run as a non-profit and funded with private donations.

With the economy recovering, lawmakers have more flexibility in this year’s budget should they decide to do more to improve school safety.

“As we make educational decisions and funding decisions, we’ll be keeping school safety in mind as our top priority,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, chairwoman of the House Education Committee who presided over Wednesday’s hearing.

Just a month after the shooting at Arapahoe High School, one of some 200 that have taken place in the 15 years since the Columbine shooting, it’s no surprise lawmakers also wanted hear about how law enforcement should respond when violence does erupt inside schools.

Republicans are pushing legislation to allow teachers and school staff who have concealed carry permits to carry guns on campus in order to respond more quickly in the event of a shooting.

Although the a school resource office at Arapahoe High confronted the shooter within 80 seconds, likely keeping the number of casualties to one student, Democrats are unlikely to suddenly support the proposal to put armed educators inside schools.

Sgt. Doug Ross, a school resource officer with the St. Vrain Valley School District, told lawmakers he’s skeptical of putting guns in the hands of well-meaning adults if they haven’t received the same training as SROs.

“We see even well trained law enforcement officers that, under stress, don’t always react the best way,” Ross said. “The skills necessary to survive an encounter with a heavily armed individual are perishable skills.

“So, one, we have to hire the right people and effectively train them and have ongoing training so we don’t lose those perishable skills. That’s the hardest challenge: decision making and reacting under stress.”