In an uncertain world, school safety is becoming a priority. When Durango School District 9-R students returned to school Tuesday, some of them found locks and buzzers on school doors – with more security measures to come.
“We hope parents will understand that their child’s safety is well worth the small inconvenience,” said Dan Snowberger, superintendent of District 9-R.
The process began with school walk-throughs at all 11 schools in the district, said Kathy Morris, the safety coordinator for the San Juan Board of Cooperative Services.
“We had law enforcement, the fire department, mental health professionals, parents and students,” she said. “We looked at drop-off and pick-up skills, safety drills and infrastructure before coming out with recommendations to be implemented over the next three to five years.”
In October, the schools will hold safety training for students.
“We really want parents to have the opportunity to speak with their kids first so they’re set for a safety mindset before we begin,” Morris said. “The conversation should start at home.”
The largest security mechanism is the people in the building, she said.
“Students need to be trained, have good coping skills and resilience, have awareness and the ability to report when they see something unsafe,” Morris said. “That means building relationships with family, staff, all caregivers, all caretakers of students, talking to them and listening to them.”
One of the most significant changes for the 2016-2017 school year was installation of locks, buzzers and cameras on doors at Needham, Park and Riverview elementary schools. The four rural elementary schools – Florida Mesa, Sunnyside, Animas Valley and Fort Lewis Mesa – have had them for several years because law enforcement response times are longer for rural schools.
“Right after Sandy Hook (a Connecticut elementary school where 20 children and six educators were killed in December 2012), we asked our schools to talk about safety with their families,” Snowberger said. “They voted to install the locks, and the parent-teacher organizations helped fund them. Our sense this year was that the time had come that every elementary school should be secured.
“In a small community like ours, we can’t assume nothing will happen, because things happen in communities like ours all the time. We just need to take more precautions.”
Parents weren’t sure what to expect, 9-R spokeswoman Julie Popp said after the first day of school.
“At Needham, the parents were looking around at the chaos in the parking lot and wondering how this was going to work,” she said. “But they practiced last spring, so all the kids were in their area, and when the whistle blew, they all sat down. Then the whistle blew again, they all went to their lines and their teachers led them into class.”
There are many reasons students need security besides the much-publicized school-shooter scenario, Snowberger said, and elementary schools in Durango weren’t built with security in mind.
“Sometimes I tell people to look at the sexual offender registry,” he said. “But really, many people don’t understand the turbulence in some families. The students under protective order, particularly from noncustodial parents, changes from day to day.”
Working with Morris, the district is increasing its security staff from three to five, adding one more to the staff of two at Durango High School and hiring another to staff Escalante Middle School. Miller Middle School already has a security officer. DHS also has a dedicated Durango Police Department officer, called a school resource officer, and Miller has a part-time school resource officer.
“For the first time, all five of our security officers have been trained together for a 40-hour block with a retired Durango Police Department captain,” Snowberger said. “They’ve been taught to interact with the public, control traffic, handle search and seizures.”
The training took place the week of Aug. 15 at the DPD’s Three Springs substation, giving the security staff a connection to law enforcement and law enforcement a connection to them.
“We want them to be interchangeable, so if we have an issue at another school, we can move one over,” Snowberger said about the staff. “We’ve also changed their radios. Before, they could only communicate within their school, but now they can communicate with other schools.”
The school security officers are not armed, Morris said.
“They don’t have Tasers, handcuffs, a gun or a knife,” she said.
That’s not really their function, Snowberger said. The school resource officers do have weapons.
“Our security staff is armed with knowledge and de-escalation techniques,” he said. “We told staff at the Convocation that their job is to build relationships, get to know the kids. Parents tend to just drop middle school students off at high school football games, and if the middle school security officer is there and knows them, they will be much more effective at managing situations that come up.”
New Durango High Principal Jonathan Hoerl has talked to all staff members about handling both safety concerns and discipline in general.
‘He told them discipline is about learning, not just about punishment,” Snowberger said. “We all make mistakes, and we don’t need to be seen as heavies.”
It’s a shame 9-R’s other safety initiative wasn’t ready for the first day of school because of unavailability of equipment, Snowberger said. Starting in October, students will have a card they scan when boarding or departing a school bus.
“On Tuesday, we had parents waiting at a bus stop, while their students got off at a different stop,” he said. “If the equipment was installed and the cards were working, we would have known right away what happened.”
Eventually, the card may become students’ access pass to other school activities, such as checking books out from the school library or handling their payment for breakfast or lunch, he said.