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Durango police strive for balance when responding to school threats

‘Don't mistake our kindness for weakness,’ deputy chief says. ‘We will be there when it’s time to be there’
Durango Police Department officers Sgt. Will Sweetwood and Zoe Preskorn welcome students back from lunch last month at Durango High School. The Durango Police Department works with local schools and parents to strike a balance in how much security to provide at area schools. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Law enforcement agencies nationwide have made a concerted effort in recent years to present a kinder, gentler image of policing.

Officers are more likely to be seen smiling, participating in community events or allowing themselves to be the butt of a good-natured joke.

But that doesn’t mean they are any less prepared to respond with force should the need arise, said Deputy Chief Brice Current, with the Durango Police Department.

“If you meet one of our officers on the street, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by how nice they are and how diverse we are,” he said. “But don’t mistake our kindness for weakness. We will be there when it’s time to be there.”

The Justice Department released a 600-page report in January lambasting the lackluster response by law enforcement during the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

During the incident, an 18-year-old gunman remained inside the building for 77 minutes before being confronted and killed by law enforcement. The shooter killed 21 people – including two teachers and 19 children – and injured another 17.

Current said the Uvalde response was a clear failure on the part of law enforcement. Once police knew they had an active shooter, they should have gone directly to the threat, he said. Instead, they treated the situation as a barricaded standoff – taking their time to mount a response.

When bullets are flying and there is a high likelihood people are being injured or killed, it is a police officer’s duty to go in and deal with the threat, Current said.

“It’s very simple: There’s priority in life, and we’re not at the top,” he said of a police officer’s job. “… If there’s a situation where (an officer) will more than likely face death, you’re still more prepared than anybody else in that school to deal with that situation, and people are depending on you to deal with it, and we will deal with it.”

Durango police and school officials participate in active shooter drills, but the vast majority of their efforts are spent trying to prevent the next tragedy, said Kathy Morris, who spent years overseeing school safety and security at Durango School District 9-R before recently retiring.

Kathy Morris, former director of Durango School District 9-R Safety and Security, looks over surveillance footage from area schools. The school district has installed video cameras and secure vestubles, but does not have metal detectors or conduct random searches. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“We always try to work in the area of prevention, but when a crisis happens, that’s kind of out the window,” she said.

Prevention includes installing appropriate security mechanisms, focusing on students’ mental health, educating students about warning signs, conducting threat assessments and giving children an outlet to report worrisome behavior, she said.

Durango Police Department Sgt. Will Sweetwood stands in the hallway between classes at Durango High School. The level of security provided at Durango schools represents a balance between perceived risks, the need to provide a conducive educational experience and community sentiment around appropriate security measures. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

After the Uvalde shooting, Morris became worried about classroom doors being propped open during classes. She issued a memo asking teachers to keep their doors closed. The doors automatically lock from the outside, which means if a student goes to the bathroom or the nurse’s office during class, someone from the inside must let that person back into the classroom.

“That’s one of the things we’ve done since Uvalde,” she said.

Current said it is not uncommon for law enforcement agencies to learn from other agencies’ mistakes. But when it comes to school safety, the amount of security provided at schools is largely based on perceived threats and community sentiment.

Miller Middle School teacher Amanda Ellis lets a student back into class after a bathroom break. After the Uvalde school shooting, the school began closing classroom doors during the day. The doors lock from the outside, which means students must be let in if they are late to class or leave for any reason. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Some communities may insist on cameras, secure vestibules and school resource officers. Others may want metal detectors, random sweeps of lockers and armed teachers.

“You have this balance about public safety and freedom,” Current said. “Every time you have more public safety, you’re going to have a little bit less freedom. Every time you have a little more freedom, you have a little bit less public safety. And each community has to decide where they want to stand on that.”

The community’s ideal balance can swing like a pendulum, he said.

When public sentiment toward law enforcement is unfavorable – perhaps in the wake of a recent incident involving the use of excessive force – a community may want to pull law enforcement out of schools. But after a critical incident involving school violence, like what happened in Uvalde, a community may clamor for greater protections.

Durango Police Department officers Sgt. Will Sweetwood and Zoe Preskorn walk the hallway at Durango High School. It is not uncommon to see uniformed police officers at Durango schools. They tend to be friendly, putting on a smile and making small talk with students. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Current said he appreciates the existing balance in Durango schools. It is a balance struck among police, school officials and parents, he said.

“Our schools are worried about the educational process, and that’s what they should be worried about,” he said. “We’re worried about public safety, and that’s what we should be worried about. And we all come to the table and we try to find that balance.”

‘Swatting’ calls test police responses

That balance has been put to the test in recent months as a result of “swatting” calls – hoax phone calls or social media posts that warn of impending violence, such as a bomb threat or a student threatening harm to others.

Durango Police Department officer Zoe Preskorn holds a door open for students returning from lunch at Durango High School. School resource officers work at local schools, but police do not perform random searches for drugs or weapons. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The Durango Police Department usually has a pretty good sense of whether they are responding to a swatting call, Current said. Even if they suspect a swatting call, it is important police stage an appropriate response, he said.

Police don’t suit up in full SWAT gear and carry long rifles through the halls of Durango High School if they suspect a swatting call, he said. At the same time, they are prepared to scale up the response should the need arise.

“You don’t want to create trauma with the students or the teachers,” Current said. “But at the same time, they need to know that we’re coming and we’re coming fast. If we ever do (have) a situation that is dynamic and real and deadly and scary and all those things, we’re going to come take care of business. That’s our job.”

In the event of a true emergency, in which officers can see or hear what is going on, “we’re going direct-to-threat,” he said. “There’s not going to be a lot of tactics involved. We’re going straight to the problem and we’re going to deal with the problem.”

Current speaks from experience.

He was a captain with the San Juan County (N.M.) Sheriff’s Office in December 2017 when a 21-year-old gunman entered Aztec High School and killed two students before killing himself.

His daughter, a sophomore at the time, was inside the high school.

Current grabbed a pistol and a rifle and bolted for the school.

The time for preparation was over, he said.

The first officer on scene shot through a window toward the suspect. It may have been in violation of some kind of policy or best practice, Current said, but it diverted the suspect’s attention. The suspect fired a few shots toward law enforcement before ending his own life.

Durango Police Department officer Zoe Preskorn walks into Durango High School. The school district has installed security cameras and secure vestibules, but it does not use metal detectors. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“When you arrive at a situation like that, you have to just use a lot of common sense to save lives,” he said.

The incident demonstrated how civilians and law enforcement work together during critical situations, he said. A janitor tracked the suspect through the halls, unconcerned for his own safety, so that he could direct law enforcement to the suspect’s whereabouts upon their arrival.

And a teacher in her 60s or 70s barricaded her students into a closet while the gunman fired into her classroom. “There’s people crying, and she like, ‘Hey baby, you’re not going to die today.’ She’s talking to them the whole time,” Current said.

“There were some real heroes in that deal, but everybody acted, and that’s what made that successful,” he said.


Durango Police Department officers Sgt. Will Sweetwood and Zoe Preskorn let students into Durango High School after the lunch hour. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

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