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Durango schools begin community discussion about security

Helping kids with social, emotional needs seen as key

Durango School District 9-R should consider adding metal detectors and security officers and improving automatic locking doors to prevent violence, especially shootings, on campuses, attendees at a public meeting Monday told officials.

Dan Snowberger, superintendent of 9-R, said the district has been looking at adding certain safety enhancements. But two problems emerged: the cost and the effectiveness of taking such measures.

Snowberger said if metal detectors are used on campus, they likely would have to be accompanied by the use of X-ray machines, as is done by the Transportation Security Administration at airports, and the machines would require around-the-clock operation because schools frequently have athletic events, plays and other meetings that would require constant vigilance.

None of that could be obtained without some cost, Snowberger told the crowd of more than 100 people. He also said he didn’t want to create a false sense of security among students, whom he said are the key to effective security by their willingness to report when things are amiss.

Increasing the number of security officers at schools also comes at a cost, said local law enforcement officials.

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith and Durango Police Department Chief Kamran Afzal both said they could reassign personnel – if directed by the community – but the agencies would have to reassign officers from other duties.

“Ultimately, I work for you,” Smith said, adding he could reassign deputies to be stationed at outlying rural elementary schools, but the consequence would be less prompt responses to other calls such as domestic violence or traffic accidents.

The call from many parents across the nation is not just for quick and effective responses to school shootings, but for a focus on prevention, Afzal said. As a result, departments are changing their model of policing from one focused on intervention in a crisis to prevention.

“We’re trained to respond. It’s a paradigm shift to look at prevention,” he said.

Already the school district is looking to enhance its security measures by adding technologies that would scan visitors’ driver’s licenses to conduct a criminal background check on them before allowing school admittance.

Another enhancement examined by the district is putting sensors on all doors that would allow a central monitor to determine if they were left ajar or unlocked – and perhaps automatically lock them.

In the end, all the enhancements would require greater funding, and without increasing school budgets, that would require swapping money from educational efforts.

But for at least one parent, budgetary obstacles had to be cleared.

Monty Caudle, a parent with several children in 9-R schools, said the emphasis should be on preventing a shooter from gaining entry to a school.

“If we can’t do that because of funding, we should hang our heads in shame,” he said.

Aside from more visible security enhancements, some meeting attendees asked for increased diligence to reach students on social and emotional levels.

“It just feels like there’s not really a great solution to this nationwide or here in Durango,” said Rachelle Fish, who has a child in elementary school and another in preschool, after the meeting. “Everything takes money, but from what I hear, working on the social-emotional relationships is key, especially at a really young age.”

Snowberger said he often hears that Colorado’s Safe to Tell program, in which anonymous callers can report concerns about bullying, illegal activity and possible threats, are often not taken seriously.

But he disagrees. He said the district places a priority on such reports.

Snowberger said he has a personal alarm that goes off when a report is received, and an alarm immediately sets off the investigative process.

“I will be woken up in the middle of the night with a report. I can tell you that these reports are not shrugged off,” he said.

Christina Serwe vouched for the quick response a Safe to Tell report sets off. She experienced it first-hand when someone made a false report about her son, who was later found to be the victim of a school bully.

“There was a Safe to Tell report that our son was planning a school shooting,” she said. “This from a kid who was never in trouble, who never had to go to the principal’s office.”

Eventually, after her son’s smartphone and computer were examined, he was cleared of all charges, and the bullying issue was discovered, she said.

“We had to hire an attorney. Our home was searched. It was devastating. So I can tell you they take it seriously,” she said.

Serwe, whose voice at times broke with emotion recounting her experience, said the family was treated “with nothing but respect” by law enforcement and school officials who investigated the false claim made against her son.

“I do have some experience with this topic – not because I choose. Being a parent is hard sometimes,” she said.

Dealing with social and emotional dysfunction is becoming a greater focus for 9-R, Snowberger said.

“We recognize that having one counselor for 500 kids is not adequate,” he said.

In addition, he said the school district will take the lead in trying to attract state and federal funding to establish a mental health day-treatment facility that does not exist in Southwest Colorado.

Such a center could more adequately deal with students who are a threat to themselves and others, Snowberger said.

“We have to look at how do we help students facing social-emotional trauma,” he said.

Dealing with bullying, Snowberger added, is a more complex and a more persistent challenge students face in the age of social media.

“It used to be I could be told I was fat and ugly at school, and I could go home and I didn’t have to face it,” he said. “Now, you hear it 24/7.”

Serwe said if she had the power she would take away kids’ ability to communicate on social media, as unpopular as that would make her.

“The bullying that came to my son was coming in the middle of the night,” she said. “I know they’re all talking on Snapchat. We’re going to have to be that unpopular parent,” she said.

Another forum on school safety focusing on Durango High School will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. April 5 at DHS.

parmijo@durangoherad.com

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