A more violent, harsh world is increasingly hard to ignore. Sadly, the first day of school in Durango reflects that.
Durango schools continue a journey that increasingly emphasizes safety, security and meeting the social and emotional needs of students.
The Columbine High School shooting in April 1999 initiated a period of growing concern for school safety, and concern only intensified in December 2017 when a school shooting at Aztec High School left two students and the shooter dead.
“We’ve certainly seen a greater awareness of school security in recent years by the general public,” said Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger.
When the district first secured and locked entry doors at elementary schools three years ago, Snowberger said many Durangoans decried an atmosphere in which schools were more closely resembling prisons.
Now, he said most parents are looking at how security can be ramped up across all schools.
“There’s wider recognition that there are people out there who are willing to harm children, and no one is impervious to that,” he said.
Security enhancements are not limited to 9-R.
Sean Woytek, head of school at Animas High School, said it too has added a card-entry system for all its doors for use by both students and staff members.
Involvement of parents and the formation of Parents for Safer Schools to push for augmented security measures, Snowberger said, help the district tap community voices to guide its security upgrades.
The school district is creating a safety task force, which currently has 23 members. The group will hold its first meeting before the end of the month. The task force – comprised of parents, community members, students and 9-R staff members – will report to Snowberger, who will make recommendations to the school board to improve school safety and security.
The task force will also guide a grant application process for a School Access for Emergency Response grant. The SAFER state grant, created by a bill sponsored by Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, aims to improve emergency communications at schools by making school radio communications mesh with local fire and police departments.
“This is a journey,” said Kathy Morris, coordinator of safety and security for 9-R. “Frankly, none of us have all the answers, but together we can come to a place where we are taking the measures that are right for our community.”
A key step on the path to greater school safety and security is meeting the emotional and social needs of students, Snowberger said.
While school bullying and taunting has always been present, Snowberger said the rise of social media has broadened the problem to a 24/7 issue that students can’t escape.
“When I was in school, kids called me fat and ugly, but when I went home, no one did, so I went back the next day,” Snowberger said. “With social media, you have this going on all day. There’s no break.”
Seven new positions were created for school year 2018-19 to meet the social and emotional needs of students.
Samantha Tower, coordinator of exceptional student services, said the new employees, specialists in dealing with mindset and behavioral issues, will help individual students, teachers, counselors and other members of a school’s community deal with emotional needs of students.
The positions are designed with some flexibility – allowing them to adapt to the individual needs of students, their schools and their communities, Tower said.
“There’s no one way to address the issues we see with students,” she said. “We need to be mindful of what is the appropriate way to address each student at each school in the most appropriate way.”
Building strong relationships among students, teachers and school staff members, Snowberger said, is essential not only to build emotional and social skills of students and make them more resilient to life’s ups and downs, but as the key first line of defense in ensuring school security.
It is students themselves who are likely to first recognize problems that could lead to a security risk.
The Safe2Tell program that allows students and family members to anonymously report suspected threats to schools or students who may be contemplating suicide is based on creating strong relationships with students and families.
Morris calls Safe2Tell a foundational pillar in building safe and secure schools.
For the new school year:
Durango High School has put in place a visitor management system using RAPTOR Technologies that will allow it to check driver’s licenses and other state-issued IDs quickly in criminal databases for sexual and violent offenses. The system can also provide information on custodial issues with students. It will be used to provide visit-specific identification tags for all school visitors.DHS has added a fourth security officer on campus.A separate school security officer and school resource officer will be assigned to the Pueblo Community College Southwest, which is located at DHS but has its own separate entrance and parking lot.The high school’s access doors have decreased from 54 to 11, and all doors can be controlled by an automatic door-locking system. Some doors will be programed to allow use during passing periods, but they will be locked at other times.Across all 9-R schools, ballistic film, which is resistant to bullets and prevents windows from shattering, has been added to all glass windows and doors at school entries. The film has also been added to some interior windows and doors, and the film will be added to more windows and doors in phases throughout the school year.The school district is in discussion with the Durango Police Department and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office about adding additional school resource officers. The district currently has four. The first new resource officer will probably come from the police department.Tim Maher, a member of Parents for Safer Schools, said he’s happy with increased measures 9-R has taken, but he adds there’s more room for improvements.
“It’s just important to not let our eyes off the goal. There are still threats we need to address, but generally, we have been pleased with the measures 9-R has taken. But we still need to remain vigilant,” said Maher, who has a son attending DHS.