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Schools in Southwest Colorado see changes driven by Columbine

Buildings and cultures adapt in Durango and Cortez

One look at Durango High School, built in 1976, and Montezuma-Cortez High School, which opened in 2015, tells you a lot about how the world of education has changed 20 years after the Columbine High School shootings.

In the post-Columbine world, there’s a little police officer and security expert in every school administrator, teacher, school counselor and even janitors and bus drivers. And students are trained to be “situationally aware” of their surroundings at most schools across the country.

“Every school has changed,” said M-CHS Principal Jason Wayman. “We have a buzzer system that won’t let you get in unless you’re cleared by the front office.”

The system came with the new school, which was designed after two student shooters at Columbine High School in Littleton killed 13 people plus themselves April 20, 1999. Similar systems have been retrofitted at older schools, including Durango School District 9-R.

“If you visit our school, you notice the parking lot is pretty far from the school. It was designed that way for a reason,” Wayman said. “We’re getting a lot of eyes on you even before you enter the building.”

Montezuma-Cortez High School Principal Jason Wayman said many lessons about school security have been learned since the Columbine High School shootings, including installing doors that can be locked from the inside.

From the start, security and safety were built into the design of the $41.4 million M-CHS building. Features like its remote-controlled, self-locking doors have been retrofitted at schools across the nation. A similar system is in place at DHS.

Durango School District 9-R is considering asking for a $70 million bond issuance mainly for building maintenance but also for security and safety upgrades for its buildings.

Montezuma-Cortez Superintendent Lori Haukeness said the challenge is trying to upgrade schools, some dating to the 1950s, “to incorporate safety designs while still providing students with openness that students should feel while being in school.”

“The upgrades needed are extremely costly and require reconstruction of some school areas,” she said.

Doors at Montezuma-Cortez High School are controlled remotely and are usually locked. They are programed to open during certain times like lunch hour and the end of the school day.

Fire drills were the most sophisticated emergency preparedness measure taken when Wayman attended high school. Now, he leads a school that’s not too different than almost every school across the nation in conducting evacuation, lockout and lockdown drills.

Last year, M-CHS practiced an evacuation drill that involved a dozen law enforcement and fire agencies, then had feedback sessions so teachers and administrators could go over what they learned with law enforcement agencies and fire departments. Similar multi-agency drills and reviews are held in school districts across the country. District 9-R strives to conduct an in-depth, multi-agency drill every other year, and smaller drills are held several times a year.

Perhaps even more important than changes to building designs and security systems in schools is increased attention paid to the emotional and social needs of students.

Animas High School Assistant Head of School Libby Cowles, left, and Christine Imming talk about the Columbine High School shooting with students Lindsay Levine, 16, Alma Wolf, 18, Alaina Wray, 15, Chris Atchinson, 16, and Ethan Holst, 18.

Animas High School Head of School Sean Woytek said developing strong relationships with students is key to preventing security threats that might germinate from within.

“Trust between students teachers, staff and administrators is the best security and safety tool we have,” he said. “It enfranchises students. It helps. You have problems when students feel disenfranchised, when they are disengaged and they don’t want to be at school.”

Alaina Wray, 15, a freshman at AHS, said the trust in relationships between students, teachers and staff provides her with the greatest assurance of security at school. Wray is the daughter of Jesse and Sandi Wray of Durango.

“We all know each other. We know the teachers. That’s what makes me feel the safest,” she said. “There aren’t so many students that you won’t recognize someone. There’s no way someone wearing a hoodie could sneak in and blend in.”

Kerwin Tom, a senior at Montezuma-Cortez High School, serves as a teaching assistant to science teacher Debi Ball. He says relationships among students and teachers at the school assure him more than any building design or physical barriers that the school is safe.

Kerwin Tom, 18, the son of Kerwin Tom Sr. and Gina Tom of Towaoc, said he appreciates the modern security features at M-CHS, but the school’s best defense is its trust among students and teachers.

“We’re small enough that you get a sense if something is wrong. If anyone sees anything wrong, they’re going to point it out,” he said. “I feel pretty safe at school.”

Kathy Morris, coordinator of safety and security at Durango School District 9-R, said the first effort in Colorado to help students deal with emotional needs, the state’s Safe2Tell program, stems directly from Columbine.

“After Columbine, the Secret Service did a thorough investigation and discovered 79% of the students knew something was going to happen, but they didn’t talk to anyone,” she said.

Safe2Tell is an anonymous tipline that allows students to report any threat or safety concern to officials, who are required to investigate each tip.

Wayman said even if the tips don’t pan out, the program has instilled a sense of accountability in schools and has boosted efforts to monitor the emotional needs of students and to work with the most vulnerable ones.

Christine Imming with Animas High School uses her card key ID to unlock a door at the school.

With Safe2Tell, Morris said, “Students talk about the potential for self-harm or harm to others, and by providing those tips, it allows an investigation. Not every tip is valid, but it allows us to investigate.”

She said after the Parkland, Florida, school shootings, officials there modeled their own program on Safe2Tell.

Schools increasingly work with fragile families to improve their situations not only to improve safety and security at schools but to improve educational outcomes as well, Woytek said.

“If students aren’t safe at home, if they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, they are not going to learn at school,” he said.

parmijo@durangoherald.com

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