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Should Durango High School close its campus?

Parents, administrators search for ways to bolster school safety

Closing Durango High School’s campus, a debate that springs up about once a decade, has been rekindled – returning this year after a rash of shootings at schools across the country, including in Aztec.

A group of parents have formed Parents for Safer Schools to examine increased security and safety precautions in Durango’s schools. The group also contemplates starting a GoFundMe account to raise money to help pay for enhanced security measures and security officers at Durango’s schools.

“A closed campus keeps strangers out of the building. It increases attendance at school,” said Laura Bohachevsky, a group member. “It’s unfortunate we have to discuss this. It’s so hard.

“All the parents are concerned, as they should be because I don’t think it’s going to get better.”

Savanna McIntyre, 17, a senior at DHS whose mother is Lisa McIntyre, said an opportunity to escape school grounds, even briefly, is cherished by students.

“We have to be here eight hours a day. It would make us more down at school,” she said of a closed campus.

Bohachevsky and another parent in the group, Tim Maher, said they understand the majority of students will oppose losing their 50 minutes of freedom during the day, but in the end, they said decisions about school safety and security should be made by adults – parents of students weighing in with 9-R administration and the school board.

“Of course the kids are going to be against it. It’s like asking, ‘Do you want ice cream every day?’” Maher said.

Bohachevsky said neuroscience research shows teenagers are not yet ready to make fully informed judgments on assessing risks.

“There’s a reason teenagers get in trouble,” she said.

Closing the DHS campus will be one of several ideas and changes discussed next week at a forum about security and safety procedures at the high school. Several similar forums are planned.

The urgency to update 9-R security procedures is felt not only among parents but also the administration. Last week, Isaiah Systems, a firm that assesses security and safety risks of buildings and security protocols and procedures, conducted vulnerability audits at all 12 of the school district’s campuses.

In addition, the district is considering putting in place a system from RAPTOR Technologies that would allow schools to perform a criminal background check of people entering a school by scanning their driver’s licenses.

A Washington Post analysis found 187,000 students have been exposed to gun violence since the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999. In that time, 193 school shootings have occurred, according to the Post.

“I go to bed every night thinking: What in the heck is going on out there,” Bohachevsky said.

Josh Johnson, 17, a DHS junior whose mother is Carol Johnson, doesn’t think a closed campus will enhance safety at school.

“I don’t feel it would be safer,” he said. “All the kids would be congregated at school.”

Also, he added, it helps students to learn to handle a bit of freedom.

“We’re getting ready for college, and they are not going to keep you locked up in one place,” he said.

Opposition to a closed campus won’t come only from DHS students – some parents don’t want it either.

Jessica Wheeler, parent of a DHS student, said closing the campus will present logistical challenges because the school’s cafeteria is not big enough to accommodate all the students in the 50-minute period alloted for lunch.

Fixing that problem would take time and money, she said.

“I always ask the question: If you have $100 to spend, is (that) where you would spend it?” Wheeler said. “I can think of dozens of other places I would spend the time and resources that it would take to create a closed campus – starting with higher teacher pay and more counselors.”

Adding resources for mental health programs and security guards, two measures also advocated by Parents for Safer Schools, might do more for security than closing the campus.

“If an attack came at DHS similar to other schools, a closed campus would not have prevented it from happening,” Wheeler said. “However, security guards and administrators who actually know every single kid might have been able to recognize the attackers.”

DHS Principal Jon Hoerl and 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger also remain unpersuaded that closing the campus will enhance security.

An open campus, Hoerl said, provides an avenue to teach life skills such as time management and making mature, balanced and responsible decisions – all skills required to deal with the increased freedom that comes with adulthood.

“Our challenge,” he said, “is how to deal with kids not using this privilege and freedom in the right way.”

Many students use the current 50-minute lunch period, Hoerl said, to visit teachers to work on academics, something that would be lost by closing the campus because lunch would have to be rescheduled to come in waves of two or three 30-minute to 35-minute periods.

The open campus, Hoerl said, “only helps students to be more responsible in school, in the workplace and in college.”

In addition, the lunch period helps build relationships between teachers and students and among students themselves.

“That’s what makes us safe: strong relationships,” he said. “You can ask a kid how’s your day going, and kids will tell you what’s going on.”

Another stumbling block to a closed campus, Hoerl said, is the school cafeteria, which is not equipped to serve the entire school at once.

Some parents have suggested having food trucks on campus, but Hoerl said the district could lose federal money for the school’s cafeteria because federal regulations penalize schools that offer meals that don’t meet government nutritional standards.

Also, a closed campus would make it more difficult to administer such things as internships, concurrent enrollment at nearby colleges, volunteer community service work and departures for medical appointments.

Hoerl said helping students with social and emotional needs is important to ensure security and safety at school – and building relationships is key.

Working to end bullying is also important.

The ethos at DHS, he said, is: When you’re an observer of bullying and you don’t intervene, then you are a participant in bullying.

Hoerl and Snowberger said they work to encourage confidence in the Safe to Tell program, which provides students, parents, teachers and community members access to a safe and anonymous way to report any safety concerns. The reports initiate early investigation and intervention of those concerns, which Hoerl said the district takes seriously despite some complaints to the contrary.

In the end, Snowberger said it’s important to hold a community discussion about all the alternatives to enhance school security and safety and to choose actions that align with the community’s needs.

“We serve all, so we have to facilitate a conversation that comes up with the right security measures and systems for our district and our community,” he said.

Beyond a closed campus, those involved in the discussion are examining ways to add more school resource officers – police officers who are assigned schools – and to find a way to permanently fund those positions in the budgets with the Durango Police Department and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.

Maher, whose child attends DHS, said he supports installing metal detectors in schools but admits that proposal has less support even among his group, Parents for Safer Schools.

Off campus, a stumbling block has been fervent opposition from nearby businesses that benefit from students’ lunch-hour purchases.

Chris Block, owner of Three Peaks Deli and Grill, 2411 Main Ave., and Gabby Salzillo with Gianni’s Oven & Grill, said they prefer an open campus, but they would not object to closing it if it would increase school security.

“They’re definitely a part of our lunch, but we aren’t going to fail if we don’t have the kids,” Block said.

Similarly, Salzillo said: “Some kids, we have every single day. I know them by name. It’s bringing in some business for sure, but it won’t make or break us.”

Tyler Snodgrass, 15, a DHS sophomore, whose parents are Dennis and Margo Snodgrass, says he goes off campus several times a week for lunch and enjoys the “perk” that he wasn’t allowed in middle school.

But he admits some students “go down to the river and don’t do great things.”

His suggestion: Instead of completely closing campus, make off-campus lunch visits a privilege tied to good grades.

parmijo@durangoherald.com

If you go

A panel discussion and open forum on enhancing security and safety at Durango High School will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. April 5 at the school.

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