Denver schools get a new safety plan | #schoolsaftey

Denver Public Schools would conduct more detailed building security assessments, retrain staff and students on how to keep themselves safe in an emergency, empower schools to decide whether they want police on campus and partner with the city to recruit and prepare more mental health professionals, under a 48-page draft safety plan released Monday afternoon. 

The plan follows a string of high-profile violence at Denver schools, including a March 22 shooting at East High School in which a 17-year-old boy wounded two administrators before fatally shooting himself in rural Park County. In response, the district temporarily added police back to 17 public schools, including two at East High School, reversing course from 2020 when the school board voted to remove school police.

The new draft plan — the first districtwide safety plan of its kind for DPS — is an initial attempt at updating safety provisions and remains in flux, DPS spokesman Will Jones wrote in an email. Once Superintendent Alex Marrero gives a final version of the plan to the school board, the board will review recommendations and potentially revise the plan before voting on it, Jones said.

The release of the proposed plan has been highly anticipated among parents, students and teachers, who have grown more vocal in the past several weeks about the need to step up school safety.

Twice in the days that followed the March 22 shooting, DPS students banded together in a public outcry, skipping class and swarming the Capitol to demand that lawmakers pass stronger gun regulations.

Students also demonstrated after Denver East High School student Luis Garcia died a few weeks after he was shot outside the school Feb. 13.

Much of the document made public Monday simply walks through measures the district already has in place, including an emphasis on social-emotional learning, mental health teams in schools, bullying prevention initiatives, an emergency management plan and districtwide building security assessments.

In a newly proposed initiative, the district would expand on those assessments with more detailed analyses that include building walk-throughs with school leaders and the Department of Climate and Safety.

Additionally, DPS would retrain school leaders, staff and students in a program used in more than 40,000 schools worldwide to prepare students for emergencies, including intruders, weather emergencies and fires. The “Standard Response Protocol” educates schools about when to lockdown, evacuate and shelter.

DPS could also work with the city of Denver to develop a program that will expand the number of mental health professionals trained to work in schools, including psychologists and social workers. The program would offer tuition stipends to participants and give them the ability to get certified while holding a full-time job.

Marrero also plans to recommend to the school board that all district-run high schools and campuses serving students grades 6-12 be allowed to make their own decisions about whether they want police on-site. Schools would decide each year and would require communities to weigh in, the plan states.

Students from East High School and West High School call for gun control measures to be considered by state lawmakers March 23 during a rally outside the Capitol in Denver. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo, file)

And the plan highlights the possibility of using “weapons detection technology” through “touchless security screening.” That kind of technology is already used by districts like Baltimore Public Schools and in arenas, airports and courts, the plan notes. Schools will partner with their communities to determine whether they want to install that technology.

The Department of Climate and Safety has four weapons detection technology units used randomly and primarily at athletic events, Jones said.

Additionally, DPS and the city could improve data-sharing with each other and nonprofits as well as improve the ways schools and community providers work together to serve students needing mental support.

Marrero was unavailable Monday to discuss the draft plan, and a district spokesperson declined to make any district officials available to comment, saying the plan is “preliminary.”

Marrero consulted experts in general safety and school safety and considered input from “thousands of families, students and staff,” according to a district news release.

“We have listened to our safety experts and received some community input,” Marrero said in a statement. “Now, we want to hear from our students, our families, our staff, and our community. There will be many ways for you to share your input with us that will be announced in the coming days.”

Marrero will issue a second draft of the plan by June 1, the news release stated.

The focus on school violence comes as a parent group that emerged in the wake of the shooting inside East High School has grown to more than 1,100 parents. The Parent-Safety Advisory Group has pressed DPS to provide “data-driven” information about school safety and to be transparent about its policies, said Steve Katsaros, a cofounder of the group and a parent of two sons enrolled in DPS schools.

Steve Katsaros, a cofounder of P-SAG, speaks Monday at City Park to discuss school safety. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“We’re holding the superintendent and the board accountable and demanding change,” said Katsaros, whose older son is a sophomore at East High School.

Katsaros and fellow parents have pressed the district to develop a safety plan with guidance from experts in safety and school operations; adopt safety metrics aimed at curbing violence and weapon-related threats; conduct “transparent and objective” risk assessments of DPS schools; create a way for DPS employees to report district mismanagement and safety concerns without fear of retaliation; and be open about whom the district hires as a safety consultant.

Katsaros criticized the district’s approach to creating its safety plan, saying it was formed in “an echo chamber of themselves” without a safety team in place.

“They’re just trying to ram something through,” he added. “We want them to create a true engagement and not just in some siloed world that doesn’t exist.”

Katsaros said he is fed up with the pervasive violence affecting DPS schools and that the district needs to show families “a decrease in incidents, and not because they lowered the bar on what is an incident, but meaningful reduction of weapons and dangerous kids in our schools.”

The 17-year-old boy who shot two administrators at East High School before fatally shooting himself had been disciplined before and was subject to a “safety plan” that included a search of himself and his belongings each morning. 

The violence in schools, Katsaros said, is “wholly unacceptable.”

“How do you go to a learning environment or a working environment for the students and teachers respectively and honestly conduct yourselves and what you’re supposed to be doing — learning or teaching?” he asked. “You can’t. Without safety, how do you do that?”

A statewide probe into school safety

The shooting inside East High School has spurred a statewide conversation about school safety focused on stopping community violence from infiltrating schools, with at least 80 participants across Colorado coming together to find solutions that will curb threats against students and teachers.

That effort, led by Denver-based education nonprofit Public Education & Business Coalition and Denver-based consultant Confluence Policy & Strategy Group, will open up a space for people interested in having a “very frank, nonpartisan conversation” that does not include gun control, said PEBC President and CEO Sue Sava.

The goal, she added, is for the group to identify “solvable problems and get people who aren’t often collaborators on the same page about solutions.”

The collaboration includes a broad swath of people from state leaders — including U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office, Colorado House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, and Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, R-Monument — to students, parents, principals, superintendents, teachers, school resource officers, mental health experts and rural schools. 

Among the practical issues they will tackle, Sava said, is how best to prepare police officers to protect schools, with input from police in urban and rural districts.

Sava, whose office was put on lockdown during the shooting at East High School, said violence finds its way onto campuses from the outside.

“It’s community violence that impacts schools,” she said, reinforcing the need for teachers to have a louder voice in conversations about school safety, particularly as more educators find less incentive to stay in the classroom.

“When you don’t make a lot of money, and you’re asked to put yourself in harm’s way, it doesn’t add up,” Sava said. “Teachers need to be able to go to work and know that they’re safe, and we’re failing them right now. We’re not doing that.”

Sava also sees an urgent need to help students, teachers and leaders heal from trauma stemming from the pandemic.

Andrew Nuss (left), an 11th grade biology teacher at Byers School District, protests gun violence at the Colorado Capitol on March 23. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“I feel very concerned about post-pandemic impacts where they’re playing out in terms of mental health and violence that are impacting our youth,” she said. “I think that as a culture we have not yet begun to grapple with the impacts of the pandemic on our kids’ mental health and on our teachers’ mental health. It’s really devastating. I’ve never seen education in this state.”

The group could help inform legislation or highlight local policies and practices to be implemented at schools throughout the state, bearing in mind that urban, suburban and rural schools may need different approaches, Sava said. She anticipates the group will meet for the next year at least with hopes of putting their findings into action within two years. 

Sava is also adamant that Colorado needs more funding and resources for education in the fight for safer schools. The state’s “inability to prevent community violence from infringing on our schools” in part is tied to inadequate state funding for schools, she said.

Another state effort targeting school security is taking shape through a School Safety Working Group created by legislation in 2020 that seeks to coordinate work across state agencies and resources. The group, which received $100,000 in state funding in 2022, is tapping schools, local law enforcement agencies and nonprofits to inform them about all resources available through state programs, educate communities about how to access them, and pinpoint gaps in responding to and preventing acts of violence, said Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety and chair of the School Safety Working Group.

The working group, also facilitated by PEBC and Confluence Policy & Strategy Group, is focused on tracking all the mental health programs available for schools, along with state grants and support services, so that it can develop a comprehensive list of mental health resources. It will study how to better bridge local schools and state programs so that individual schools and districts are aware of programs their students can benefit from, Hilkey said. 

Physical safety will be another area the group will study, said Chris Harms, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center under the state public safety department.

The group, which has so far met twice and will next meet in June, also plans to dig into how each state agency approaches school safety, and how they work together. For instance, the Colorado School Safety Resource Center trains schools on the best ways to respond to a crisis, including teaching them how to conduct threat assessments and help them with case management of students who pose risks, Hilkey said.

Denver Public Schools parents and other community members gathered Monday to advocate for further safety reforms within the district. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

He also cited the state’s Safe2Tell program, an anonymous reporting system administered by the state Attorney General’s office through which students can send tips about threats or concerns.

The working group hopes to track all programs and resources across different state agencies and in local communities and consolidate them, where possible. The group will then advertise them in one convenient spot so that schools can access them quickly, particularly those in rural regions of the state, Hilkey said.

“Those places really need to know and understand what all those resources are and how to get to them to make sure they’re taking advantage of everything they can get,” he said.

Hilkey noted that the state’s role in school safety is to provide resources to schools to support them in preventing acts of violence, spotting and investigating threats, and getting organized after a crisis.

School safety is “really starting down at the lowest local level” with families, schools and local law enforcement all playing significant roles in keeping students and teachers safe, he said.

One critical part of setting up campuses to be safe revolves around making sure students, teachers and school leaders know what steps to take when suspecting or learning about a threat, Hilkey said. 

When looking at past school shootings, he said, “it’s almost always that somebody knew something.”

The working group is recruiting more members. Individuals interested in joining can email Confluence Policy & Strategy Group at [email protected].

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 11 a.m., May 2, 2023, to correct a caption. A photo of Collinus Newsome should have stated that her brother, East High School administrator Jerald “Wayne” Mason, is recovering after a March 22 shooting at East High School.

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