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RFSD Superintendent’s column: School safety our number-one priority | #schoolsaftey

Roaring Fork Schools embarked on a series of community conversations about school safety this winter. Our goal was to gather community input on school safety priorities and align on strategies. We heard from students, staff, and over 100 family members; a majority were Spanish-speaking. We take our commitment to school safety very seriously. As we prepare to launch our 2024-2029 strategic plan, we want to make sure that the strategies we use to promote student safety are aligned with community priorities, evidenced-based, consistent, and clear. 

When it comes to student wellbeing and safety, our superpower is relationships. Students who are connected to trusted adults at school and feel safe, seen, and heard are able to access appropriate support services and contribute to a safe and welcoming school environment. Families at community safety forums strongly supported this strategy and want us to continue to prioritize trusting relationships and positive school climates. As part of our 2022/2023 Multi-year Learning Acceleration Plan, we invested in Deans of Culture to support this priority. By the 2024/2025 school year, every traditional middle and high school will staff a Dean of Culture responsible for supporting positive behavior, educational disciplinary responses, and welcoming school environments.

We heard a strong push from community members at the forums to update prevention and health education including substance use, healthy relationships, social media safety, and violence prevention. Our small but mighty health education team consists of school nurses, counselors, health and science teachers, and medical professionals from Mountain Family Health Centers, our school-based health center providers. This team will continue to work in collaboration with teachers, school leaders, and community partners to update our comprehensive health curriculum and instruction in the 24/25 school year.

School-based mental health services are available at all of our schools through the generous support of the City of Glenwood Springs, the Town of Carbondale, the Town of Basalt, and Eagle County. We either contract with a Hope Center mental health provider or staff prevention, intervention, or behavioral specialists in every school. Additional funding comes from the Colorado Department of Education through grants.

In community safety forums, we heard strong support for these positions; they increase children and youth’s access to mental health services, provide meaningful consultation to school teams and help respond to behavioral health crises. These partnerships enable educators and district resources to focus on preK-12 education priorities. And, they direct community resources (i.e. tobacco tax and local government revenue) to ensure local children and youth access public health services at school. We hope to sustain and stabilize these partnerships and will be in conversation with local governments over the next few months to share findings, align priorities, and explore sustainable pathways forward.

Participants at community safety forums wanted to know more about adult mental health services. The Family Resource Center (FRC) of the Roaring Fork Schools staffs a bilingual, bicultural family liaison in every school who can help families and caregivers access external mental health support. Our FRC also facilitates a Spanish-language “Circle of Parents,” an evidenced-based peer-support group for families working through the challenges of parenting and navigating the risks children and families face today. 

At community safety forums, all partners supported more disciplined, consistent school facility entrance protocols. Thanks to our voters through the 2015 school facilities bond, all of our school facilities have secure entrance infrastructure. We heard clearly that we need to be more consistent in using secure entrances and closing exterior doors. This will require cooperation from our community and a willingness to slow down when visiting schools and take the time to identify yourself, and your purpose for visiting.

We raised the question of open/closed campuses during the forums. Currently, our high schools allow students to freely come and go from campus during lunch or free periods. The porous nature of high school entrances/exits is risky; we are unable to verify who is entering/exiting buildings or provide consistent student supervision. Neighboring school districts have moved away from open campuses to partially or fully closed campuses (i.e. allowing older students to come/go, allowing students in strong academic standing to come/go, or closing campuses entirely). We would need to carefully consider and address challenges like student supervision, school meal services, and school culture prior to any changes. But, the families who attended community safety forums encouraged us to continue to discuss this strategy. No changes are anticipated for the 24/25 school year but we are exploring options for the future. 

We also discussed School Resource Officer (SRO) partnerships at the safety forums. Roaring Fork Schools contribute a small amount of funding to staff School Resource Officers. We heard support for these positions which are intended to strengthen relationships, provide educational services, and support schools in crisis response. Community conversations around our SROs were generally supportive as long as we clearly define roles and continue to acknowledge and restore harm caused from past incidents where SROs facilitated immigration enforcement activities on campus. We are working this spring through Board policy updates to clarify our commitment to the 2016 Board Safe Haven Resolution affirming schools as safe spaces for all students and families – regardless of immigration status. We are grateful for the law enforcement officers and leaders who work with our schools to rebuild trust, clarify roles, and affirm the safety of every resident of our community and every student in our schools.

Findings from community safety forums will inform Board policy updates, revised school entrance procedures, and prevention education strategies. We will continue conversations with students, staff, and families about open/closed high school campuses. And we will continue close collaboration with elected officials, law enforcement officials, and nonprofit partners who support, sustain, and strengthen the strategies we use to ensure school safety. 

School safety is the most important priority in the Roaring Fork Schools and we can’t do it alone. We are incredibly grateful for the engagement of students, staff, families, and partners in this work.

Dr. Anna Cole is Interim Superintendent of the Roaring Fork District Schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.

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