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Are schools in Durango safe?

Officials and parents acknowledge there is no way to be sure

Durango Police Department School Resource Officer Preston Rea walks toward the front of Riverview Elementary School on Thursday near the end of the school day. Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Daniel Snowberger said in a letter to parents last week that the district has safety protocols but conceded that the schools are not impenetrable. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Durango Police Department School Resource Officer Preston Rea walks toward the front of Riverview Elementary School on Thursday near the end of the school day. Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Daniel Snowberger said in a letter to parents last week that the district has safety protocols but conceded that the schools are not impenetrable.

The question is at once harrowing and irrepressible: “Will my child be safe today?”

Answered honestly, most parents admit that despite their daily calculus, they can’t know. Human systems are imperfect; what is too painful to think too often comes true.

“I know anything could happen, but I choose not to think about it,” Park Elementary School parent Liz Mora said. “Protecting my kids and loving them every day – that has to be enough.”

On Dec. 14, the unthinkable happened to other peoples’ children.

Until 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn., was, by all accounts, an “idyllic” town.

Could that happen here?

No one interviewed for this story said “never.”

In a letter to parents after the Connecticut tragedy, Superintendent Daniel Snowberger assured parents that Durango School District 9-R collaborates closely with local law enforcement and has safety protocols to address both threats from outside and within.

But in that letter, he acknowledged that our schools are “not an impenetrable fortress.”

In fact, our schools are places that welcome the community and rely on visitors to make their presence known.

Even the district acknowledges that someone with motivation and an assault rifle won’t be stymied by checking in at the front desk.

Some parents say it isn’t our schools’ unsuspicious culture that leaves children susceptible to madmen’s sudden rage, but the ubiquity of guns and lack of laws to control them.

“We need tougher laws, no assault rifles, and less easy access,” said parent Erin Hamlin while walking her kids Kiara and Gavin home from Park Elementary. “No guns aren’t dangerous.”

Currently, concealed weapons, when carried by a permit holder, are allowed on school grounds but not in school buildings.

District spokeswoman Julie Popp said the policy is being reassessed.

In an email, she also wrote, “Please keep in mind that students and staff are never allowed to have weapons on campus – with or without a concealed weapons permit.”

La Plata County Sheriff Duke Schirard said state law more or less obliges him to issue permits to anyone who has undergone remedial firearm training within the last 10 years and whose recorded history is unblemished by felonies, mental illness, a domestic violence conviction or an operative restraining order.

Colorado’s revised statutes add the applicant must not “chronically and habitually use alcoholic beverages to the extent that the applicant’s normal faculties are impaired.”

Schirard said he did not know how many permits he’d issued.

Surprisingly, most guns used in mass shootings were obtained legally, according to an investigation by Mother Jones magazine. The report found that since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass shootings in the country.

“Of the 142 guns possessed by the killers, more than three-quarters were obtained legally,” the magazine reported.

There are almost 300 million privately owned firearms in America, or nearly one for every American.

According to Popp, Colorado school districts have some discretion in forbidding guns on campus. But no such luxury is afforded those running state-funded institutions of higher education.

At Fort Lewis College, spokesman Mitch Davis said a recent Colorado Supreme Court decision determined that students with concealed weapons permits can’t be prevented from packing heat on campus.

The more permissive law for colleges is not supported by reality: The deadliest shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history was committed at Virginia Tech University in 2007. The shooter in that case legally obtained his weapons despite having a diagnosed mental illness.

FLC does not know how many or which of its students hold permits that enable them to legally carry guns to class or in dorms.

“After speaking with our police department, I’m told that the names of concealed carry permit holders is confidential under state law,” Davis said in an email. “Our police officers don’t even have that information. ... I don’t see a way to estimate the number of permit holders we have on campus.”

At the University of Colorado at Boulder, spokesman Bronson Hillard said students don’t have to disclose whether they hold concealed weapons permits.

Both FLC and CU emphasized that mental-health services are available to students whose behavior appears to be erratic.

Hillard also said CU’s biggest lecture hall seats 500 students.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

Students flock out of Riverview Elementary School. After the massacre in Newtown, Conn., some have questioned whether Durango’s schools are secure. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Students flock out of Riverview Elementary School. After the massacre in Newtown, Conn., some have questioned whether Durango’s schools are secure.