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How safe are our schools?

By Shane Benjamin Herald staff writer

On a recent visit to Riverview Elementary School, Fire Marshal Karola Hanks wore plain clothes instead of her uniform. She wanted to see if anyone would stop and question her as she inspected the school.

Hanks, with Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, opened the front door, breezed past the main office and wandered the halls. She went to the library, rummaged through storage areas and walked into classrooms.

No one approached her or questioned her for 12 minutes. A teacher finally stopped her and asked her to check in at the front office.

“We did go through a significant portion of the building before a very nice lady said, 'Hey, did you sign in? I don't see a tag,'” Hanks said.

School safety is an issue in the national spotlight since the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in December in Newtown, Conn. Superintendents in Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio say they are working to improve security at area schools. But making significant changes can be costly, and changing existing culture is challenging.

Hanks notified Principal Doug Geygan about how easy it was to roam his school.

“I would have felt much better if when she walked into our school, she had been observed and talked to by one of our staff to ensure that we knew who was in our building,” Geygan said.

But he said the incident occurred about 2 p.m. Friday, after students left for the day.

“I would have been more alarmed if she did that when students were here,” he said.

Nine school districts in Southwest Colorado are undergoing a vulnerability assessment – an effort to identify and prioritize threats at every school as they relate to health and safety.

The districts began the assessment before the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in which 20 students and six adults were gunned down, said Kathy Morris, safe school coordinator for San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services. The board is overseeing the assessments.

After the shooting at Sandy Hook, President Barack Obama vowed to use “whatever power this office holds” to prevent similar tragedies. Since then, lawmakers from state capitals to Washington, D.C., have debated gun-control measures – from doing nothing to placing a ban on assault weapons or limiting the number of bullets held by magazines.

Some politicians and law-enforcement officials say the best way to deal with school shootings is to allow teachers and staff members to carry concealed weapons.

La Plata County Sheriff Duke Schirard expressed support for the idea, but local school officials are strongly opposed.

“Our administrators are educators,” Morris said. “Children come to our schools for education; it's not around fighting a war.”

Balancing act

In considering school safety, educators and communities must consider how far they are willing to go to protect students.

Options range from locking outside doors to installing surveillance cameras, hiring security guards to installing metal detectors.

Decisions largely depend on the needs of a particular school and balancing the community's expectations, said Troy Zabel, superintendent for Bayfield School District.

“We want our facilities to be very welcoming,” he said. “When you have metal detectors, armed guards – all of that – I think you get unintended consequences.”

Sandy Hook Elementary was a secure building with locked doors and a video-intercom system at the front door. That didn't stop Adam Lanza from shooting his way through the glass doors and unloading 50 to 100 rounds in about 10 minutes.

“I guess we could put razor wire around the outside of buildings and have it where people can't get access, but I think it would create a learning environment that wouldn't be conducive,” Zabel said. “We have to be thoughtful and be very diligent about making sure we're secure but still being able to provide a safe environment.”

On Monday, La Plata County government will install a metal detector at the entrance of the courthouse, 1060 East Second Ave.

Morris said she never wants to see metal detectors used at the front door of any local school.

“It's not the one deterrent that is going to save it all,” she said. “It's about the people inside the building and the community around the building that are going to save the school. It's how we respond, how aware we are, recognizing a threat and reacting to it.”

Undersheriff David Griggs said he supports arming teachers with concealed weapons – provided they undergo extra training – but he doesn't support placing full-time security guards or police officers inside schools.

“I would hate to see police in the schools,” he said. “I don't have a problem with it; it's just not what I'm used to. I don't think the public wants that.”

No single solution

School and law-enforcement officials recognize there is no foolproof way to prevent a school shooting.

But certain security measures, including those used at Sandy Hook Elementary, can dissuade an attack or mitigate the consequences.

“We'll never know to what degree they may have slowed down the perpetrator,” said Dan Snowberger, superintendant for Durango School District 9-R. “We'll never know to what degree they may have prevented further loss of life.”

More importantly, schools and communities need to be alert to possible problems, find ways to report them and know how to deal with issues as they arise, Morris said.

“Stricter gun control, whatever that means, could be effective,” she said. “But also recognizing that we have some issues with our families and community around mental health.

“It's really about community and families understanding personal safety and awareness and being prepared in case something does go wrong,” she said.

The people who have committed school shootings often have one thing in common: They were bullied, Morris said.

“We've got to keep our eyes on that,” she said.

By and large, students and staff members said they feel safe at local schools. They attribute that sense of security to the small-town, rural feel of the area.

Dave Tanaka, principal at Needham Elementary, said schools are the safest places in Durango.

“I come into this building, and I really do think that it's a safer place than anywhere else in this community,” he said. “This is not a gigantic problem. It is not an epidemic. If you want to avoid trouble, come to a school.”

shane@durangoherald.com

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