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  • Local schools undergoing threat assessments

    Needham Elementary School Principal David Tanaka prepares to make a schoolwide announcement signaling the start of a lockdown drill at the school. Enlarge photo

    SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

    Needham Elementary School Principal David Tanaka prepares to make a schoolwide announcement signaling the start of a lockdown drill at the school.

    Upon arriving at any school, Kathy Morris scans the campus for graffiti, illegal parking, doors that are propped open and anything that offers easy access to the roof.

    All are considered security threats, she said.

    She then walks through the front doors, looking for posted signs that guide her to the front office where she must check in before going any further. She expects to find a receptionist who will greet her, but sometimes no one is there, she said.

    Morris is embarking on a vulnerability assessment of all schools in nine school districts in Southwest Colorado.

    The analysis is being done by the San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which assists school districts with a range of programs, including school safety.

    School districts from across the region are undertaking the vulnerability assessment, which is done about every five years. The last one was in 2007.

    District officials want to know if a particular school is susceptible to bullying, a gas explosion, a mass shooting or any number of other threats.

    “It’s really all about identifying and evaluating potential risks and areas of weakness that might have some sort of adverse consequence for the school or school system,” Morris said.

    She walks through schools with a team that includes fire and police representatives. In addition to security threats, they look for fire hazards, air-quality issues, chemical storage concerns, broken playground equipment and ice buildup.

    She talks to employees about their procedures. Custodians face questions about chemical storage and perimeter checks – making sure outside doors are locked and not propped open.

    Cafeteria cooks are asked about best-food practices and how deliveries are brought into the school.

    “Sometimes, those cafeteria staff know kids better than anyone else,” Morris said. She wants to make sure they communicate with administrators if they feel something is wrong.

    Morris also meets with school counselors to find out what they’re doing to open lines of communication with students. Teachers need to talk with students; administrators need to communicate with fire and police officials.

    “Communication is absolutely key,” Morris said. “How are we communicating when we identify a risk or a threat?”

    She evaluates whether surveillance cameras would make a meaningful difference, or whether equipping staff with 800 megahertz radios that communicate directly with emergency dispatch is worth the expense.

    She also attends after-school meetings with parents to gauge their feelings about school safety.

    Each inspection can take anywhere from four hours to two days, depending on the size of the campus, she said.

    She expects to prepare reports that detail her findings and submit them by May to all nine school districts.

    “We’re going to be honest, and we’re going to be straightforward – black and white. It’s got to be that way,” Morris said. “We can’t candy-coat it or put rose-colored glasses on. Our children deserve, our staff deserve and our parents deserve what’s in the best interest of their safety.”

    After the reports are issued, it will be up to superintendents and board members to evaluate recommendations. Most proposals will involve changing procedures, but some will require purchasing new equipment or making changes to existing buildings and infrastructure.

    Durango School District 9-R has budgeted $410,000 to pay for security improvements this year, said Laine Gibson, chief financial officer for the district.

    It also plans to apply for grants, including one from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Dan Snowberger, 9-R superintendent.

    “Where there are things that we need to do with regard to facilities, we’ll be prepared to deal with those,” he said.

    Snowberger said he welcomes an honest vulnerability assessment report, even if it criticizes existing safety procedures.

    “It’s an opportunity for us to get better,” he said. “We’ve got to be willing to accept criticism to ensure the safety of our buildings, and we can’t do that by turning and looking the other way.”

    shane@durangoherald.com

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