After Shootings Past And Present, Colorado Grapples With School Safety

A month after a shooting that resulted in the death of a student at Arapahoe High School, Colorado lawmakers invited counselors, school resource officers and the state’s deputy attorney general, Cynthia Coffman, to discuss what leads to violence on school campuses and how the state might better recognize warning signs, prevent shootings and, should they occur, limit the death toll with a fast, targeted response.

With the shooting at Arapahoe High School being so recent — and only 15 years since the tragic Columbine High School shooting which resulted in the loss of 12 lives by two students before they took their own — lawmakers have held some 200 meetings with experts to improve the safety climate of Colorado schools. Eli Stokols of Fox31 Denver writes that at a joint meeting held recently, Republicans on the House and Senate of Education Committees are pushing legislation to allow teachers and staff with concealed weapon permits to be armed at schools in order to allow them to respond quicker in the event of a shooting. Many such as school resource officer Sgt. Doug Ross worry about the lack of training many will have, and it is unlikely Democrats will approve of armed educators.

The meeting primarily focused more on mental health resources and how to better prevent school violence by providing troubled students with more of an outlet for their emotions. Samantha Haviland, the director of counseling support services for Denver Public Schools, told lawmakers that there aren’t enough school counselors to deal with student issues. Although counselors’ case loads have decreased in recent years, the national average remains nearly twice the recommended rate set by the American Counseling Association, with each counselor seeing 471 students on average.

“Almost half of my students don’t have a school counselor at all,” Haviland said. “And I have schools with counselors in there with up to 1,000 kids. What kind of impact can you make?”

In the past several years, the recession forced large cuts in education spending by the state resulting in schools being faced with budget shortfalls and when school districts face financial pressures, flexible jobs such as librarians, nurses, and school counselors are often on the chopping block, according to Art Terrazas, the grassroots advocacy coordinator for the American Counseling Association. A lack of federal resources have contributed to the problem as well.

“What we have seen in the years I’ve been working on school safety is a dramatic decrease in the amount of federal funding that is available for school safety,” said Cynthia Coffman, the state’s deputy attorney general.

“Although our federal partners talk about the importance of school safety, they aren’t backing it up with resources, so it falls to us at the state level to be creative.”

Now with the economy recovering, lawmakers will have a little more flexibility in this year’s budget, which should allow them to expend more funds to better school safety with more legislation such as the Senate Bill 2 that will put state funding behind the Safe 2 Tell anonymous tip line that allows students to report suspicious and threatening behavior. This program currently runs as a non-profit and hopefully will not be the last of new legislation and programs for educational safety as lawmakers make funding decisions.