Colorado leads the nation in many ways that it responds to threats at schools. Now school districts are asking voters to help fund a more neglected need: mental-health resources to help prevent threats in schools.
Of the 29 school districts asking voters to increase local taxes for education, at least 19 have made school safety and security projects an explicit priority if those measures are approved. Officials say many districts are broadening their view of safety to include mental and emotional issues like youth suicide, which is on the rise. Eight districts that call out safety needs in their tax requests specifically mention mental health, counselors, or social emotional resources.
“I don’t believe anymore you can have a good school safety program without outstanding mental health supports,” said John McDonald of Jeffco Public Schools.
As the executive director of school safety for a district that has had three school shootings, including Columbine nearly 20 years ago, McDonald fields calls for help from officials across the country.
He said they consider Colorado districts like Jeffco ahead of the curve when it comes to threat assessments, standardizing responses, or practicing drills to prepare for tragic events. Some states are also looking at Colorado’s Safe2Tell hotline that fields thousands of anonymous tips on safety concerns.
Colorado districts also started years ago “hardening” schools, meaning changing building entryways, door locks and cameras, for instance, to make schools safer. Some of those changes are still in progress, such as replacing interior door locks that are now required under a new fire code.
But many argue those are reactive measures.
“For so many years we’ve all been worried about the next big tragedy that we focused on the preparedness and response side,” McDonald said. “But we can’t forget about the prevention piece.”
Advocates, teachers and district officials point to Colorado’s youth suicide rate — higher than the national average — as evidence that the state still struggles with offering adequate mental health support.
“In my opinion and in the opinion of our student members, school safety always has to be a priority. But I think something we’ve been frustrated with is the really narrow definition of what it means to be safe,” said Molly O’Connor, an associate director for Students for Education Reform. “Students need to be mentally and emotionally safe as well.”
Denise Hart, a teacher in Loveland’s Thompson School District, said that in her 13 years as an elementary teacher she had never seen an elementary-aged student threatening suicide, but it happened this year. It also happened to be the year the school lost its psychologist to budget cuts.
Teachers aren’t trained to help, she said. So the girl’s suicide risk was brought to the principal, and then parents. A counselor was brought in from another school, but Hart said, there was no relationship with that student for the professional to draw on.
“I feel like that’s a safety issue as well,” Hart said.
Amie Baca-Oehlert, the president of the Colorado Educators Association, said the group has just convened a school safety task force that will look at broadening the issue of school safety and will recommend policy improvements.
“It shows this certainly is something they care about, and they want their voices leading the discussion,” Baca-Oehlert said.
What constitutes safety varies from district to district, but a majority of district projects that would be funded if local voters approve their tax requests include a combination of mental health support or increases in staff, as well as building changes to physically make schools safer.
Westminster, for instance, wants to redesign the entryway at about half its schools that still don’t have a double-door system where people who enter a school are stuck in a lobby where another door blocks their access to the whole school, instead leading them only to an office. Officials also want to add campus monitors to their elementary schools, and provide better training to monitors at middle and high schools “to broaden their skill sets” around conflict management.
“While we don’t want to create a prison-like atmosphere in any way, shape or form,” said James Duffy, Westminster’s chief operating officer, “we do want parents to be able to believe their children are safe and secure in our buildings.”
Some advocates worry that more physical infrastructure like cameras and security guards in schools could actually have the opposite effect on students, especially students of color, by making them feel unsafe.
One Jeffco high school teacher, Ang Anderson, said security presence can be a good or a bad thing.
“Our security officers do a great job in my building trying to build relationships with students, and it never hurts to have more adults building that trust,” Anderson said. “But, I worry about putting too much into that, because there’s so much we need. Is that where the money is best spent?”
Jeffco convened a school safety task force over the summer. The group’s recommendations were presented to the school board this month, and the first one was for the district to increase behavioral health professionals.
Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass said the district is going to try to follow through with the recommendations and the district’s long-term vision for school safety, but how much can be done now depends on new funding. The district’s mill levy override, for example, would pay for counselors, mental health professionals, and substance abuse counselors. The district would also look at additional school safety officers.
For his part, Duffy said in Westminster, he doesn’t expect that adding monitors in charge of safety and school discipline will drive up the number of suspensions or expulsions, but instead would contribute to a safer climate.
“We realize that having trained personnel that’s able to work with students and families and visitors is just a positive,” Duffy said.
Christine Harms, director of the state’s School Safety Resource Center, said some professionals have always recognized the need for mental health resources as part of school safety, but for others, the urgency is becoming real now.
“The focus has evolved,” Harms said. “There’s strong recognition that a positive school climate goes a long way.”
Leslie Colwell, the vice president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said part of the problem has been the need for more consistent funding and planning.
“There’s momentum around this idea that one-time investments are reactive, like school violence is a spur-of-the-moment phenomenon,” Colwell said. “But we have a body of evidence that this is likely the result of years or exposure to risk factors.”
Glass agreed that the barrier is now the funding.
“We don’t have this sort of preventive or proactive support system in place,” he said. “All school districts, including Jeffco, are working to build those now. We need some help to do it.”
Here’s what local tax measures would provide, in terms of safety, to some metro area districts:
- Seat belts for all school buses
- Expanding mental health staff and training
- New campus monitors for elementary schools, and training for existing monitors to expand their skills
- Redesign school entryways so all schools have double-door entryways, cameras, door locks
- Expand visitor ID check system to all schools
- Increasing counselors, and school safety officers
- Building improvements such as new school entryways, security cameras, locks and windows
- Add counselors and social workers to schools at all levels, and additional campus supervisors at high schools
- Develop and implement social-emotional learning curriculum
- Add a member to the district crisis response team
- Install facility access cards at high schools
- New communication systems, door control and camera systems
- Hiring additional personnel who will directly support security needs of schools
- Add counselors at elementary schools, and reduce counselor-to-student ratios at middle and high schools
- Building security improvements