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The safety and security of local schools was not an issue on the agenda at the Dec. 20 town council meeting. However, in light of recent national events, it was on the mind of at least one council member.
“I’ve been asked by several people in the community,” council member Kathie Lattin said, “‘What is the town doing to protect our schools?’ I just want to know that somebody is looking into it. Are we good? Do we need to change things? What is being done?”
On Dec. 14, Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. After killing the students and staff members, Lanza committed suicide by shooting himself in the head as first responders arrived. After the 2007 Virginia Tech incident, the Sandy Hook massacre was the second deadliest school shooting in United States history.
Pagosa Springs Police Chief Bill Rockensock responded to Lattin’s concerns, “This week I talked to Superintendent Mark DeVoti about having officers in the schools. We have not received any indication that there is any kind of threat in our school system at this point in time.”
When asked for a response later, DeVoti stated, “We have had no indications either from law enforcement or the community of any copycat threats, although I know nationally there have been a few, and Bayfield had a Facebook posting in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy which they deemed credible and investigated it.”
“That being said,” Rockensock continued at the town council meeting, “this week I have had officers doing walk-throughs at the schools, safety checks, security checks of the exteriors of the buildings, making sure that school staff is aware of what the protocols are if something were to occur. We do have tactical response plans in place for all of our schools, and have had for some time.”
“We met with local law enforcement right after the Newtown Tragedy,” DeVoti explained later, “and they increased walkthroughs by officers in the school from once to up to several times a day. They also made a suggestion on covering classroom door windows with paper so they could not be seen into from the hallways.
“In conducting building walkthroughs, we have noticed several window blinds that need replacing so they can be closed quickly, and those are in the process of being replaced. The main doors on the high school were replaced last week due to issues with securing them properly, but that had been scheduled about a month prior. Last summer we changed all the locks on the middle school so we could limit the access to keys. This is something we do in all our buildings at times.”
Pagosa Springs Elementary School principal Kate Lister explained, “We meet with Kathy Morris from San Juan BOCES, Janell Wood, Dolly Martin and all the law agencies to review and adjust procedures to match the most current best practices.”
“As administrators, we have been trained in the NIMS,” Pagosa Springs High School Principal David Hamilton added. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) is a comprehensive, national approach to incident management that is applicable at all jurisdictional levels and across functional disciplines. NIMS enables various government agencies to work together to prevent, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the effects of incidents, in order to reduce the loss of life.
“Also last summer,” DeVoti added, “we reviewed and upgraded (with regional safety professionals) all our emergency response procedures, protocols, and standardized language (lockdown, lockout, etc. No more unclear terms like ‘soft lockdown’).”
“A lockdown is where the kids have to be quiet and gather somewhere in the room away from the windows and the door where someone could see them inside,” Hamilton explained. “We do a fire drill every other month and a lockdown every other month.”
“We also implemented a new emergency messaging service that ties directly with our student management system,” DeVoti said, “so when we send out messages (school delays, closings, lockouts, etc.) we are assured that we have updated contact information on everyone, as long as they are updating their child’s contact information with the schools.
“Many of the protocols we adopted were from the resources of the I Love You Guys Foundation (iloveyouguys.org) started by the parents whose daughter was shot in the Platte Valley tragedy.”
“Law enforcement agencies have always partnered well with us,” Lister said. “Many of them have their own children in our school so they are dedicated to keeping all of our students safe. The town police, county sheriff and Colorado State Patrol have all worked with me on our campus, to discuss any concerns with our procedures and for them to become acquainted with the actual site.”
“We would like to work with the town or the county to have a resource officer in the school,” Hamilton said. “It would be a great liaison between the police force and the student body. In fact, we have begged (and it happens because they are really good) and we get Floyd Capistrant, T. J. Fitzwater and Tony Kop in the building a lot. They’ve built a good rapport with our students, but we would like to have them on a full-time basis. It would make for a healthier environment.”
“The recently fueled talks about whether or not to have arms quietly carried on campuses by trained professionals is to be watched closely,” DeVoti stated. “In a ‘it could never happen here’ world, I believe it may have merits to some degree. Student safety is and needs to be our number one concern, from threats from within and outside the schools. We need more counselors for children and we need more secure campuses.”
“Prior to the Newtown incident,” Lister continued, “Officer Floyd Capistrant spent much time working with me on reviewing the safety of the campus and making a few recommendations, such as covering the hallway windows. We began discussions about purchasing additional interior hallway security cameras and possibly adding a key-coded lock system to our front door. Our staff and students practice our safety drills such as fire drills and lockdowns regularly and document them for review.”
“Last week, the police were in and out of our building daily,” Hamilton confirmed. “They were checking doors and checking for suspicious people. One of the reasons they did that was a heightened awareness of this Mayan calendar end-of-the-world, and they thought someone might do something stupid if they really thought the world was going to come to an end. We actually had families that kept their kids home from school on that day just in case.”
“The hype of the Mayan Calendar, end of the world prophesy did add some local worries,” DeVoti confirmed, “coming only a week after Newtown, and it was good to get through last week and send everyone on break to breathe a little.”
While school staff has worked closely with local law enforcement in reaction to Sandy Hook, how to react to student concerns has also been an important issue, especially with the younger students.
“We have kept pretty quiet about the Newtown incident at the elementary school due to the nature of our student’s age,” Lister admitted. “We didn’t want to expose students to the news if their families had protected them from it. Teachers were provided with suggestions of how to answer student’s questions and concerns if they did bring the situation up and our counselor worked with anyone who was more distressed about it.”
“I grew up an hour from Newtown, Connecticut,” DeVoti concluded, “and my first job in education was in Newtown. My aunt picked up her grandchildren from there the day of the shootings. My kindergarten nephew and third -grade niece live less than an hour away from there.”
“Overall, our staff was saddened by the incident and recognized how important and dear their students were to them,” Lister concluded. “The idea that something horrible could happen to any of our children just made us sick.”