Officials consider school safety measures


Staff Writer

School safety continues to be on the agenda for the Archuleta School District Board of Education as Pagosa Springs Police Chief Bill Rockensock made a pledge at the board’s Tuesday night meeting.

Actually, he made two. First, board chairperson Linda Lattin asked Rockensock to lead everyone in reciting the pledge of allegiance, which is the traditional opening for all school board meetings. Later, when it was time for the chief’s presentation, he made another pledge.

“We are taking steps towards making our schools safer,” Rockensock promised. “We have to have people in place in law enforcement. We have to have safety people in place in each one of our schools. What I am proposing is a school resource officer, and there are two reasons.

“The first reason is they will act as a deterrent. The second reason is that person will be responsible for holding the rest of us up to a high standard. Their job will be to make sure we are doing our safety drills and following our guidelines within our schools, and that we’re not getting lazy. It’s very easy for us to forget. If we get lazy or complacent, that is dangerous.

“Getting there is the challenge, because finding the funding to get some of these things done is very difficult. This is something that’s going to take time, effort and commitment from this community. There’s no question all of our budgets are very difficult to work around, but what’s the cost?

“I promise you I will continue working on this. I have children in these schools. It is very important to me. All of your children are very important to me. We will work towards this, but I can’t do it all by myself.”

San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) School Safety Coordinator Kathleen Morris, who had participated in a walk-through inspection of all three public school campuses in Pagosa Springs and had prepared a safety preparedness report for the school board last month, started off this month’s discussion by talking about the superintendent of the Dove Creek School District, who designated himself as a security guard so he could carry a weapon on their school campus.

“I just want to stress that it is really important to work with law enforcement agencies,” Morris said. “After Sandy Hook, it really brought to the public’s attention the need to look at our schools — all of them, elementary included — and what we’re doing for school safety, and we know that our partnership with law enforcement, and fire, is absolutely key to the sustainability of anything you want to do around school safety.

“We know that there wasn’t a school resource officer at Sandy Hook. That school was rated eighth in the nation in terms of safety because they had so many deterrents. The one thing they didn’t have was a school resource officer. Now, some will tell you that Jonesboro and Columbine did have school resource officers that were either on campus or nearby, so there isn’t one deterrent that is going to save it all.

“So arming your staff and students,” Morris concluded, “with the knowledge of what to do for personal safety is really on my radar, to assess your campuses, to see what practices you’re doing, and to build upon that, in partnership with law enforcement.”

“There is not a silver bullet,” Rockensock agreed. “There is not one single thing that will keep this from happening. Can I tell you that a school resource officer will stop anything from happening? I can’t answer that. It’s not possible to say that if we do this, this is going to occur.

“The short term option is not a viable one. What they did in Dove Creek, I don’t agree with. I am one-hundred percent pro gun. I carry one every single day. I don’t think that’s the right solution. There’s too much that goes with it — the training, the responsibility, the liability. What we need is an officer, someone who accepts that responsibility.”

School board member Ken Fox asked if it would be possible for the school district to hire someone who had training, perhaps from the military, who would work in cooperation with the police department as a security officer at the schools, but Rockensock explained he would not be able to accept the responsibility or liability for that situation.

“They are not under me,” he said. “They’re not under my umbrella. They’re not under my procedures, my rules that each officer is required to follow.”

School board member Greg Schick brought up the idea of having an undercover officer in the schools instead of someone in a police uniform, but Rockensock responded that Pagosa is a small town and everyone knows who the police officers are.

School board member Joanne Irons said she has been asking for a school resource officer for 10 years, and lamented that it took a tragedy like Sandy Hook to finally get the ball rolling. “I do appreciate how law enforcement worked in the instances that we had downtown,” she said, referring to last summer’s standoff on Hot Springs Boulevard and other occurrences. “The safety of our district has always been their top interest.”

“To be perfectly honest with you,” Rockensock added, “I’m done talking. The best intentions are the best intentions. It’s time to move forward. Whether we obtain a school resource officer or not, we are going to find the best practices we can put in place. I can’t do this without you.”

“If I can just give a quick update,” district superintendent Mark DeVoti interjected, “on the action steps from yesterday morning’s meeting with the sheriff’s department and police department. Updated camera access to both law enforcement agencies, we’re working on that right now. Starting next week, and for a couple weeks thereafter, teams from both law enforcement agencies will walk through the buildings with the lead custodian and administrator to get really familiar with the buildings and make recommendations on problems they see.

“Since December we have had an increased law enforcement presence at all of the schools on a regular basis, to the point that we get calls saying, ‘Why are the police there?’ We are publishing when our lockdown drills will be to law enforcement so they can be there to participate and walk through with administration to check doors. We looked at our radios so school administration and law enforcement can have seamless communications. Right now we just use our cell phones.”

Undersheriff Rich Valdez added that the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department is on board with the school resource officer idea. “We’ll do whatever we can,” he promised. “Speaking for the sheriff, I know he’s on board, looking forward to having a school resource officer, so whatever we can do as a group, we will. It is going to take an effort from all of us to make sure schools are safe.

“A school resource officer is not just a quick fix to prevent a mass-casualty incident. There’s also the big picture. A good school resource officer can deter a crime, prevent bullying and stop drugs. There’s a lot that goes along with it. Looking down the road five or ten years and being able to have a master plan will be much more valuable for all of us than just doing a quick fix today. We have members of our department that are trained tactically, so we want to be a part of that.”

In a follow-up interview, Mayor Ross Aragon confirmed, “We had a meeting with the sheriff’s office two days ago. It was called by Sheriff Pete Gonzales and he invited Chief Rockensock, the undersheriff, Rich Valdez, and myself. Right now, everything is just conceptual, but just off the top of my head I would say, unless somebody could tell me something different, I do not support the idea of someone with a gun being inside the school, regardless of who it is.”

He compared the situation to a jail or prison, where the guards do not carry weapons. “There’s a reason for that. I look at that and someone would have to show me that this would work.” However, he did admit that the idea was still fairly new, that he would continue to research it, and that he has an open mind about the issue. He could be convinced if there was a sound argument in favor of having a school resource officer.

Another concern the mayor had was with funding for an additional officer. Who would pay for it — the school district, the town, the county, or would all three entities chip in for part of the cost?