What is Denver Public Schools (DPS) doing to ensure students’ safety in the 2013-2014 school year? Plenty. Among the changes at my local elementary school are doors are now locked all day long, as are the gates around the playground. Also, teachers are now assigned to keep a watchful eye, at all of the exits, on children departing after the last bell has rung. Parents picking up children are now encouraged to wait outside the school on the lawn, rather than mill around the hallways in the school. In time, permanent walls will be constructed between the open classrooms at Southmoor Elementary. All visitors, including parents, must be buzzed in and come directly into the main office to sign in.
There are several cameras installed, including one aimed at the front door. A volunteer school safety committee was instituted. Parents were also informed that all DPS teachers are trained and learn important procedures when hired by the DPS Department of Emergency Response Control Management. Of course, all of this is helpful because deterrence gets us 90% of the way there to avoiding violence at a school by an outside perpetrator.
In the last year since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in December 2012, Southmoor Elementary has taken a serious and reassuring look at how it can best protect children in the classroom. The most impressive part of these changes might be a balance was maintained and how subtle the changes were, so that the students were not alarmed or their studies’ disrupted.
What else should be done?
Like many public school facilities, Southmoor Elementary was “built in a different time and was built to foster openness – lots of doors, few walls – was meant to be welcoming. In today’s society, schools must re-evaluate their safety procedures,” according to the January 17, 2013 meeting minutes of the Southmoor Elementary Safety Committee.
DPS has an entire department of Safety and Security. This department advises schools on safety topics and should continue to be consulted by individual schools in the district. It was reassuring for parents to see a vehicle from this department outside Southmoor Elementary this past week in fact.
Colorado school personnel not to carry handguns for now
One bill (HB13 -1170 sponsored by Representative Stephen Humphrey and Senator Owen Hill) was not passed this past Legislative Session. This bill, a similar variation of Senate Bill 13-009, would have authorized a school district board of education and the governing board of a charter school to adopt a written policy to allow an employee of the school district or charter school to carry a concealed handgun on school grounds if the person holds a valid permit to carry a concealed handgun.
Further, in February 2013, as reported by the Associated Press and CBS4 Denver, a new agreement between the Denver police and the schools stands out. “…the contract limits the role of police officers in schools, in response to concerns that schools were relying too heavily on officers to handle minor disciplinary problems.”
"The contract does not reduce the number of officers in schools – currently 15 distributed among 17 campuses – but explicitly outlines their role and emphasizes the use of ‘restorative approaches,’ rather than ticketing or court referrals, for dealing with minor disciplinary problems."
“Although other school districts have established similar – though usually less formal – guidelines, Denver may be unique in its timing. School safety announcements since the December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut typically have been about schools adding officers or adopting zero-tolerance policies. One school district south of Denver, for example, recently invited police officers on patrol to write their arrest reports from school parking lots.”
Greater personal safety: new anti-bullying policy and resources also put in place in DPS
In a letter to the community dated May 24, 2013, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg wrote,
“As part of our 2013-14 budget that has been unanimously approved by the Board of Education, we invested an additional $1.5 million in counseling and mental-health services to help our schools better support students who are having behavioral issues and address discipline issues. In addition, the Board of Education also approved an updated, more thorough anti-bullying policy that sets a tone of respect and kindness across all of our schools.”
The letter also outlines a commitment to create a DPS-wide bullying-prevention program that focuses on:
- training staff and students in taking proactive steps to ensure considerate behavior;
- implementing procedures for immediate intervention, investigation, and confrontation of students engaged in bullying behavior;
- fostering a productive partnership with parents and community members in order to help maintain a bully-free environment;
- supporting victims of bullying through individual and peer counseling; and
- recognizing and rewarding supportive, caring behaviors of students toward one another.
Denver Public Schools is growing faster than another other city school district in the nation
According to Denver Public Schools, DPS “is the fastest-growing urban school district in the country in terms of enrollment, growing by 10,600, or 14.5%, in the past five years to 84,131 students, according to district estimates. Data shows DPS grew by 2,600 students since last school year, or a 2.7% gain in one year and a 14.5% increase in enrollment over five years. By contrast, in the six-year period between 2002 and 2007, DPS enrollment growth was just under 1,100, or a 1.5% gain over five years. This means the rate of enrollment growth in the past five years has been eight times greater than the five years before.”
This growth makes attention to student safety all the more important in the months ahead. With a great many variables all playing a role at once, it is essential to make a conversation about school safety a priority. These variables include, but are not limited to, the overtaxed and still under-resourced mental health resources in the metro area, an upswing in bullying among American children and teens, and the emotional debates in our State Capitol by proponents and opponents of gun control bound to repeat themselves in the 2013-14 Legislative Session. This said, it is comforting, as a parent of school-age children, to see that concrete measures were put in place last year that will keep DPS students safer in the new school year just begun.