Panelists at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood focused on arming school staff, fortifying buildings and greater parental involvement as means of enhancing school safety at a Monday night forum.
“When people say teachers or coaches don’t have the mindset to carry a firearm on campus, I say they are already saving children. They’re just doing it with their body, because that’s all they have,” said Laura Carno, the executive director of FASTER Colorado. Her organization uses SWAT instructors to give firearm and active shooter trainings to school staff.
Carno added that the organization raises private money, recently from the raffle of a handgun and ammunition.
School districts in Colorado are allowed by law to designate personnel to carry concealed weapons in classrooms, after meeting proper requirements.
Carno, who said that 40% of her program’s graduates are teachers and the remainder are school staff in other positions, clarified that mandatory firearms training is not what she has in mind.
“Nobody anywhere across the country has ever said that school staff should ever be required to carry a firearm,” she said.
A 2017 Senate bill in Colorado would have allowed county sheriffs to provide similar training to school employees who held concealed carry permits. The proposal died in the Democratically-controlled House.
“Gun rights advocates proclaim that we should be putting more guns into our schools, into the hands of minimally trained teachers and citizens,” said gun-control advocacy group Colorado Ceasefire in a statement about arming school employees. “If more guns made us safer, we would be the safest nation on earth."
The forum did not touch on gun control.
Panelist Don Lee spoke to the importance of hardening physical infrastructure to make it harder for casualties to occur in shootings.
“I’m not a big government guy, but I think some things do need to be mandated, similar to fire safety,” he said. “I think there should be some standard safety criteria.”
He mentioned bulletproofing outside-facing windows and the elimination of windows on classroom doors as two possible ideas.
Lee is the board chairman for Hold Fast America, a Highlands Ranch-based group that seeks to train “citizen volunteers in various areas of awareness, deterrence and behavioral recognition,” using physical force for defense or “deadly force when reasonable.”
The organization’s nonprofit status is pending.
A recent state audit noted that generally Colorado has placed requirements on school districts to devise their own safety programs, offering assorted resources along the way. The Department of Education does not review districts’ policies. Last year, the General Assembly appropriated $35 million for school safety grants. At the time, some legislators were unhappy with the intended use of the money.
“Our kids have not asked for more armed guards in our schools,” tweeted Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver.
Abe Laydon, a Douglas County Commissioner, described the various initiatives in his county in the wake of the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting in May 2019 that killed student Kendrick Castillo.
He said the county spent $13.3 million for school safety, which included $10 million in one-time funding for physical security and mental health initiatives, $3 million in ongoing funding for school resource officers, and $331 for youth crisis response training.
“We want to be that beacon of conservative leadership,” Laydon said of his fellow commissioners. “There is evil in the world. Satan is a real entity, and we are fighting a spiritual battle on a daily basis. But we can create huge speed bumps to that evil.”
He described congressional efforts to create a national three-digit suicide hotline number and the state’s Safe2Tell program as promising initiatives.
Safe2Tell is an anonymous tip line for reporting threats to student and school safety. The program received a record number of tips this year, with the largest category being suicide threats.
“What we’re funding is curriculum and programming around social-emotional learning and mental health, and that there’s opportunities to identify kids that may have these issues,” Laydon said. “Isolated kids, kids that have parents that are abusing substances, kids from broken homes — flagging those kids ahead of time to get them the care they need before they become a Dylan Klebold, is part of that solution,” referring to one of the Columbine High School shooters.
Last month, the legislature’s School Safety Committee advanced multiple bills to address student mental health, including routing Safe2Tell calls through a crisis operator first, studying how to create additional treatment beds for youth, and allowing “mental health day” absences for children.
Jeff Hunt, the panel’s moderator and director of the Centennial Institute at CCU, said that he likes the notion of armed guards at the front of schools. “But at the same time, what are we communicating to our kids and the community?”
Carno said that the goal is not a show of force, but a presumption of force to deter would-be criminals.
Laydon recalled that when he testified before the School Safety Committee, he heard arguments that students of color felt targeted by school resource officers. He countered that other students have the fear of being shot at a school that does not have an armed guard.
All panelists agreed that parental involvement would help de-escalate potential problems. Among other things, they supported a program known as WATCH D.O.G.S., in which fathers or father-like figures volunteer in schools to tutor and patrol the hallways.
“Turn the TV off. Sit down. Have dinner with your kids. Talk to them,” Lee said. “Make sure they don’t take their phone to bed with them and they’re up till 2 in the morning being cyberbullied."
“The problem is that the parents have these internalized pressures to project success, and they are also transferring that expectation onto their kids. Having a safety valve on a daily basis to express those challenges, that’s why the social-emotional learning piece is so critical,” Laydon said.