Safety initiatives: Exploring Mental Health and Armed Staff Programs in Colorado Schools

School shootings are an unfortunate reality for some students across the fifty-states leaving Colorado not immune. The most recent shooting to plague the Centennial State occurred at a charter school, STEM School Highlands Ranch, where one student was killed and eight others sustained injuries. This May 2019 shooting garnished much attention and had many Colorado residents debating on future school safety tactics.

Chief of Safety for Denver Public Schools, Mike Eaton, told The Denver Post that there are still multiple districts which are not adopting the standard emergency protocol. He suggests that the protocol was put in place so that everyone involved would be using the same language, and this would lead to less confusion.

“Our current state of school safety, it’s strong,” he said. “But unfortunately, it’s inconsistent.”

Colorado School Safety Resource Center has a recommended five basic emergency actions for K-12 schools. These are reportedly used to help ensure safety for those on school sites in case of the following crises: lockdown, lockout, shelter-in-place, evacuation, and release and reunification of students to parents/caregivers after any listed situation.

Perhaps the two most significant inconsistencies seen currently are the differences in how much money districts allow for school resource officers and how much training they require. The ideal time that every officer would need to achieve is said to be a minimum of 40 hours of basic training and an additional 12 hours that centers around adolescent mental health.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser commented that he is not comfortable forcing districts to comply with particular safety recommendations because each district has a different budget and other things that make them unique. Weiser, however, says he is committed to providing awareness and tools to give each district safety plans.

One of the topics Weiser believes has been overlooked when it comes to the discussion of school safety is mental health.

“We need to talk about the mental health – recognizing that mental illness, just like physical illness, can be addressed,” Weiser said. “All too often, people miss that one of the biggest threats to our kids is suicide – more people dying at their own hands than at the hands of a shooter.”

There is an abundance of different suggestions, but two of the primary programs Colorado school districts are increasingly implementing to attempt to keep students safe involve mental health resources and arming staff.

The Denver Public School district encompasses 210 schools with almost 95,000 students. Michael Eaton is the chief of the department of safety for this district. He has been leading the security team for the past eight years, and one of his job positions requires home visits. In the past year, the security team did close to 500 home visits with kids who displayed concerning behavior. Along with physical security, the team believes school safety is something that begins at home and continues throughout the community.

A charter school in Douglas County is taking a different approach.They have implemented a security officer program that allows trained staff to carry firearms. Ascent Classical Academy’s governing board approved of the plan, and it was met with massive support from parents. Each of the armed staff members had a concealed carry permit, volunteered to be participants, and were mandated to go through appropriate training and assessment.

“It makes me feel confident, dropping off my kids at school and being able to walk away and know that somebody is there that’s trained, well trained,” said the mother of one of the students.

While it seems to some that they have to choose a side of arming teachers versus supporting mental health services, the truth is both are important and coexist productively.

Bullets Both Ways is a leading example of this effort. The primary purpose of Bullets Both Ways’ brand and clothing line is to promote, organize, and support enhanced protection and defense measures in our nation’s schools, places of worship, and communities. Every purchase of their apparel and merchandise helps sponsor medical and firearm training scholarships for school and church staff who are willing and able to be the first layer of defense. Their motto: when an evil perpetrator shows up with the intent to destroy, we need Bullets Both Ways as opposed to one way from an unchallenged perpetrator!

This organization also puts focus and importance on mental health resources. The Bullets Both Ways Foundation, Angel Shield is a 501c3 Public Charity specifically created to raise funds to support and provide mental health resources in our schools, along with equipping school facilities and houses of worship with updated safety and physical security measures.

Inadequate school budgets have been a hindrance to providing necessary additional protection measures. Through Bullets Both Ways and Angel Shield, American citizens can contribute to further secure and protect our schools.

Instead of choosing between one or the other, Colorado school districts across the state have been increasingly embracing both the enhancement of physical and mental programs. There are at least 30 districts and charter schools in the state which allow teachers to be armed. In addition, many districts are embracing more ways to implement behavioral health resources in schools.

While there is a long way to go in helping to solve the issues related to school safety, it is encouraging to note that efforts are being made. In Colorado School districts, there is progress in the arena of identifying what schools should be prioritizing to help develop effective protocols to ensure identification of possible risks in advance of any tragedies. Progress is also being made in having well-trained armed defenders in the event of an active shooter situation.

By Amalia White