Steamboat Springs Friday afternoon, Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Brad Meeks had a message in his email inbox with a subject line that read, “School Shooting in Littleton.”
The email was from Colorado Department of Education Commissioner Robert Hammond, and it was sent to all superintendents and Board of Cooperative Educational Services directors throughout the state.
Hammond’s email, which Meeks forwarded to Steamboat administrators, spelled out the early details of what had taken place inside Arapahoe High School shortly after noon on Friday. The message reported on Colorado's latest school shooting and served as another grim reminder to administrators and law enforcement officials about the importance of school safety procedures.
In Routt County schools, lockdown and lockout drills are regularly scheduled throughout the school year and construction improvement plans always take into account how to keep kids safer in their classrooms.
Even with the numerous training hours, tests and dollars spent to keep schools safe, emails like Hammond’s floating across administrators’ computer screens come with a stark reality.
“It’s very unsettling as always,” Steamboat district director of maintenance operations and transportation Pascal Ginesta said. “I was happy to hear they (Arapahoe High School) did everything right. It’s a school, though, not a prison, as far as keeping people in and out.”
Striking a balance between being a welcoming environment for students and a secure fortress against intruders poses a difficult challenge for area schools.
District policy requires Steamboat schools to conduct four scheduled lockdown and lockout drills a year with law enforcement officials on hand, Ginesta said.
Strawberry Park Elementary, Soda Creek Elementary and Steamboat Springs Middle School all have buzz-in entry mechanisms, where visitors can only access the main part of each building by a secretary’s press of a button.
Steamboat Springs High School is the only one of the district's four main campuses with a resource police officer stationed onsite during school days, but the building is without a buzz-in entry system, and that's something on district administrators’ minds.
“That front entrance at the high school is something we were planning to look at even before the tragedy at Arapahoe,” Meeks said. “We’ve talked about remodeling the whole area or something to better secure that front entryway.”
The district is slated to begin seeking bids for its multi-million dollar facilities improvement plan in January and early February. Part of the plan — which the district plans to break ground on before the end of the school year — would include the installation of new doors and windows at the middle school and Strawberry Park, for both energy efficiency and safety reasons.
On a county-wide level, school facility safety measures are going beyond what is required by district and state education officials.
About a year ago, Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins saw some deficiencies in school safety measures, raising enough concern for him to actively do something about it.
Wiggins said there needed to be an independent organization to conduct safety assessments at South Routt, Hayden and Steamboat school districts, so he assembled a team of deputies with experience in threat assessments, many of whom have military backgrounds.
Almost every week, Wiggins and his team walk through the halls of schools in Routt County, monitoring more than 50 different safety concerns, including issues like physical structures, lockout plans and building accessibility. The team compiles its findings and puts together a one- to two-hour PowerPoint presentation for each school’s administrators, laying out the pros and cons of the school's security procedures.
“Our deputies try to frequent our schools as much as possible and just be a presence,” Wiggins said. “When we first started doing it, people were like, ‘What are you doing here?’ It set off kind of a red flag, but now they’re another part of the school team.”
Wiggins said his team doesn't exactly grade each school, because most districts don’t like that idea.
The assessments conducted by the sheriff's department are offered, not required, and Higgins said at least one school is responding to the team's advice.
“There is one school that is very, very interested in what we’ve had to offer,” Wiggins said, declining to name the school. “They’ve taken it to heart and implemented a lot of things, I think, that establish a high level of security.”
Although most Steamboat schools haven’t hosted Wiggins’ safety assessment team, Meeks said police officers frequently check in on his schools.
And beyond holding lockdown drills, having officers on campus or making facilities safer, Meeks said the student body can play as big of a role as any entity in fostering a safe learning environment.
“A lot of times when students become aware of something, hear a rumor or have concerns, students will bring things forward, too, and alert a teacher,” Meeks said. “Being proactive like that can really help. Even when students aren’t fully aware, it doesn’t hurt to say something.”
To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll