What is the worst-case scenario for local school safety?
“An active shooter in one of our schools is my worst fear,” said Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane. “It keeps me up at nights.”
“I would echo that,” added Kemper Elementary principal Jamie Haukeness. “It’s my largest concern as a school administrator.”
The Journal recently met with the Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 school safety task force, which consists of Lane, Haukeness, Cortez Fire assistant chief Charles Balke, Cortez 911 dispatch manager Lori Johnson and San Juan BOCES safe schools coordinator Kathy Morris.
“Since Columbine, the way law enforcement handles an active shooter has changed 180 degrees,” said Lane.
Before Columbine, Lane said, law enforcement protocol consisted of a wait-and-see approach. Today, officers immediately enter the building, he said. “You have to take care of the problem before we can take care of the kids,” he said.
Haukeness said teachers and staff have been trained to go into lockdown, which launches a 911 call and bridges school, police and fire communication systems.
In 2006, the Re-1 district established the task force, charged to identify the cracks in school safety. Communication between school officials and first responders was the major concern.
“We lacked direct communication with law enforcement,” Haukeness said.
“Once we got into one of the buildings, we had no communication with dispatch,” Lane added. “We discovered that a police officer or firefighter inside a building was completely isolated.”
Officials realized that school and first responders had radios that operated on different frequencies.
“We had to be able to bridge those radios together,” said Morris, adding that daily communication tests were conducted.
“Now, teachers can talk directly to a first responder during any emergency,” Haukeness said.
According to Morris, the Re-1 district is one of only nine across Southwest Colorado to have fully deployed the bridged communication capabilities, adding that only two schools in Durango had such a system.
“We wanted to be proactive instead of reactive,” added Balke. “We wanted to look out for what could happen one day.”
In addition to improved communication capabilities, Haukeness said that all schools across the district have now been retrofitted with buzzer and camera systems, meaning anyone entering a facility must be “buzzed in” by a school official. Kemper Elementary installed the system last year, the last schoolhouse to include the safety feature.
Exterior schoolhouse doors have also been numbered to aid first responders when responding to an emergency. Haukeness said those numbered doors help to streamline an emergency response.
“I believe that we’ve gone to great lengths to make students and staff as safe as possible,” said Haukeness. “There’s a lot to that.”
“I don’t think the community fully understands how much time we’ve spent,” added Lane.
“Training is constant,” said Johnson.
“Schools are required to do a safety drill every 30 days,” said Morris.
Local officials have also trained for natural disasters, bus accidents, animals on campus, pandemics and hazardous spills or explosions.
Another piece to the school safety puzzle is the Safe 2 Tell program, a strategic initiative of the Colorado Department of Law and Office of the Attorney General. The anonymous tipline – 877-542-SAFE – allows students to report threatening behaviors or activities while notifying police and school officials.
“Kids are our best defense,” said Haukeness. “They let us know of unsafe situations.”
Haukesness said the tipline was utilized during summer school when a student reported that a friend was contemplating suicide. Haukeness said the child’s life was spared because of the anonymous call.
“We want every kid to go home safely every night,” Haukness said.
Asked to grade the district’s safety preparedness plans, Lane was quick to reply.
“If you’re asking if we’d be ready to answer any call tomorrow, you bet,” said Lane. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”