Douglas County commissioners eye $10 million to enhance school safety

Law enforcement wants more school resource officers; public offers ideas for safety, support

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Jennifer Thompson Consolo and her family had no idea her daughter was being bullied and had begun self-harming during her sophomore year at Douglas County High School.

They also didn't know she was forming a plan to take her life.

But a friend grew brave enough to “break her trust” and tell a school counselor that her daughter was not OK, Thompson Consolo said. The counselor pulled the girl out of class, told her parents what was happening and together they got her help.

The 18-year-old, who has since transferred schools and moved out of state, is about to graduate high school and is thriving, her mother said. Still, schools are in desperate need of curriculum that incorporates mental health and teaches students how to support one another.

Thompson Consolo believes that's one way to prevent more violence against schools.

Her perspective was one of many pieces of public testimony during a special work session held by Douglas County commissioners May 13 as they discussed allocating $10 million to heighten school safety in Douglas County.

The meeting was in response to the May 7 shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch that left one student dead and eight students injured.

Commissioners unanimously approved directing staff to prepare a supplemental budget item for their May 28 meeting that allocates the one-time $10 million toward school safety. That is when the decision to dedicate $10 million toward public safety will be formally considered.

Their work session motion named “physical entryway security technology and mental health services for children,” as well as “a community response team for kids in schools, with the option to consider safety on-site specialists” and to “specifically train school resource officers dedicated solely to school security.”

These work sessions are public but rarely attended by residents and typically held in a small conference room on an upper level of the county building. For the May 13 meeting, commissioners met in their larger hearing room and opened overflow seating in anticipation of large public turnout. As expected, dozens filled seats from the front to the back of the room. Following their meeting, commissioners opened the floor to public comment.

Thankful, but more support needed

Students, parents and concerned citizens urged more mental health support in schools, heightened security measures such as metal detectors, more school resource officers throughout the system and additional funding for ongoing expenses related to preventing school shootings.

Many thanked commissioners for the $10 million but said it was not enough, calling it a Band-Aid.

Some parents and students said with current security measures in Douglas County schools, they fear anyone could get in the building or smuggle in weapons. And they were tired, numerous said, of hearing the same conversations held time and time again in the 20 years since the Columbine High School tragedy.

Ultimately, residents called for action now.

Commissioners had encouraged the public to share their thoughts and bring “out-of-the-box” ideas forward for addressing school safety. A group advocating more sales tax dollars be put toward public safety discussed their proposal. A man suggested incorporating a watchdog program that periodically inspects safety protocols at schools.

Noah Buckley, who attends school online, suggested a club that brings students together to discuss their mental health in a safe space. Going to a counselor can be uncomfortable, he said, but talking to peers could break the ice.

Anna Keesen, 18, a senior at Douglas County High School, said she didn't know the answer, but she believed students needed more education about mental health and managing stress.

“What to do when everything seems to fall apart,” she said.

Castle View High School junior Mattysen Short, 17, skipped class to speak at the meeting and ensure student voices were heard, she said. She supports adding more school resource officers in the system and more mental health education. Right now, she said, she is scared to go to school.

“It's hard to focus on your school work,” she said.

Not enough school resource officers

It's unclear how the $10 million will be spent if re-appropriated, but the money would remain under the board's management. It comes from county reserves — funds not used in 2018 — and will be replenished by property tax revenue. Because they are public funds, the money must go toward public schools.

Douglas County School District Board President David Ray, Superintendent Thomas Tucker, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock and Undersheriff Holly Nicholson-Kluth sat at tables in front of the board listening to public comment.

Spurlock said his department does not have enough resources to provide the number of school resource officers needed in each district school. The district has 68,000 students — roughly the population of the county seat, Castle Rock — spread across 91 schools. The enrollment makes the district the third largest in Colorado.

Every traditional high school has a school resource officer or SRO, Spurlock said, but not as many as the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) recommends there be per student — a ratio of one SRO for every 1,000 students. NASRO recommends considering such factors as campus size, school climate and location in determing the number of SROs per school. In Douglas County, some district SROs are responsible for overseeing more than 2,000 students and often split their time with a middle school.

Spurlock said he would like to see nine more SROs placed in the district — one for every public high school and middle school he oversees. Spurlock said Douglas County was blessed to have access to $10 million but that it would take “a number of initiatives” to fund SROs.

Lt. Lori Bronner with the sheriff's office said SROs are much more “than just a gun walking around.” They provide education about issues like cyberbullying and dating violence and engrain themselves in the student body. When threats are made against schools, they work with administrators to track down the origin.

“They are part of that school community," she said. "They are friends, they are family. That school, those students are part of their heart and their soul."

Tucker said memory of the STEM shooting was still at the forefront of his mind, and that the $10 million was an opportunity for community partners to work toward solutions and “put away our partisan politics.”

“I still have a heavy heart as a father, a grandfather and one of the first school district responders who gathered, who descended upon STEM last Tuesday," he said.

He thanked voters for passing bond and mill levy override ballot issues in November, which he said helped pay for additional security measures in schools and that they've hired 75 counselors.

“I hope that not a single school, not a single student, would ever have to endure what we saw last Tuesday," Tucker said. "There's just no excuse for that and there aren't any words to really put that tragedy into perspective.”

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