In the wake of the tragic shooting in Connecticut on Dec. 14, the natural question - how safe are our schools? - is one asked across the nation. Grand County is no exception.
Reached on Monday, East Grand Superintendent Nancy Karas had only great empathy for the Newtown school administrators, parents, students and faculty members who had endured the worst imaginable.
From reports about that school, it appeared there had been security plans and methods in place and it appeared school staff members had followed through with security measures and saved lives because of it. Even so, it turned out to be not enough to save 20 students and six faculty members.
"You can only imagine how I felt when I turned on the television," Karas said, her emotion evident on Monday. "We know we care for parents' most prized possessions every day, and we have this overwhelming responsibility to send them home educated," she continued, choking back tears, "let alone alive."
Already, Karas had arranged with Granby Police Chief Bill Housley, school administrators and other local law enforcement officers a meeting to take place this week to review school security in the East Grand School District.
At the West Grand School District on Monday, Superintendent Terry Vanderpan already had met with police about school security that morning.
Both superintendents said they'd been receiving calls from parents understandably worried about child safety at the schools.
During the weekend, Karas had sent out emails to principals and faculty members, preparing them for the Monday after the tragedy.
She prepped them about being aware of students who shared concerns and had questions about the school shootings, and counselors were on call in each building. She had school administrators gauge faculty to ensure they were in the right frame of mind to teach.
By Monday afternoon, Karas said she'd heard from administrators the day had gone smoothly.
West Grand's Vanderpan also had notified his staff about not dismissing student concerns about the shooting, he said.
"It's a tragedy and it's unthinkable someone could do this," Vanderpan said.
It's understandable why community members would be shaken; schools are supposed to be the safest of places, and really, they still are, he said.
"It is important to keep in mind that an event like this is rare," states a press release from the National Association of School Psychologists. "Schools are one of the safest places for children and youth during the school day, and an important place for them to receive support and return to normalcy. Communication and collaboration among schools, parents, and communities is critical to ensure that our students continue to view schools as safe, caring, and supportive environments. Further, how adults react to this tragedy can shape the way children and youth react and their perceptions of safety."
According to Vanderpan, the tragedy reinforces the climate of respect and care to which schools should always aspire. One step toward curbing further tragedies may be reaching out to all students in a manner that makes a positive difference, in a school climate that is accepting and never tolerates bullying.
The attention to school security measures has definitely ratcheted up since the 1999 Columbine incident, and with each mass tragedy since, the focus becomes even more intense.
"We've had a working relationship with the schools, and we do communicate on a fairly regular basis on security issues," said Housley, whose jurisdiction includes the largest concentration of schools in Grand County. "Anytime something of this nature occurs, it prompts the desire to get together and talk to ensure we're employing the best practices we can."
In the past, East Grand schools have made noted improvements to security, such as installing cameras at the high school and in buses and making sure all exterior doors are locked during the day at that school.
And main entrances at other schools are not locked during the day, but visually monitored. Karas mentioned these entrances are one area where the district may be falling short, but finding the funds to install buzz-in systems for every building remains a challenge.
"We need to have serious conversations about what and if changes are needed," she said.
Monthly evacuation drills occur at all schools as well as semi-annual lockdown drills in accordance with law for all ages of children, preschool through grade 12. And on an annual basis, faculty members conduct full reviews of the crisis manual, which covers everything from bomb threats to active shooters.
Playgrounds and school grounds are supervised when children are present. At schools such as West Grand and Middle Park high, video cameras monitor buildings inside and out. And West Grand is updating its communication system to be able to send instant messaging out community-wide, which can serve as reverse emergency notification for faculty, students and parents.
Moreover, local law enforcement has held tactical training exercises each year in the East Grand School District, so far involving four out of five schools.
But how far does a school go to ensure safety? Is a community of the size of Grand County willing to put guards at entrances? Arm teachers?
"I think we also have to be very thoughtful of how we approach increasing safety in schools," Karas said, "while making sure they remain warm and welcoming places where our students want to be every day, and where our parents can remain engaged in education and can still be in our schools, our classrooms and our hallways."
One of the basic ways a community can increase safety doesn't involve iron-cladding its schools, but having a simple and acute awareness of what is transpiring near and at schools, according to Housley.
People need to be "constantly cognizant of what's going on," he said, "and have eyes open for unusual circumstances."
By example, the chief noted a recent incident when a man walking from the downtown after having picked up his hunting gun at the repair shop walked right past the elementary school, his gun resting on his shoulder. The man, it turned out, had broken no laws. But police learned several witnesses were present at the time he walked past the school, yet no one had alerted police until much later.
Awareness and vigilance of a community, Housley said, is critical to help avert or minimize any incidences such as the tragedy at Sandy Hill Elementary School.
- Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603