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Lawmakers reject Polis’ $3 million budget request, but agree to bolster threat training after STEM shooting

Polis' $3 million request to budget writers was his first policy response following a fatal attack at STEM School Highlands Ranch

Mesa County Valley School District 51 School Resource Officer Robert Baker, left, opens a locked classroom door as the district's Director of Safety and Security Tim Leon looks on during a lockdown drill at Broadway Elementary School in Grand Junction March 28, 2019. The district has nine full-time security officers and contracts with local law enforcement for another 15 officers. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Lawmakers on Wednesday rejected Gov. Jared Polis’ request that they free up $3 million to hire more mental health professionals in schools, but agreed to spend $407,000 extra on training school administrators on how to conduct threat assessments.

The Polis administration said in budget requests that the money was needed for both training and more mental health spending in the wake of the fatal shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch.

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Polis wanted to use marijuana sales tax revenue to help schools hire more mental health professionals. He pointed out to lawmakers in charge of writing the budget that Colorado is not meeting recommended staffing ratios for school counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers.

But the disclosure that marijuana tax revenue in March lagged projections left members of the powerful Joint Budget Committee struggling to justify the governor’s request.

“I like the policy,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat from Arvada. “I like the proposal. I think it is warranted. I think it would be appropriate, but if we don’t have the money, we don’t have it.”

The requests from the governor were his first policy responses following the May 7 shooting at the STEM School that resulted in the death of one student and injuries to eight others. Two students have been charged in the attack.

Polis wanted to disburse the $3 million through a competitive grant program that already exists. The legislature already agreed to raise the annual funding for that program to $15 million annually from $12 million in the last legislative session, but even so not all applicants seeking money will get funding. The governor viewed his additional $3 million request as a one-time jolt that would have brought the staffing grants awarded in 2020 up to $18 million, which would cover three-year cycles.

“The current demand for this program exceeds the available funds with more than $29 million in requests over the past three years for the existing $15 million allocation to address behavioral and mental health needs for students in Colorado schools,” the Polis administration said in its request for the extra money.

The request also stressed that staffing data from 2016-17 and 2015-16 school years shows Colorado schools aren’t meeting recommended staffing ratios for mental health and behavioral health professionals.

The governor’s request made the following statements on staffing: Schools, on average, employed enough nurses to ensure there was one nurse for every 1,591 students in the state. The recommended staffing ratio is one nurse for every 750 students. As for social workers, Colorado schools, on average have one for every 1,437 student when it is recommended that there should be one every 250 students. On average, there are enough school psychologists to ensure there is one for every 1,026 students when it recommended there be one available for every 700 students. Schools, on average, employ enough counselors to provide one to every 383 students but the ratio should be one for every 250 students.

The JBC granted the governor’s push to use $327,549 from a cash fund at the Colorado Department of Public Safety and miscellaneous other resources to hire four new state trainers to assist schools in learning how to properly conduct threat assessments. The trainers would be based in the Colorado School Safety Resource Center, which the legislature created in 2008 to help schools tackle violence and avoid mass shootings. The center currently has six employees who organize trainings throughout the state.

State Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, said schools in the area he represents feel the training is a critical need.

“Many schools I do represent do think it’s an emergency,” Rankin said. “They look at STEM and think that they need to do something quick.”

MORE: STEM School has until June 29 to allay concerns and secure extended charter reauthorization

The Polis administration said in the request that the resource center, since its creation, has conducted more than 1,000 training sessions on prevention, mitigation, protection, response, and recovery that have reached about 46,000 participants.

Still, more trainings need to occur, the budget request from the governor states. Passage of legislation after the 2013 murder of Arapahoe High School senior Claire Davis, who was shot in the head by a classmate as she sat on bench in a hallway before physics class, the legislature removed immunity provisions in the law that had protected school districts from lawsuits related to violence on school grounds.

That change meant school districts, starting in 2017, became liable for penalties up to $350,000 per victim, or a maximum of $990,000 for serious injuries or death when there is a finding of negligence by a school.

The governor noted that since the legislation removing the immunity provisions went into effect the number of school districts requesting threat assessment training has skyrocketed. Prior to that legislation the School Safety Resource Center had conducted just 20 trainings on threat assessment protocols. Since passage of the legislation, the center has conducted 125 such trainings.

“Although SSRC staff have thus far been able to meet demands for consultation and training across the state, the availability has come at considerable expense for both travel costs and risk of staff burnout,” the budget request for new trainers stated.

It added that the new trainers would be regionally based in four areas of the state. They would “provide consultation, training, and technical assistance in-person to individual schools and districts and be on-call daily for email and phone consultations to all the schools in the designated region,” the request further states.