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The dome of the Colorado Capitol on July 26, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

To stop the next school shooting, Colorado needs statewide policies to assess and prevent threats instead of the current patchwork of guidelines in place.

That’s the conclusion of state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, the chairwoman of the school safety committee created after the STEM School shooting in May. The Commerce City Democrat is considering legislation that would require the state’s school districts to meet minimum standards when it comes to planning and responding to potential threats of violence. 

The approach represents a fundamental shift in Colorado, where individual districts are tasked with developing their own violence-prevention policies. But the current system leaves gaps, Michaelson Jenet said, and not all districts are following recommendations from the Colorado attorney general’s office. 

“It is possible to prevent kids from dying by violence in school,” she said.

Michaelson Jenet outlined the new strategy earlier this week at the National Conference of State Legislatures meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, where state leaders from across the country discussed how to prevent the next school shooting. 

State Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, speaks to a crowd before Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed House Bill 1039 and House Bill 1129 into law on the west steps of the Colorado Capitol on Friday, May 31, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“This is very, very big,” Michaelson Jenet said. “Is it time for us to make a critical shift in the way that we engage with our students and their families? The answer is yes and the question is how.”

In 2018, the U.S. recorded 23 shootings on school grounds that resulted in injury or death, according to NCSL. So far this year, the total is 22. Meanwhile, school violence increased 113% in the 2017-18 school year compared to the year prior.

The discussion of school violence is back at the forefront in Colorado after the shooting at the STEM School in Highlands Ranch school left one student dead and eight injured. And lawmakers at the conference in Nashville focused much of their attention on how to identify threats before it escalates to violence. 

The Colorado legislative committee — which meets later this month — is looking at assessment tools in place in Virginia, Minnesota and Florida designed to evaluate social media posts, tips and other behaviors that signal a student needs help. The topic is not without controversy. When Florida debuted a new database containing information about students last week, it faced significant criticism for invading privacy. 

In Colorado, each district has its own assessment tool, but Michaelson Jenet sees a need for a more uniform approach that identifies what works. Likewise, she wants to empower the state’s school safety resource center to help districts that don’t have robust threat assessment teams.

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“We have to have an evidence based model that we can offer throughout the state that individual communities can modify for their specific needs,” she said.

Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican also on the school-safety committee, said he supports promoting proven policies but prefers the current local control system. 

“The way I’d approach it might be slightly different,” he said. “I’d rather pull people to a great idea than push people by force into having to submit to something pushed down from above.”

A memorial to Kendrick Castillo, the student killed when two of his peers allegedly opened fire in STEM School Highlands Ranch on May 7, 2019, has grown in the lawn of the school. Two students are accused in the rampage that also left eight students wounded. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A part of the equation is hiring more social workers in schools to address mental health needs. Earlier this year, the state allocated more money to school districts, but more is needed to meet recommended levels. Michaelson Jenet wants to see a dedicated source of money for school safety that is independent of Colorado’s existing school funding formula, but it’s not clear where it could come from. At the school safety committee’s first meeting last month, a six-hour marathon hearing that included student and parent testimony, suicide prevention also became an early focus.

All four Democrats on Colorado’s interim school safety committee — which is evenly split with Republicans —  attended the session at the conference, and afterward, Sen. Julie Gonzalez, D-Denver, said Colorado needs to take action.  

“I think folks recognize that it’s enough of a continuing issue, and for better or worse, Colorado has enough history and knowledge and expertise on the issue that we have to be leaders in trying to put forward what those solutions should be,” she said.

John Frank

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.