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A combined SWAT team waits outside the middle school entrance at STEM School Highlands Ranch after a shooting that killed one and wounded eight students. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s School Safety Committee moved forward with five bills on Thursday that seek to prevent any more children from becoming victims of school violence.

None, however, addresses a core issue related to many incidents of school violence: firearms and students’ access to them.

The only mention of guns came at the tail end of Thursday’s meeting as a few lawmakers, including Sen. Rhonda Fields, raised the need to bring guns into the discussion. Fields’ son and his fiancé were gunned down at an Aurora intersection in 2005; their killers are currently on Colorado’s death row. 

“We do need to make sure that we talk about guns because that’s what we’re here about, and we haven’t had a chance to dig into that very hot topic,” the Aurora Democrat said, noting she’s hopeful that at some point a working group the committee is trying to assemble will make sure that “a gun never, ever enters our schools.”

Leaving guns out of the committee’s conversation was intentional, said chairwoman Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Democrat from Commerce City.

“Unfortunately, firearms is an exceptionally partisan issue,” she said, “and there is a very big divide in how the left considers firearms safety and how the right considers firearms safety.”

The bills, which advanced from a group of 11 the committee debated, focus on better accommodating the behavioral health needs of students and better integrating the programs and agencies responsible for school safety.

The five bills next go to the legislative council on Nov. 15 for consideration to be brought forward to the General Assembly in January. Here are the basics:

Provide students with excused mental health days. 

General Assembly Democrats said that they hope “to reduce stigma and encourage students to prioritize their health” by granting students excused absences for mental and behavioral health issues with a mandate that school districts write that into their attendance policies.

Evaluate services available for children with severe behavioral health diagnoses.

The committee is asking the School Safety Resource Center to assess behavioral health treatment options for children across Colorado – or the lack thereof.

Rep. Susan Beckman, a Republican from Littleton, wants to zero in on students with the most severe behavioral health issues and pointed to scant residential treatment options in Colorado. She said more than 60 beds in residential treatment programs for children have been lost in the state in recent years.

Expand behavioral health training in schools.

The Department of Education would make more broadly available a voluntary program to train teachers how to help students facing challenges with their behavioral and mental health.

In addition, the training would connect them with resources and possible treatments for students. It would also touch on bullying and suicide prevention and de-escalation strategies for students in crisis.

The bill originally included funding for suicide prevention work, but the committee later removed that money as the state completes an audit of current spending on suicide prevention. The bill also does not add more specialized staff. A Colorado Sun investigation marking the 20th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School pointed to severe understaffing across the state.

To meet recommended staffing rates, Colorado districts would have to nearly double the number of nurses and social workers and bolster the hiring of school psychologists by 40%, according to a study by Mental Health Colorado, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group. Schools would have to add more than five times the current level of social workers to meet the recommendation, that study found.

Improve Safe2Tell.

The committee also moved forward a bill to make improvements to Safe2Tell, a program that launched in Colorado after the Columbine shooting. Through Safe2Tell, students can talk to someone confidentially about struggles with their behavioral health.

Committee members want to see the Safe2Tell program and the Colorado Crisis Services hotline work more in tandem, to give people immediate access to crisis counseling when needed. The bill also would coordinate the processes for all incoming tips and spread awareness about the program and adjust an ongoing informational campaign to market more to youth-related organizations, which serve a demographic that would be more likely to use Safe2Tell.

Strengthen how agencies work together and communicate on school safety.

The committee approved another bill in response to a recent report from the state auditor noting inefficiencies, redundancies and shortcomings in the coordination and communication among state agencies.

It would organize a state working group of agencies that focus on school safety issues, including the Department of Education, the Department of Public Health and Environment and the Department of Human Services.

Silos exist among those departments, according to Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Colorado Springs Republican.

“And they’re not necessarily even talking,” he said. “That gives the indication that we have the room for gaps and overlap.”

Among the working group’s tasks: nail down school safety best practices for districts.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...