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Coronavirus is threatening school safety efforts prompted by STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting

The state legislature is dealing with a decreased budget and limited time for lawmaking, meaning a slate of bills that have yet to pass on school safety are likely at risk

Erin Triplett, right, hugs her daughter, who is an eighth grader at STEM Highlands Ranch School after the girl was escorted from the school after two students allegedly shot at least eight other kids there on Tuesday, May 7, 2019, in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado lawmakers spent the months after the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting last year trying to find policy avenues to improve school safety. 

But now, a year after the attack that left one student, 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo, dead and several more wounded, the slate of measures they drafted to try to keep students and teachers secure are being threatened by massive state budget cuts and limited lawmaking time as a result of Colorado’s outbreak of the new coronavirus. 

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Only one of the five measures drafted by a legislative interim committee on school safety has actually passed the Colorado General Assembly and been signed into law. Senate Bill 14 requires school boards to have a written policy to allow students to take a temporary or extended absence for mental health issues. 

Legislation, some of it pricey, that would expand behavioral health training for teachers, improve the state’s Safe2Tell tip system and study the need for more mental health treatment beds in the state remains pending. 

And while the legislature is set to return later this month after taking a two-month pause because of coronavirus, they will have little money and limited time to get through the bills. The General Assembly is likely to reconvene for only a few weeks to limit the health risk of lawmakers and the public, meaning dozens of measures may be set aside.

MORE: Colorado’s coronavirus budget crunch is putting Democratic accomplishments at risk

“I’m bummed,” said state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat who chaired the school safety interim committee tasked with coming up with solutions after the STEM School shooting. “I felt like we did amazing work in the school safety committee. I was really proud of it. I was really proud of the bipartisanship. It was really huge. And the world changed. The bottom fell out from under us.”

  • House Bill 1028, which seeks to convene a working group to study the issue of the state need for residential treatment beds for children and youth, would cost an estimated $108,000 in the next fiscal year
  • House Bill 1005, which seeks to enhance the Safe2Tell program, would cost $50,000 in each of the next two fiscal years
  • Senate Bill 1, which seeks to expand behavioral health training for K-12 educators, would cost about $1 million in each of the the next two fiscal years
  • House Bill 1006, which seeks to require the creation of a statewide early childhood mental health consultation system, would cost $149,000 in the next fiscal year and have a greater price tag in the future

Added up, the money may seem like a drop in the bucket in a state budget that’s tens of billions of dollars. But the legislature is looking to cut back on spending wherever it can and redirect the money it does have to coronavirus response. 

State Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and state budget writer, said he doubted funds would be available for new school safety programs. 

“Many worthy programs and legislation are being sacrificed in our current budget situation,” Moreno said. “At this time, I question if we will be able to fund base operations for schools.” 

MORE: Colorado begins education cuts: teacher loan forgiveness, mentor grants, scholarships

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, said there may be some room for some of the measures. But he acknowledged cost is a barrier.

 “Any bill that has a significant fiscal note is unlikely to happen,” he said. “I think that’s just the reality.”

Fenberg said anything with a fiscal note — meaning there’s a cost to the state budget — is getting a second look. He said it’s highly unlikely that pricey studies, in particular, are going to pass. 

“I think we need to take the time we have to deal with the things that are right before us and critical to get us driven back toward at least a reopened society,” said Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican who sat on the school safety interim committee. “Clearly there’s been a paradigm shift that was foist(ed) upon us.”

The school environment, Lundeen said, “is not going to look anything like it looked this time last year.”

“It doesn’t mean that keeping kids safe is any less important,” he said. “But the circumstance in which children find themselves, specifically with regard to their education, is dramatically different.”

Kendrick Castillo, 18, was killed on May 7, 2019, in the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting. (Colorado State Patrol handout)

In the state budget, lawmakers appear poised to preserve $387,839 in spending on resources for school safety, but a shift in funding for the School Safety Resources Center could affect future grants to address the issue. Elsewhere in the budget, the budget committee eliminated $56,000 for a marketing and social media position within the Safe2Tell program in the attorney general’s office.

Democrats are also working on a pair of measures to tighten laws around safe gun storage in Colorado. It’s unclear what the future of those bills, which are likely to draw fierce opposition from conservatives, will be under the legislature’s tightened timeline.

Michaelson Jenet is also working on a bipartisan measure — House Bill 1086 —  that would require health insurance plans in Colorado to provide coverage for an annual mental health exam. The idea is to ensure that people are connected with a counselor before they’re in crisis to identify issues before they manifest and so they don’t have to search for help if they need it later on. 

But Gov. Jared Polis, in response to the pandemic, has told lawmakers he won’t sign any bills that could raise health insurance premiums. 

“I’m not going to lay down,” Michaelson Jenet said of the measure’s future.

Michaelson Jenet also says coronavirus has created new mental health problems that will affect all Coloradans. With kids being out of class for months, she wonders what effect that will have. She thinks the pandemic will require a big shift in how Colorado addressed mental health and school safety. 

“I think we have a much bigger and much different school safety issue post-COVID,” she said.

Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.


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