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Summit Cove Elementary School students board school bus following the last class of the day amid cold temperatures, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022, in Dillon. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Gov. Jared Polis’ administration is proposing that Colorado create a new state office to address school safety after a 2019 audit called the current system of addressing threats and responding to tragedies a “patchwork” and “uncoordinated.”

The Office of School Safety, if approved by state lawmakers in the 2023 legislative session that begins Jan. 9, would administer school safety grants and provide districts with training and other help. 

“One of the things that we want to really try to accomplish is to try to have a more thorough and coordinated state response to school safety issues,” said Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, which would oversee the new office. “One of the things that we know is that … in recent years that it is a little bit siloed.”

The hope is that the office can be particularly helpful to rural school districts, many of which lack the resources to handle lengthy grant applications, potentially causing them to miss out on vital funding sources for improvements in school security and mental health services. Rural districts often lack enough mental health workers to meet their students’ needs, and some have struggled to get adequate security, such as updated, locking doors.

“Our Front Range schools … already have very large mental health offices, or Denver can turn to Cherry Creek or Jefferson County to ask them to send a few folks over to help. But a lot of our rural schools don’t have that luxury,” said Christine Harms, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center.

The Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, an advocacy group for rural districts, said the office would be a step in the right direction for a system that has consistent funding struggles, but cautioned that it may not offer a long-term solution. 

The office would cost about $2 million per year and would be staffed at first by seven new full-time employees and 11 transferred employees. Four of those new employees would be crisis response unit trainers, who would help teach others across the state how to prevent, prepare for and respond to traumatic events. The office would absorb all existing state school safety resources, including the School Safety Resource Center, which seeks to help schools and communities foster safe environments by providing training, consultation, technical assistance and other resources.

Two grant programs from 2018 — the School Security Disbursement Grant and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant — would be organized by the new office. 

The School Security Disbursement Grant, which provides funding for school security improvements, has nearly $6 million available with applications due Friday. The SAFER grant has about $5 million available to increase the amount of trained firefighters in communities. Applications for that grant will open in February. 

Any future state or federal grants would also be under the school safety office’s purview.

The office would provide additional training to help districts learn how to support their entire community after a tragedy, Harms said.

“It’s making sure people are trained ahead of time, it’s making sure your school staff understands what a traumatized student is going to look like and knowing what the classroom teacher can actually do to support them,” she said. 

School shootings are just part of the picture. Students face a variety of traumas, from classmates dying by suicide or in car crashes to the deaths of teachers and other staff members.

“We know it’s not whether or not they will occur, it’s when,” Harms said. “It’s all those other little traumas that happen all the time.”

The new office would have no authority over police officers working in schools, and no official role in training them. The state does not oversee school resource officers, who are placed in schools under agreements between districts and local police and sheriff’s departments. Those officers must meet the requirements of the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training, the agency that sets law enforcement standards and certifies officers in Colorado.  

The Department of Public Safety doesn’t have any control over POST, Patricia Billinger, spokesperson for the department, told The Colorado Sun. 

“We may offer recommendations, best practices and training for SROs,” she said. 

The proposal for a new school safety office comes after a 2019 state audit knocked the current approach to school safety, criticizing it as disorganized.

“The existing patchwork of school safety programs creates a risk of uncoordinated efforts, gaps in services, and challenges in determining reach and impact,” according to the audit. The 126-page document, completed by the Colorado Office of the State Auditor, did not include recommendations for how to improve, leaving to the state the question of how to solve the problems. 

The proposal was submitted to the Joint Budget Committee, the group of legislators who write the state budget. The committee will begin its seven-week figure-setting process, in which they will decide whether to OK proposals like the School Safety Office, in February. Then the full state legislature will vote on the budget.

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and chair of the JBC, said she was planning to work on a bill related to school safety in 2023. But after seeing the presentation from the governor’s office, she decided to focus instead on the proposal.

“What I think they’re proposing is a good idea, because it’s going to allow us to have just more of a continuous flow to things, a wider view that will be more equitable to all of the schools in the state,” Zenzinger said. “You need to be doing the physical improvements coupled with the in-person trainings.”

When the concept was initially presented to the JBC, no one on the panel voiced concerns about it, she said. 

Grants in rural districts 

Of the state’s 178 school districts, 146 are considered rural and all of those have one thing in common, according to Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance: funding concerns.

Those 146 districts range from areas like Telluride and Aspen to towns in the southeastern corner of the state, like Campo and Plainview.

Schools are funded in large part by property taxes. And when there is a funding shortfall, there may be limited resources for school safety. Murphy said there are a few things in the governor’s proposal she thinks rural districts will be excited about, but that ultimately she would like to see a change in the way funding is addressed.

“The state funds far too many of our critical district services through grants,” she said. “It’s especially problematic for rural and small rural districts because we don’t have grant writers, we don’t have experts on our staff, we don’t have folks who have time or capacity to complete grant applications.”

While the proposal includes money to help rural areas with grant applications, Murphy said one-time grants can only accomplish so much.

“The dream is that we’re adequately funded on a sustainable basis. In grant funding you have to figure out a way to sustain. If you build the positions, you have to figure out a way to sustain them,” she said. “It’s not a long-term solution.”

She said she’s optimistic about the state teaming up with districts to provide training, though. 

“We don’t have teams in place to either respond to perceived threats and or tragedies in the district,” she said. “Because of our lack of mental health providers within our communities it often falls upon the teachers and administrators to identify and respond, which is a huge problem.” 

Grants are also helpful for rural districts to secure physical security updates, she said.

The Department of Public Safety acknowledges that the new office would not address everything from the 2019 audit but said it would offer an opportunity to make some headway on the issue.

“What we saw in our department is we have one grant-making arm and school resource center and … combining those two is something we’ve thought about for a while to provide better services to schools and to eliminate any confusion about where they go in the Department of Public Safety,” said Jana Locke, deputy director for that office.

If approved by the legislature, the office would be formed in July 2023.

Elliott Wenzler is a reporter for the Colorado Sun, covering local politics, the state legislature and other topics. She also assists with The Unaffiliated newsletter. Previously, she was a community reporter in Douglas County for Colorado Community Media. She has won awards for her reporting and photography. Elliott graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in editorial journalism and minors in both business and Spanish. She is also an avid rock climber, snowboarder and hiker. Twitter: @ElliottWenzler