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How Weld schools approach sometimes enigmatic task of improving school culture, keeping students safe

When Sgt. Zachary St. Aubyn and officer Brad Luebke of the Greeley Police Department walked into the library at Scott Elementary School on Thursday morning, chaos reigned.

Students clamored for a high-five or a hug as teachers circled trying to keep several classes worth of students in some semblance of order.

What looks like a fun time for the students and officers is actually an important element in possibly preventing the next school shooting.

While St. Aubyn said those interactions “make our day,” to build trust by forming important early relationships positions the officers as someone children can confide in and share their feelings with.

And there's data to support this idea.

In more than 80 percent of school shootings, the perpetrator confided in someone about their plans.

Greeley Police School Resource Officer Brad Luebke throws up a high-five challenge for students Thursday morning Jan., 24, 2019 at Scott Elementary on West Thirteenth Street in Greeley. SRO's in elementary and middle schools focus on building relationships and trust with students, in addition to school safety. (Michael Brian/mbrian@greeleytribune.com)

Sarah Goodrum, a criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of Northern Colorado, has been studying school shootings — "too many," she said — for years, including the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting, in which one student was shot and killed. Working with a colleague, she recently compiled a school safety study for the Colorado Attorney General's Office.

That staggering 80 percent is why much of the more than 150-page study highlighting best practices for schools focuses on making sure students and school staff feel comfortable reporting anything that could lead to a school shooter being stopped.

Goodrum hopes the report can serve as a checklists for school districts, so they can ensure they're using tested best practices to keep their students safe.

"If we’re really going to tackle the problem, we have to take a much more comprehensive approach," she said.

But Goodrum said one of the most challenging components of school safety is the culture of the school. Building an environment where students trust teachers and feel comfortable reporting concerns they may have can save lives, whether it's a potential threat to the school or to a student.

Trusted adults

The goal of school resource officers and school administrators, teachers and staff, is to give students a way to report those plans to someone they trust, or anonymously so they won't worry about feeling like a "snitch."

St. Aubyn, who manages the Greeley school resource officer team, said the five officers he has all have more than a decade of experience. Alden Hill, the officer assigned to Northridge High School, has more than 20 years of experience, largely in SWAT, and he's been an active shooter instructor for much of that time.

Officers are only stationed full-time at the high schools, but two other officers cover other District 6 schools, as well as private and charter schools. While they're in the schools, St. Aubyn said he doesn't want them focusing on the possibility of a school shooting or some other threat.

"Of course, we want them to be prepared for the worst," he said. "But their daily responsibilities is mentoring."

The rest is secondary, he said.

St. Aubyn hopes they can factor into building a positive school climate.

Hill said he's already seeing the results of that work in his new position at Northridge. He's replacing an officer who was at the school for several years, so while those shoes have been hard to fill, Hill said he's already been forming positive relationships with students and staff.

How discipline is administered, and how students perceive that discipline is one element, Goodrum said. Greeley schools have been working on that, in part through restorative justice practices, which aim to reduce in-school suspensions through conversation.

Heath Middle School was already seeing the results last October with a reduction in suspensions, and schools throughout the district have been instituting the practices, which they hope will build relationships between students and teachers and among students.

Greeley Police Sgt. Zachary St. Aubyn, left, and School Resource Officer Alden Hill, center, interact with Northridge High School freshman Cody Nelson Thursday morning Jan., 24, 2019 as students pass in the halls during a lunch break. (Michael Brian/mbrian@greeleytribune.com)

School resource officers like Hill also work hard to not cause fear in students. So if a warrant on a student does need to be served or a student arrested — something St. Aubyn said happens twice a year at most — most often patrol officers will be the ones to make the arrest, because that's not the resource officer's main duty.

Jon Paul Burden, exceptional student services director for the Windsor-Severance Re-4 School District, which includes school safety, said the Re-4 district also focuses on forming connections with students.

The district added a school resource officer in the 2017-18 school year to be stationed at Windsor High School, which is part of that relationship-building,

"Students having a human connection with someone in the building is probably one of our best defenses," Burden said.

Mentoring

In District 6, different schools have found different ways to focus on relationships with their students.

Prairie Heights Middle School Principal Dawn Hillman said building relationships has always been a focus at the school, but two years ago the district decided to add time for mentoring.

Louise Price is one of the teachers at the school who is part of the Summit Learning mentoring program. She teaches math, but she also has one group of students in a mentoring class.

Teacher Louise Price, left, helps sixth-grader Muhiyadin Bare, right, with a math problem Wednesday afternoon Jan., 23, 2019 at Prairie Heights Middle School in Evans. (Michael Brian/mbrian@greeleytribune.com)

Although Some students describe it as a kind of homeroom time, Price said it's much more than that. While it is time for them to work on their homework, each student in the roughly 25-student class gets 10 minutes a week to talk to Price.

All students, Hillman said, value that time.

"I can stop any one of them in the hallway and ask, 'When do you see your mentor?' and they'll respond right away," she said.

They talk about whatever the student needs to, she said, and she's been amazed by how much she's learned about her students. But no matter what they talk about, she always tries to circle back to education.

Teacher Louise Price monitors and helps students working on a math assignment Wednesday afternoon Jan., 23, 2019 at Prairie Heights Middle School in Evans. (Michael Brian/mbrian@greeleytribune.com)

One student, she said, thought of themselves as a trouble-maker, but they told Price they admired their dad, and how hard he worked. So she told the student that one way to be like that is to work hard in school, and put their energy toward their education.

That's when it clicked, and she said although the student still has ups and downs, they are more focused on working hard in school.

She helps them set goals, and talks to them about how they can meet those goals. They have great long-term goals, she said, but by encouraging them to set smaller, short-term goals that they can meet in a week, they gain the confidence of knowing they can achieve what they set their minds to.

And some students, she said, just need someone to talk to, who is focused on them and cares what they have to say.

Price grins almost constantly when she's talking about the change she's seen in kids through the mentoring.

"Because of what some of the kids have been through in our district, I feel like if we can build resilience in them, and we can teach them how to pull themselves up when something happens to them that they feel overwhelmed with, if we can teach them resilience skills, they can move on, as any adult I think needs to do too," she said.

Isabella Clark, a sixth-grader at Prairie Heights and a member of Price's mentoring class, said Price has helped her form a more clear idea of her plans for the week, so she doesn't feel as stressed.

"When I can lay it all out in front of me with her and talk about what I want to start with and end with with the week, it kind of just lays it out in front of me so I'm not stressing about it," she said.

Isabella said she feels support from all her teachers, but because of the mentoring she can take the time to "tell everything to Miss Price."

She agreed with Price's assertion that she's seen students being more supportive of each other as well. In the mentoring class, students also talk in small groups. Because they spend so much time together, Clark said they can support each other when one of them is struggling, and be proud with them if another student wants to share an achievement.

Technology

With all the work to make students feel comfortable reporting, sometimes they may not be sure, or may still fear someone finding out what they told a staff member.

That's where things like Safe2Tell come in, a system that allows students and district staff to report things to the district anonymously.

"All it takes is one report about a perceived act of school violence to make it worth it," said John Gates, director of safety and security for the Greeley-Evans School District 6.

And that's not just students planning violence against other students, but also also for students to report other issues, like the possibility of a student having suicidal ideations.

The Windsor-Severance district also has Gaggle, which, in addition to state-mandated internet safety measures, will alert safety officials if a student is talking about violence in their email.

Other physical measures include the Raptor ID check system instituted by District 6 this year, and the addition of cameras throughout the district due to the $14 million-per-year mill levy override voters approved in 2017.

The Raptor system requires everyone who enters the schools to take their ID with them, be it a driver's license or other official identification. The license is then scanned, and an ID tag created for the visitor to the school to wear. Visitors are simultaneously checked to ensure they're not on a sex offender registry.

"The days where a person can just walk into a school, they're not here anymore," Gates said.

Windsor-Severance, Burden said, also is considering a similar kind of system, and he hopes the district will decide which might be the best choice by the end of this spring, so it can be put in place by next fall.

The addition of cameras in District 6 high schools is already having measurable results. Although other factors may also be coming into play, Gates said discipline is down 31 percent in the high schools. Just the knowledge that they're on camera, St. Aubyn added, can make a student think twice before doing something illegal or otherwise against the rules.

Northridge High School staff member Jennifer Jara, posted at the front entrance, flips through various views from the 108 security cameras in and around the school Thursday morning Jan., 24, 2019. Students are required to wear ID badges and visitors have their driver's licenses scanned in order to get a visitor pass to be in the building. (Michael Brian/mbrian@greeleytribune.com)

Of the many factors going into school safety, Goodrum said those in charge in the districts have to look at the big picture, something she hopes the school safety guide will help them all do.

Gates said District 6 already is using the best practices outlined in the report, and Burden said he has the report and plans to thoroughly review its recommendations. The effort to keep kids safe is district-wide, Gates said.

"We’re here to protect your children," he said.

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Michael Brian/mbrian@greeleytribune.com

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