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 Brianfirstname.lastname@example.org)
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.
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.