Lawmakers brainstorm with law enforcement, mental health professionals on how to make schools safer

Experts: More resource officers, counselors needed

DENVER - Members of the Colorado legislature's Joint Education Committee brainstormed Wednesday with law enforcement and mental health professionals on how to make schools safer.

"We need more School Resource Officers," said Sgt. Douglas Ross of the Longmont Department of Public Safety.

Ross, who is an SRO himself, says the officers have to be well trained and must work in partnership with other professionals in the school.

"We could look at going to a model like they have in Israel," he said, "where they have barbed-wire fences, where it looks like you're entering a prison…. But I don't think our society is prepared for that.”

State Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County, asked Ross about the certification necessary to be a school resource officer.

Right now, only law enforcement officers can be SROs.

"I know some people would advocate for arming staff in schools," Holbert said.

"We are open to getting as creative as we can to enhance school safety," Ross replied.

But the school recourse officer stressed that armed staff members would have to pass muster in reacting under stress and would have to undergo constant training.

"The skills necessary to survive a deadly encounter with an aggressive individual are perishable skills," Ross said.

Another need is more mental health counselors.

"Almost half my students don't have access to a school counselor at all," said Samantha Haviland, director of counseling at Denver Public Schools.

She said some students don't have the emotional tools necessary to deal with conflict.

When asked about the link between stunted emotional growth and school violence, Haviland said, "Our students are seeing violence as an option…and not just an option, but a good option, because they're not able to process what all that is involved."

Haviland says she'd like to see lawmakers budget more money for mental health counselors.

She said the reality in these tough economic times is that school districts faced with having to make a decision between hiring a math teacher or a mental health counselor will often go with the math teacher because math is required and is something that is readily measured.

One lawmaker, who was an educator for 40 years, advocates that school staff be allowed to protect themselves with something less lethal, like mace, in the event that a gunman breaches a locked classroom door.

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Chaffee County, said, "If the principal happens to come through the door accidentally and you mace him, he'll recover. But at least give them the opportunity to get kids out of that classroom."

Privacy rules were also discussed.

Colorado's chief deputy attorney general, Cynthia Coffman, told 7NEWS that it can be a challenge to help kids with mental health needs when the law prevents the dissemination of health information.

"That's something worth re-examining," Coffman said.

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