Shootings stir worry in Colorado schools

We care about your safety, and we want to help you and your family cope.

That was the tenor of email blasts that many Colorado school districts sent to families Friday after learning that a gunman had shot and killed nearly 30 people – many of them children – at a Connecticut elementary school. Some schools also beefed up campus security.

A memorial to the students and teacher slain in a mass shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.

News of the tragedy was bound to frighten children and worry parents  – especially coming only months after the murder of 12 people inside an Aurora movie theater.

“Although this is an isolated event that happened far away from Aurora Public Schools, news of this nature – especially in light of the summer tragedy in our city – may be disturbing for students and families,” read Aurora Public Schools’ statement. “If your children express concern, please reassure them that they are safe.”

Boulder Valley’s message struck a similar tone, also referencing a recent tragedy nearby: the murder of 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway after she was abducted on her way to school in Westminster.

“The news of this morning’s shooting in an elementary school in Connecticut can be extremely unsettling for both children and parents as we may recall from a local tragedy this past fall,” read part of an email sent to families with children in Boulder Valley Schools.

Some school leaders, such as Dougco’s Superintendent Liz Fagen, sent notes to school staff.

“This horrifying event impacts all of us who have children and/or who care for children each day in our schools,” she wrote. “Frankly, it leaves me brokenhearted and sick to my stomach.”

Columbine High School Principal Frank DeAngelis, who was principal when 15 people were killed at his school, including the two student shooters, had a similar reaction.

“It just takes me back to what we felt on April 20, 1999,” he said. “Just emotionally anyone alive during that time or in schools during that time … it just takes us back to that horrific day.” (View video of DeAngelis statement here.)

Districts reinforce safety measures

Districts offered tips on how to talk to children when a tragic event happens. And they offered the support of counseling services for students, staff and families. They also reminded the community of their desire to keep students and staff safe.

The message to Colorado Springs District 11 families also emphasized the safety measures the district has in place.

“Please know that our top priority in District 11 is student and staff safety,” it read. “As you know, our schools are locked during school hours and everyone entering must check in at the main office of all D11 schools. We have district security that routinely walk the grounds of all of our schools.”

The Cherry Creek district put all its schools “on a heightened level of supervision” Friday.

“You will notice an increased and visible police presence in your neighborhoods and community schools,” reads the note featured prominently on top of the district’s website.

The reason for the increased police presence is to “have a visible deterrence for a potential or perceived criminal act” and “to continue to foster and perpetuate an environment where our children, teachers, administrators, and other community members feel safe, specifically while driving to and from schools and while at school.” District officials made it clear that no credible threat had been received.

As a final note, the district asked parents to limit children’s exposure to TV coverage and social media posts about the mass shooting.

Aurora also beefed up police presence at schools and reminded parents of its numerous school security measures, including lockdown and evacuation plans and drills, strong visitor monitoring, security cameras, participation in emergency drills with other agencies and its system for communicating with parents.

And, the Jeffco Public Schools offered words of sympathy to those families suffering in Connecticut:

We join the rest of the country in offering our deepest sympathy to the families who have lost their precious children. 

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede