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SVVSD considers possible rifle storage at NHS


Photo by Vicky Dorvee A parent stands to ask questions and make suggestions during a SVVSD community meeting called to discuss the Boulder County Sheriff's proposal to store a long range rifle inside Niwot High School.

A community meeting called by St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD) to discuss the Boulder County Sheriff’s office proposal to store an AR-15 rifle inside Niwot High School (NHS) was quick to turn emotionally charged. An audience of about 150 people at Sunset Middle School on Thursday, June 6, unreservedly asked questions and offered opinions throughout the nearly three-hour meeting.

SVVSD Superintendent Dr. Don Haddad led the discussion and was joined by five school board members, including Board President Bob Smith, along with Assistant Superintendent Mark Mills, NHS’s School Resource Officer (SRO) Eric Underwood, SVVSD Director of School Safety Stacy Davis, and NHS Principal Eric Rauschkolb. Boulder County Sheriff Division Chief Bob Sullenberger answered questions on behalf of the sheriff’s office.

“From a law enforcement standpoint, this is a tactic and strategy decision because of the extended response time,” Sullenberger said. “If you live in Boulder or Longmont, you have additional officers within 30 to 60 seconds with enough tools to deal with the problem. We don’t have that luxury.”

“This meeting was very different from the Lyons’ meeting,” SVVSD Executive Director of Communications Kerri McDermid said. “People were more vocal.”

A similar meeting at Lyons High School two days earlier, attended by approximately 50 people, had a tenor that was described as “a lot calmer.”

Early on in the meeting, a man was swiftly escorted out of the room when he abruptly stood up and described the damage a bullet from an AR-15 would inflict as he poked a young girl sitting in front of him in the back.

An Amber Alert set off cell phones toward the middle of the meeting, adding to the tension.

Haddad emphasized that the district has been “exploring everything” to keep students safe and has been soliciting the public’s input, as well as informing the community for many years about changes made to keep students safe, including 14 public meetings in the last school year..

“It’s something we think about 24/7,” Haddad said.

Both physical and emotional safety are of utmost importance, Haddad said. He said the district will talk more with students about this proposal, but thus far, students who had voiced an opinion were split on whether a rifle in the school would make them feel safe or anxious.

The school board turned down the same proposal several years ago, according to Haddad. When asked why the idea was being more seriously entertained at this time, Smith cited recent specific school shootings, clearly referencing the uptick of school violence across the US.

Other school districts in Colorado have made the choice to store rifles in their schools and did so without soliciting public opinions, Haddad said. He underscored that SVVSD’s school board wants community feedback before making the decision.

Sullenberger explained that Lyons and Niwot High Schools were selected for this pilot program to store a rifle inside each schools’ main office in a locked safe.because emergency response times to these locations are extended and would take 10 to 15 minutes. If the program proceeds, it would be reevaluated after a year and could be either modified or terminated.

He said while SRO’s always carry handguns and there are rifles locked in their vehicles, having a more “readily available tool” that can shoot the distances lengthy hallways necessitate and may help save lives.

From the start, those who requested microphones spoke of their concern over a rifle being on-site. Parents asked if the rifle would be used if there was a knife attack, and rhetorically wondered if an officer would overreact to a situation because a rifle is more readily available. One parent inquired about whether officers are trained to be unbiased and whether they use de-escalation techniques. Other parents wanted reassurance that officers were trained to shoot well enough to avoid collaterally injuring bystanders.

Sullenberger said their first goal is to protect lives, and that officers are trained to handle a multitude of situations. Officers are required to practice and demonstrate shooting accuracy monthly and they regularly undergo anti-bias and de-escalation training. Davis said lock-down drills are conducted with students, staff, and law enforcement to train them how to respond in the event of an active shooter and students are taught to be “accountable for their own safety.”

One parent did not want to “militarize the school” and a couple of comments referenced allowing one rifle in the school as being a slippery slope possibly leading to additional guns being stashed throughout the building and even more extreme measures that could put schools in “a state of war.”

Several parents commented that a second SRO in the school could help make up for the slow arrival speed of backup during an emergency.

A large part of the discussion focused on unease about the effectiveness of present security strategies, such as access into schools despite enhanced security measures. There were doubts that the mental health and intervention programs will lead to successfully preventing violence.

“There are kids falling through the cracks, mine being one,” a mother said of her high schooler who had recently been hospitalized for mental health issues. She said the only contact she’s had with the mental health staff at the school was at her initiation. There was applause when she concluded by saying that mental health measures are not to the level the district is portraying.

In contrast, Smith cited the recent expulsion of district students who had made violent threats. Haddad said every lead on the Safe2Tell program is taken seriously, and over 800 such reports were made last year.

There were suggestions for additional pre-emptive measures such as metal detectors. Davis stated that metal detectors would not prevent shooters from gaining access to schools. Some parents spoke up saying they would like to continue to explore the idea of metal detectors and other deterrents to keep shooters out of the school.

“After hearing the idea about the metal detector, that would make me feel safe and I think our students would feel safer too,” Angie Roberts, a teacher at NHS said.

Several parents stated they have confidence law enforcement officials know what they are doing by suggesting a rifle be stored in the school. One high school father said that he would like to see administrators carry concealed weapons. That idea was followed by a wave of disapproving groans. Haddad’s response that there are no plans to arm staff was followed by a round of applause.

“For every positive comment on the proposal, we’re getting one against,” Haddad said. “I have mixed feelings about this too. I’m inclined to really listen to law enforcement officers when they speak. But it doesn’t mean that I just accept [the proposal], because I think for myself as well, and I’m trying to figure out what’s the emotional cost of all of these things we do and what scenarios could unfold?

“We can’t predict every incident. I think what we’re hearing from the Boulder County Sheriff is that they would be very, very cautious in the use of this, but would like to have it there in the event they need it. It’s a really complicated issue.”

“I think it gave us some things to discuss,” Smith said following the meeting. “For instance, because of the specific situation of Niwot and Lyons, maybe we try to put two school resource officers in the schools. There were a couple of very good ideas. The thing that I would commit to is to touch base with schools that have guns stored inside their buildings.”

Haddad said there will be at least two more meetings on the topic this fall before the school board will arrive at a decision.


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