Photo: The new School Safety Committee will aim to come up with five new bills to make schools safer. Credit: Capitol Coverage / Scott Franz
Most of the offices inside the state Capitol are locked and dark this time of year as lawmakers enjoy some time off. But there was recently a flurry of activity in Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet’s office as she prepared to lead a new committee of lawmakers who will try to make classrooms safer in the wake of the deadly shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch.
“The question on every parent and community member’s minds is ‘what are we doing to keep our kids safe in school and why isn’t it working?'” Michaelson Jenet said.
The new School Safety Committee will try to answer that question over the next four months. Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, hopes the group will end its meetings with five bipartisan pieces of legislation to introduce in January.
Michaelson Jenet specifically wants to look at improving the threat assessments schools use to try and get ahead of violence and school shootings.
“Our threat assessments right now have a bias to them where they’re targeting the wrong people,” she said. “Because if we look at where the shootings are happening and who is doing the shooting, we’re not targeting the people who are doing the shootings.”
Asked what success will look like for the committee, Republican Sen. Paul Lundeen said the group could take two different paths.
“It’s very early and difficult to hazard a guess as to what might happen,” he said. “But it could be very small, but hopefully still meaningful. Or it could be very broad, and obviously if you’re going very broad, you’re talking very expensive, so it had better be really meaningful.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Jared Polis has put together his own plan in response to the STEM shooting. Last month, he requested an additional $3 million to spend on an existing program that provides schools with mental health professionals.
But lawmakers rejected the request after non-partisan budget analysts told them the state doesn’t have enough money to pay for it.
Rep. Michaelson Jenet also felt like there was a disconnect between the governor’s proposal and her committee.
“I learned about the governor’s proposal in the news, and I am working closely with the governor’s office but this sort of happened apart from our meetings,” she said. “I don’t think they were going down the wrong road at all. I do understand why the (joint budget committee) responded in the way they did. But that doesn’t mean we won’t get back to that.”
But Michaelson Jenet sounded skeptical when she was asked whether the Polis proposal might end up being one of the five bills proposed by the School Safety Committee.
“I don’t necessarily think you’ll see his proposal in the form of a direct piece of legislation that we recommend, but you might see a similar idea come forward in the legislation we work on together as a community,” she said.
Not all of Polis’ plan was rejected, however. Lawmakers agreed to spend $327,000 to hire four new mental health professionals at the state’s School Safety Resource Center.
Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Polis, said in an email after the vote the governor’s office is “pleased that the School Safety Resource Center will have additional resources to support rural schools starting this fall, and we look forward to working with the Interim Committee on policies to best support schools.”
Chris Harms, the center’s director, is also excited about the funding.
“They’ll just be boots on the ground in those school districts so they can get that consultation and extra support immediately,” she said last week.
She says Colorado has been a leader in school safety efforts. She recalled one major victory at a meeting with 16 districts back in 2017.
“I went around the table and I asked them to tell us how many threat assessments they had done that year. And they represented 463,000 students, those 16 entities represented at the table,” she said. “Collectively, they had done 3,803 threat assessments with no incidents of targeted violence in their schools.”
Harms thinks schools and teachers need more training and time for professional development. And Rep. Michaelson Jenet says mental health must also be a focus of the discussions.
“When you look at school shootings, every one is a suicide mission,” she said. “If we stop suicide, we stop school shootings.”
The School Safety Committee will host its first meeting Thursday at 9 a.m. in the state Capitol. The group is also accepting public comment here.
Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Eleven public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.