School safety and security the ‘number one priority’ with summer work at Aspen School District
Bond will help address some needs identified in district analysis four years ago
A public trail runs right through the middle of Aspen School District’s campus. The elementary school shares an entrance with the District Theater, which regularly hosts community events open to the public. It’s easy for anyone to pop into the five classroom buildings onsite, each of which has multiple access points but only one front desk; students and staff and community members alike mill outside the buildings and throughout the campus.
That free-flowing, open layout has long been part of the “culture of a small town school and community,” according to Cam Daniel, a school resource officer from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office who works in the district.
It’s also a security risk that most schools these days don’t want to take, given the vulnerabilities it creates in the potential event of an active shooter or other hostile situation.
“I can tell you that the days of an open campus like this are coming to an end,” Daniel said. “That’s not how the majority of campuses operate throughout the country.”
FUNDING SAFETY AND SECURITY
Current district officials are aware of the vulnerabilities that come from an open campus, and they now have their eyes on hardening up security soft spots using a portion of the funding from a $114 million bond voters approved in 2020 for facilities work and staff housing.
As of February, the suggested target budget for safety and security work was $4.5 million, but the bulk of that work is yet to come; as of April, the district had spent about $123,000 in bond funding on safety and security, according to bond updates presented to the Board of Education earlier this year.
“Security tends to be prioritized from people that have security at the forefront of their mind, right?” Daniel said. “When you take a school, everyone’s going to have in their mind an idea as to where they’d like to see some of those funds go, and all of those reasons are valid. … It’s hard, because we’re asking to use a huge chunk of that (bond) for something that we hope never happens.”
District officials knew about security needs in 2018, too, when the district worked with a firm to identify the district’s safety and security vulnerabilities in what current Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry called a “very exhaustive” analysis.
And in early 2020, then-interim superintendent Tom Heald told a reporter from Aspen High School’s Skier Scribbler student newspaper that the district was working on a facilities plan that could straddle the “fine line” between implementing security measures and maintaining the “welcoming” feel of an open campus.
Heald and several other public safety officials also indicated at the time that Aspen schools could soon implement “Stop the Bleed” education and bleeding control training for staff and some students.
In early 2019, the Pitkin County Public Safety Council allocated $30,000 toward local “Stop the Bleed” training, which is a crash course in “controlling life-threatening bleeding” through direct pressure, tourniquets and wound packing, according to Richard Cornelius, the deputy chief of operations for the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority.
The council-funded programming would be primarily targeted at nine schools in Pitkin County, offering the training to teachers, staff and administrators as well as high school students and then installing bleeding-control kits in the schools, said Cornelius, who has spearheaded the local initiative.
Basalt High School completed the training for staff and students in January 2020, but scheduling challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic punted sessions down the line at Basalt Elementary and Basalt Middle School.
The Aspen schools — Aspen Elementary School, Aspen Middle School, Aspen High School, Aspen Community School, Aspen Country Day School and the Wildwood School — have not yet completed the training; public safety partners are now targeting a launch this fall, Cornelius said.
“I think collectively between Aspen Ambulance District, Aspen Fire Protection District, Aspen Valley Hospital and Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority, we can really target those schools and see the projects to completion,” Cornelius said. The Pitkin County Public Safety Council also will offer a training to its members at an upcoming meeting in June.
The training teaches life-saving skills that Cornelius said can be valuable in other situations, too, like ski accidents.
“The more people you get trained in the community, the higher chance you’re going to have somebody who is appropriately trained to deal with serious bleeding issues should it occur from really any type of an event,” he said.
Many of the recommendations for physical facilities improvements from the analysis four years ago are just now taking shape.
Mulberry said there are “probably well over a couple hundred items” from that review that will be addressed by the bond. The main focus is on securing building access with updates that include improved locks, doors and a potential buzz-in system paired with video- and audio-linked intercom. A significant portion of the work will take place this summer, with safety and security as the “number one priority,” Mulberry said.
“As far as implementation, I don’t know what the rationale was that the previous administration did not act on it more quickly,” Mulberry said. Mulberry was the high school principal in 2018 and said he wasn’t privy to the response from district administration at the time; since then, nearly every leadership position has turned over in the district offices at least once.
Alex Burchetta, a Pitkin County undersheriff and public information officer, said that local law enforcement is now working with the district to do a “deep dive” into the safety and security analysis from 2018 and “address any of the outstanding needs.” Daniel has taken a particularly active role in that work, Burchetta said.
A district safety team meets once a month and includes administrators, school resource officers and other district officials, according to Mulberry, and safety drills also take place every month so officials can identify what needs to be improved.
And the district is having an “ongoing conversation” with the city of Aspen about rerouting the trail that runs through the middle of campus to go around it instead, Mulberry said.
TRAINING FOR MORE THAN THE ‘WORST-CASE SCENARIO’
Aspen School District has two law enforcement officials onsite: Cam Daniel, the school resource officer from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, and Alyse Vollmer, a youth services officer from the Aspen Police Department.
Both Daniel and Vollmer participate in specialized training for school resource officers that covers what Vollmer referred to as “break glass moments” — emergency situations like an active shooter on campus, for instance.
Law enforcement and other emergency responders in the valley are also trained in responding to those situations, and agencies have partnered on drills in the past. (Richard Cornelius, the deputy chief of operations for the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority, said another immersive drill could happen this fall.)
The nature of those larger-scope trainings has expanded over time, according to Burchetta from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. When Burchetta was a new deputy 14 years ago, active shooter and active threat training was very specifically focused on schools, he said. But since then, “the landscape of that training has changed significantly” and sessions now also cover other locations, like the airport and courthouse, he said.
For Daniel and Vollmer, preparing for the “worst case scenario” is just one part of the job at the far, far end of their spectrum of involvement in the schools.
“It’s tackling the every day (of) kids lives, kids and their parents lives,” Vollmer said — whether that’s celebrating wins or working through losses and challenges.
Daniel and Vollmer said that the vast majority of their work is centered around building trust with students and intervening with support long before an emergency arises.
“The violence is symptomatic of something bigger, and being a part of proactive engagement with kids is so valuable, but so hard to measure,” Daniel said.
When tragedies happen like the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last week, it would be hard for it not to weigh on school resource officers like Daniel and Vollmer, they said.
“I think, for me, because I’m also a mother, it heightens my wanting to be here, from start to finish, at my best, every day. … These kids, they’re all kind of our kids, right, and being here is the most important thing,” Vollmer said.
The Aspen School District uses the Save2Tell tip line and anyone can submit any concerns they have. Reports are anonymous and go to both administrators and law enforcement. To submit a tip, visit safe2tell.org or call 1-877-542-7233.