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Panel of school safety experts reviews Colorado School Crisis Guidelines in a virtual news conference

After convening experts from across the state who have dealt with unimaginable crises in educational settings, the Colorado School Safety Resource Center (CSSRC) recently released new Crisis Guidelines to help K-12 schools and institutions of higher education prepare for and respond to large-scale emergencies.

Some 28 partners cooperated in this effort. Their workgroup leaders and the Colorado Department of Public Safety representatives discussed the Crisis Guidelines, presenting the findings in an April 21 press conference including lessons learned, and key takeaways for school safety.

Students getting on a school bus. Image courtesy of The 74.

The date was memorable, coming just one day after the 23rd anniversary of April 20, 1999; the Columbine High School shootings. Since that time, not a year has passed without at least one, and sometimes several school shootings occurring somewhere in the nation.

“No two crises are the same and therefore it is impossible to anticipate all situations. However, knowing what worked previously and what educators had wished were in place before an emergency, can help others before tragedy strikes,” said CSSRC Director Chris Harms.

The new Crisis Guidelines incorporate recommendations based on lessons learned from school tragedies in Colorado and across the country in an effort to prepare others for the possibility of one of these events. The guidelines also incorporate the input of K-12 and higher education school security experts, mental health providers, and crisis responders.

“We spoke with Colorado’s experts in school crisis and formed working groups to turn them into recommendations for reasonable standards of care. They included K-12 school safety experts and mental health professionals. We split the group into committees, school personnel, prep, and a group on lessons learned,” said Harms. She added that along the way they added Colorado Community College System Emergency Manager Greg Busch, who had been working in a parallel effort on crisis guidelines for community colleges. “By Dec. 21 last year, we had draft guidelines.”

“By March 2022, we had final guidelines,” she explained. “I want to stress that it does not replace the emergency operations plans for the individual school districts. It provides suggestions to help in the aftermath. Each crisis is unique but guided by things that other school administrations with tragedies wish they had had in place. This is a living document, the Department of School Public Safety will take responsibility for updates.”

“We’ve been looking at two-plus years of school districts data from all over the country, dealing with recovery from those incidents and seeing the small failures,” said Jefferson County Public Schools Department of School Safety Executive Director John McDonald.  “We have to get better at this and Colorado, unfortunately, has experienced 10 school shootings between 1999 and 2021.”

“In the past two years we’ve seen 18 people murdered and 48 wounded in school incidents,” added McDonald. “We want to be better responders, better at recovery. The program we’re dealing with is led by the Colorado Resource Center and chaired by Harms. As someone who has worked on this all over the county, I’ve not seen such a comprehensive plan, and Colorado is leading the way on this.”

McDonald said he worked with Littleton Public Schools Director of Social, Emotional, & Behavior Services Nate Thompson, in the wake of the Arapahoe High School tragedy. “The work I do in preparedness and response has what we call ‘moment in time’ importance — five minutes, five hours, five days — how do we keep people safe so they can survive? The work of recovery is what Nate does.  We’re still seeing the after effects of Columbine 23 years later — and in all the other tragedies after that. How we respond, and how we help our communities recover…. that’s the heavy lift.”

“We look deeper at mental health and resilience after these events,” explained Thompson. “We’ve learned we need to do interagency planning to help a community recover. There are certain ways that work better than others to communicate with students after these events. We know now that there are stages that students go through after these. There are immediate and long-term health needs after these. There is an evolution and there are long-term needs, and some specific tools we know can work … how do you organize a crisis center … who should respond to the crisis. How do we help them to recover from what they have seen and experienced, how to share this knowledge and honor those who have lost loved ones.”

“How this plays out in higher education, our students know how to lockout, lockdown, shelter, and do the evacuation,” said Busch. “In higher education, they have done a significant amount of work in prevention and response, and in BIT teams (behavioral intervention teams) working on early intervention on those at risk of harming themselves or others. The difference between K-12 and higher education is that crisis intervention piece doesn’t get the same attention as a response [as on college campuses]. We have reunification issues, we have adult students and concurrent enrollment, and we have student housing – that can leave them without shelter. Higher education campuses tend to be much larger than K-12 [campuses].

“This crisis guideline will be kept up to date with new strategies and practices,” said Colorado School Safety Resource Center Regional Training Consultant Kati Garner. “Our mission is to help support K-12 school districts with training and tools. We consult and train whether in a rural district or an urban district. This requires partnerships to do the heavy lift that K-12 schools often struggle with. We know we have a mental health shortage across the country,…. so after a school crisis there is more need than ever.”

The Gaps The School Safety Experts Wished We Understood

Asked by the news media on the call what are some of the failures of the current crisis responses efforts at K-12 schools, McDonald answered that the work groups did a 20-year gap analysis attempting to identify the common failings. They noted two shared traits.

“Schools are struggling with believing that ‘it could happen to us,’ he said. “Our educators want to think the best of people. Second, schools that don’t empower their students and staff to report things so students can be helped. They don’t like to have the conversation. It’s uncomfortable.”

“On the back side we are seeing with crisis mental health and recovery — recovery begins with the ramifications — finding the time to win back your school and school community. How you mange that process is essential,” added McDonald. “We’ve seen failures around the country, being prepared for the reunification that starts the crisis mental health work. Schools struggle with the fact that it’s a long-term issue. It’s not just counseling for a couple of days. Crisis mental health support is an ongoing effort and it’s a big lift.  All those impacted in school shootings deserve to be supported. We have to check our egos at the door, we need 21st century safety.”

“Schools are inundated with a lot of things, but trainings can be expensive,” said Garner. “We are  providing the training services to public schools at no cost. My position has been created to connect with the communities on the western side of Colorado. There are trainings for psychological risk — two great trainings to prepare teachers and responders how to triage students one-by-one to assess need.”

The trainings will eventually include pre-recorded web based trainings for Psychological First Aid for Educators (Engage-Calm-Distract and Prepare) as well as in -person. This Colorado Public School Safety Plan is the nation’s first, and the work group announced that after rolling it out here in Colorado, the plan will be shared with other states:

School safety experts who presented the new Colorado School Safety Guidelines included:

Colorado School Safety Resource Center Director Chris Harms
Jefferson County Public Schools Department of School Safety Executive Director John McDonald
Colorado Community College System Emergency Manager Greg Busch
Littleton Public Schools Director of Social, Emotional, & Behavior Services Nate Thompson,
Colorado School Safety Resource Center Regional Training Consultant Kati Garner

For more information about the guidelines or school safety, visit