Ten Years Post-Columbine Conversation with Cynthia Stevenson
It’s 10 years after the tragedy at Columbine High School in the Jefferson County Public Schools (JeffCo) in Colorado. Two students fatally shot 12 students and a teacher and wounded 23 others before committing suicide on April 20, 1999. The district will sponsor on that day a ceremony that the victims’ parents are planning, a remembrance that is about them and their children.
In 2000, as a result of those attacks, the state of Colorado mandated every school to have a safety plan. At JeffCo, school staff is trained regularly on safety procedures. Staff and students practice evacuation drills. And schools try to minimize problems before they start with positive behavior and anti-bullying programs. Superintendent Cynthia Stevenson, who became schools chief in 2002 but has worked in the district for three decades, reflects on the 10 years since Columbine and the safety measures that have evolved in the district, which has 150 schools stretched over 750 square miles. DA first spoke with Stevenson in 2004, and she commented on the five-year anniversary of Columbine and what measures had been taken.
You’ve been in the JeffCo system for 34 years. Can you explain your feelings on that horrible day when you were deputy superintendent?
As you might imagine, the horror of the day grew with each passing hour. My emotions began with disbelief and ended in despair. By the next day I knew that there was no time for despair so that emotion was replaced with incredible sadness for the families and for the entire organization while I simply put one foot in front of the other and did what needed to be done to keep Jeffco going.
When we spoke in 2004, you said that since the tragedy, JeffCo schools have detailed crisis plans, regular safety drills and strong relationships with local law enforcement. Has anything changed?
We’ve implemented a new school safety plan this year. You have to redo and refine as you learn more and as the world changes. One of the examples is the random intruder. Five years ago, we didn’t have intruder crises and tragedies such as those [in 2006] at the Amish school [West Nickel Mines School in Pennsylvania] and Platt Canyon High School [in the Platt Canyon School District #1 in Colorado] where students were killed.
The school safety plan is quite extensive, and all schools have emergency response as part of those plans. The plans themselves differ from school to school. For example, depending on the layout of the buildings, they all have different evacuation points. If you have to evacuate a building, it’s sometimes just on to the playground. But sometimes you need to get kids off site. It might be a nearby church or other government building.
And as far as the relationships with law enforcement go, in middle and high schools, we have school resource officers who work with law enforcement. If a student is a threat, we join with our local law enforcement agency. When we do threat assessments, we determine how serious the threat is and if law enforcement needs to be involved. If we’re concerned over a custody fight, they will increase police patrols in the area.
Your policies stress respectful environments. Can you elaborate?
This has to do with how, within a school, do we have an environment where everyone feels welcome. We are focused on developing cultural proficiency in all of our schools so that our kindness, understanding of diverse cultures and tolerance of differences is increased. We’re expected to have norms and knowledge of different races and cultures and programs that welcome parents. And we have student programs that are research-based around conflict management and bullying. For several years, we’ve also run a student survey, Make Your Voice Heard, and ask kids, do you feel safe, secure and valued in your school building? It’s about improving student perceptions. Every school sets goals and strives to improve student feelings of safety and caring every year.
Any changes in staff and student safety training over the years?
All staff members undergo yearly training in both crisis response and threat assessment. And we use more national FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] courses now. We have people trained in the Incident Command System [a standardized approach to disasters that integrates communication, personnel and procedures] and how to respond to a crisis. More than a few staff members and I have undergone the training. And we do table top training exercises for our safety and security teams in schools to simulate a crisis. Teams are comprised of seven to 10 teachers, principals, assistant principals and others, who are trained and understand the system. Staff members know their roles and are ready for crisis situations.
Also, every school needs to have a substance abuse and violence prevention program that creates a safe and respectful environment. Schools can choose the kind of program they want, including bully prevention for K12, character education for K12, conflict mediation for K12, Life Skills, a positive decision-making course for grades 3-9, Mentors in Violence Prevention for high school, Safe Talk for suicide prevention in middle and high school, and True Colors in middle and high school.
All staff members, students and parents are expected to report any rumors, threats or information about anyone planning to hurt himself or herself or others. The most effective strategy for preventing any tragedy is that information is shared with a responsible adult. That’s fundamentally the key to fix our schools. You absolutely have to have kids, and emphasize to them, that whatever you hear, you tell an adult.
Do you know of any tragedies or major problems that were averted due to your latest procedures and policies?
I think it’s hard to judge. I do know that absolutely, we have kids reporting all kinds of things and we respond to everything. You get kids to say that someone said on the bus that he or she plans to bring a gun to school. And when they report it, we determine, do we have a real threat or not? You act on anything, and you don’t know if someone would have carried it out. But I think we do, every day, avert issues in working with kids. It can be a fight on the playground or a potential suicide, or kids wanting to hurt other kids.
How did the district financially accomplish all this training? And what do you think of recent funding cuts for school safety, such as from the U.S. Office of Safe and Drug-free Schools or COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) in Schools programs?
We received a half-million-dollar grant from the federal government, including from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to help review our safety plan and do training on threat assessment. As for the cuts, I don’t like any of it. I think it’s all a big mistake. But we live in a world of budget cuts. The cuts are not going to stop us from what we do for safety.
Is there anything more that needs to be done?
Schools around the nation are practicing lockdown drills, evacuation procedures and other emergency planning measures. This is absolutely a good thing. They need to practice so everyone knows exactly what to do. We have evacuated buildings based on bomb scares and due to the smell of natural gas. And we have lockdowns if we have a local bank robbery and someone in the neighborhood has a gun.
How much of your faculty and staff turnover can you attribute to the long-term stress from the 10-year-old attack?
We don’t have excessive turnover. I would not say there is long-term stress due to Columbine. Working in school districts in general has become more stressful. There are incredibly different expectations of teachers and administrators, and others just don’t like the world of public education anymore.
How safe do you feel 10 years after the incident?
I feel completely safe and secure. No school can guarantee 100 percent safety, but schools are very safe. Children are safer in school than anywhere else in the community.
How does one alleviate the fear and pain associated with such an event? Is there a special touch, or just the knowledge that one gets during training?
When you go through a traumatic tragedy, you must draw on the strength you had before the tragedy. There is no magic. You turn to those you love and seek comfort. Time heals. You never forget, but you grow stronger and wiser through the trauma and tragedy.
What three actions would you advise school administrators do differently regarding school safety?
I wouldn’t advise them to do anything differently but have safe, secure buildings and feel psychologically safe; have a clear delineation of responsibility in their safety plans; and conduct training so they know what to do if a crisis occurs.