Still Grieving

Columbine Event Prompts Schools To Rethink Safety

Participants arrive to attend a faith-based memorial service for the victims of the massacre at Columbine High School nearly 20 years ago at a community church Thursday, in Littleton, Colo. AP photo

On April 20, 1999, school safety changed forever.

Inside Columbine High School, 15 people were dead and 20 others were wounded after two armed students carried out a shooting spree that ended with the duo taking their own lives. The events would change families, students and the country forever. Even the name, “Columbine,” has taken its own meaning beyond an educational institution in Colorado that created a somber legacy continuing 20 years later.

“The tragic events at Columbine High School affected all schools across the country,” said Bret Apthorpe, Jamestown Public Schools superintendent. “The safety and security of our students and staff are one of our top priorities. Events of school violence prompt all districts to re-evaluate school safety and security.”

Since then, numerous school shootings have occurred throughout the country that echo the public outcry like Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. For Michael Mansfield, Bemus Point Central School District superintendent, who was just “getting started” as an educator around the time of Columbine, said the Sandy Hook shooting had a large impact on his teaching and his mindset of education in 2012.

“For me, personally, it was really, in my career, Sandy Hook that really brought (the school safety conversation) to the forefront,” Mansfield said. “When Sandy Hook hit … it’s really been a catalyst for scrutiny on school safety.”

The ongoing analysis of school safety was again placed under a microscope last year. Conversations of improving school safety in the Bemus Point school district emerged after 17 students in Parkland were shot dead.

In Bemus Point, the district held community forums to discuss school safety openly. Later, the district funded a school resource officer, or SRO, to add a layer of defense beginning in the 2018-19 school year.

Forestville, Silver Creek, and Erie-2 BOCES Hewes and Loguidice centers along with their facility in Cassadaga have an SRO present provided by the Sheriff’s Office.

Falconer and Jamestown school districts also employ SROs through the Ellicott Police and the Jamestown Police departments. Pine Valley and Clymer school districts also have a deputy substation within their schools that provides office space for deputies to operate from which increases their presence on school grounds.

The Southwestern Central School District recently budgeted funding in its 2019-20 school budget proposal to begin the conversation of employing an SRO.

The Frewsburg Central School District was in discussions with the Town of Carroll Police Department earlier this year to possibly employ an resource officer. While an SRO won’t be provided by Carroll, the district maintained it would continue to look at other options.

For schools across the U.S. impacted by the 1999 tragedy, and those that have followed, Chautauqua County schools are not exceptions.

“Jamestown is no different,” Apthorpe said.

The Jamestown superintendent said the district has worked to implement hardened school entrances, sophisticated security cameras and conduct routine lock-out and lock-in drills. Many districts have continued to construct two-way-entrance vestibules at main points of access to school buildings.

Jim Quattrone, Chautauqua County Sheriff, who was working for the Sheriff’s Office at the time of the Columbine shooting, said it forced law enforcement, like it did schools, to reevaluate how to handle active shooters and security in general. Because of the ongoing to push to increase school safety, he said “as of late there has been more cooperation and collaboration with school and law enforcement.”

“Unfortunately, it took a tragedy for us to re-evaluate and determine the best approach (to emergency response and school safety),” Quattrone said.

When he spoke to The Post-Journal by phone Friday, Quattrone was undergoing a week-long National Sheriff’s Institute training program in Aurora, Colo., about 20 miles away from Littleton, Colo., the home of Columbine.

Last week, as it was highly publicized by national news outlets, a Florida woman who made Columbine-related threats had traveled to the Colorado area and purchased a firearm. She was found dead last week from a self inflicted gun shot wound.

Quattrone, who was in the region all last week, said many of the school districts in the surrounding area were closed while the FBI and law enforcement agencies were searching for the Florida native.

“If there’s any place we should be feeling safe, it is in our schools. … We want to think we’re safe, but there can always be that potential of having somebody who wreaks havoc in pain and death” Quattrone said.

Quattrone has observed the amount of school districts employing an SRO increasing as of late. But the sheriff said while adding a well-trained officer to a school district certainly helps, as a result of school shootings, a push to raise awareness on mental health and promote inclusiveness in schools is as important. Apart from security and response, a larger focus has been placed on social and mental health education and promoting positive atmospheres within schools as a method of prevention.

Apthorpe shared a similar sentiment.

“Probably more importantly, we have placed a priority on having positive, healthy relationships with all our students,” he said. “Thereby allowing us to intervene whenever a student is distressed. All district staff continue to worked diligently to ensure that our school climate provides a safe, supportive learning environment for all students.”