After the announcement by Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith that reserve deputies would begin patrolling elementary schools in unincorporated parts of Larimer, candidates for Weld County sheriff shared their views this week on school safety and if the same type of program would work here.
Smith announced last week he was starting a school marshal program that will place armed and uniformed reserve officers in six Thompson School District elementary schools including Coyote Ridge, Cottonwood Plains, Carrie Martin, Ivy Stockwell, Berthoud and Big Thompson.
The program came about after an outcry for more security by parents whose children attend those schools, said Larimer public information officer Jennifer Hillmann.
Most middle schools and high schools in many school districts, including Greeley, already have school resource officers that are uniformed and carry a gun, but elementary schools don’t tend to have that same feature. Until Sandy Hook, not many thought it was necessary.
Some parents still don’t. Parents of elementary school students in the Eaton Re-2 School District that were asked said they believe Eaton is a safe community and extra security at the elementary schools is unnecessary.
“It’s a one in a million thing that happened,” said Jill, who didn’t want to give her last name but has children who attend both Eaton and Benjamin Eaton elementaries.
Sheriff’s reserve officers have all the same training and responsibilities as deputies but they are volunteers.
Larimer’s program will be random. Officers will not be at the school from bell to bell, but drop in at various times. Officers will work with the school administration where they are assigned to determine the needs of the school. In the beginning, officers will be uniformed but, as the program progresses, they will include plain-clothed officers.
In Weld’s case, it would be nearly impossible to man all of the county’s schools. There are about 30 schools outside of Greeley that span from the far northeast corner of the county to the far southwest and all 4,000 square miles in between, with a reserve force of 30.
Sheriff’s candidates Keith Olson, Steve Reams and Jeff Rodriguez differ on the role reserves should play and the best security measures for schools.
Reams’ visions are very personal. The Weld Sheriff’s Office bureau chief, a Republican, survived a student shooter at his own high school in 1992 when he was a junior attending Paloduro High School in Amarillo, Texas.
A student new to the school opened fire in the hallway while Reams and his friends were returning to class from a pep assembly. Six students were injured, three severely.
“By the grace of God, I wasn’t hit,” he said. “But several of my friends that I remain close with today were. That is something you never get over.”
Reams said he’d like to combine several options.
“It’s hard to put the numbers together to make it work like it does in Larimer,” he said. “Other avenues need to be explored, not just putting armed officers in schools.”
He is a fan of the Rocky Mountain Guardian Angels, which are armed, retired law enforcement officers who patrol high schools in plain clothes. He wants to grow the reserve program so they can look at putting officers in schools on a random basis in the communities those officers are vested in, but he also fully supports arming teachers.
“I continue to push the issue with my own school district,” he said of the Valley Re-1 School District, where until November he served on the school board. “My wife is a teacher, and I would have no problems letting her carry a weapon at school. We trust our teachers with every other aspect of our children’s safety. Why not give them a gun?”
Olson, also a Republican, said he believes the Sheriff’s Office should help, but also believes arming those closest to the students is the best idea.
“I’m happy Justin took the lead on this issue and is trying to solve the problem,” he said. “But I would prefer to have someone armed in the schools every time a child is in school.”
He said there is no denying the threat is real.
“It’s not going away,” he said. “It’s a problem, and we need to work to find a solution to neutralize it.”
He said the Briggsdale model of arming teachers and administrators is the most impressive measure he has seen.
“It’s pure genius,” he said. “It satisfies the fiscal and the immediacy problem. Teachers are dedicated. What better sheep dog for our kids than our teachers.”
He said what makes the model work is the randomness of not knowing who is and who isn’t carrying. That is the best deterrent to crime.
“Teachers are already going to get in the line of gunfire,” he said. “We’ve seen the extent our teachers go to instinctively to protect our kids.”
Rodriguez, the lone Democrat candidate, is unsure of the Larimer idea. He said he could support it, but he would have to be careful how the officers were selected.
“Not every officer is going to deal with every kid well,” Rodriguez said. “I’m always afraid of who and what. Ex officers and ex military can be cynical. The war changes how you see things and how you talk to people.”
He also is against the idea of arming teachers and other school staff.
He said he’s not confident a teacher could do what is necessary in terms of using force if it was one of their star students, and he’s concerned they can’t get the same training officers get and more mistakes could be made.
He said he could support reserve officers in the buildings if the school and the officers did ongoing training together like they do fire and lockdown drills.
“Everybody just wants to throw a gun in everybody’s hands and say, ‘Let’s get some training.’ ”
For Greeley schools, having a uniformed officer on campus has paid off.
The Greeley Police Department pays for Greeley-Evans School District 6 to have a full-time armed officer in all the high schools. Police officers also patrol the middle schools on a part-time basis, and beginning Jan. 1 of this year, they started randomly dropping in on all the elementary schools.
University Schools, a K-12 charter school, has private security that includes an armed, plain-clothed, retired police officer. And Frontier Academy, also a K-12 charter school, announced recently it would contract with the Guardian Angels.
John Gates, the district’s director of safety and security, said it is important that school districts and law enforcement continue to work together to make all schools the safest they can be.
“The positive response we’ve seen is incredible,” Gates said of the police officers’ roles in the schools. “Some of our kids will go to the police officers and talk about things they won’t talk to their family or administrators about. The uniformed officers have worked well with our kids.”