Education

Rural Schools in Colorado Taking Security Into Their Own Hands

Convergint working on security upgrades at the Park County School District.
Convergint working on security upgrades at the Park County School District. Convergint
Cindy Bear, superintendent of the Park County School District, has always considered safety her top priority for the five public and three charter schools in her district. And for a long time, she says, their security systems were not adequate.

The process of calling dispatch in order to get in touch with law enforcement officials was not efficient, for example, and security cameras were also a problem. "What I found was that any time we had to access the cameras, it was very, very time-consuming to pull it up, and we had to re-watch footage to find information. It was draining on our end. There were a lot of blind spots," Bear recalls.

But there were no easy fixes; Bear was limited by a tight budget. "Like every school district in the state and across the country, we’re dependent on financing that is determined by someone else," she says. "So when we need to do things, we can’t raise our prices for families. We are bound by what we have."

"There's basically no security in rural districts unless you create your own," adds Pat Bershinsky, who was the superintendent of the Edison school district for eight years and now works as executive director of the Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Service. According to Bershinsky, many rural school districts have to pool their money just to get a school resource officer that they can share.

Bershinsky is also concerned about long wait times for emergency responders. "The little school district I was in for all those years, worst-case scenario an hour and a half, best-case scenario there would be a police officer out there and it would be about thirty minutes," he says.

There are 178 school districts in Colorado, and 153 of them are rural. "If you're in a rural area, it's a community effort, a team effort, a school board effort," Bershinsky says. "When you talk about funding and lack of funding, it's exacerbated in rural areas."

Funding is in such short supply that many rural districts were on board with a bill introduced in the Colorado Legislature in 2017 that would have provided handgun safety training for school staffers with concealed-carry permits. With the permission of their school boards, they would have been allowed to bring their guns on school grounds. In 2016, the Fleming school district approved allowing staffers to be armed on school property; the superintendent noted that law enforcement could take up to twenty minutes to get to a school in the district because the county is so large. Although that bill went down, the concept has been floated again.

Patricia Billinger, public-information officer for the Colorado Department of Public Safety, says that school safety issues go beyond just security equipment. "School safety is a complex blend of training, resources, staffing, physical facilities, and student and community factors," she says.

And while Colorado offers a variety of programs to help supplement security financing for schools, most of them require an application. "The 2018 School Security Disbursement Grant provided approximately $30 million for added school security items for those that applied," Billinger notes. "Meanwhile, the SAFER grant has added almost $5 million per year for interoperability for districts." But that grant will end in 2023.

The Colorado Department of Education also hosts the BEST program, which provides grants to schools so that they can do renovations and add new construction to their existing facilities; those projects often help with security, according to Billinger.

Bear wasn't interested in arming her staff, but she wanted to do more for her schools. Then she found out about Convergint, a company that started the STEP Up for schools initiative, which offers free security upgrades to schools. Convergint has more than 175 locations globally, including an office at 7330 South Alton Way in Centennial.

The "STEP" in STEP Up stands for secure, train, educate and protect. The program was launched four years ago by Tony Varco, vice president of security and marketing at Convergint, in the wake of the Parkland shooting in Florida.

"It all began February 14 of 2018, and it was the Stoneman Douglas high school shooter who killed seventeen and injured seventeen," Varco says. "What we found after sitting there that day and watching this unfold on television, what we were upset about — or at least what I was upset about — was that the school district personnel really had no idea how to run the system that was installed there."

Seeing that, Varco was inspired to create a program to provide better security for schools free of charge.

In June, three schools in the Park County School District each received $68,000 worth of free security upgrades from Convergint. In 2021, the Clear Creek School District and Bennett School District received upgrades through Convergint, and Elbert and Elizabeth school districts have gotten them as well. All of these are rural districts.

Convergint partners with other security equipment organizations such as Axis Communications, Genetec, Avigilon and HID Global to find the best security solutions for schools, install them and then make sure staff members know how to use the systems.

“We’re not gun-violence experts, we’re not school-shooting experts, but we do work closely with those kinds of public agencies to provide physical security that can detect, deter and delay,” says Stephen Fisher, a Convergint spokesperson.

When Convergint enters many schools, it finds security systems in a state of disrepair.

“We take this design philosophy of deter, detect, delay and enhance communication with first-responding agencies,” Fisher says. “Out in Fairplay specifically, we are enhancing their video surveillance platform as well as their video surveillance coverage. We also integrated an active-shooter response system that is integrated to the local sheriff department.”

That system sets up alarms throughout a school that a staff member or student can press in case of a threat; the alarm will not only alert the sheriff's department, but identify the location of the threat. This helps bring more of what Varco calls "situational awareness" to the response. When police are pulling up to the schools, they can see the surveillance footage and know what they're walking into.

Any school can apply for a security upgrade from Convergint by completing a simple form. “We’re just looking for schools that don’t have the means and the capability to do the kinds of things that they want to do,” Fisher says.

"I was there for the installation and the testing, and it’s a pretty incredible feeling. When you’re responsible for a lot of children’s lives every day, that’s a pretty heavy weight," Bear says. "I feel empowered that I can say with confidence that we're doing everything in our power to create a safe and secure environment."
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Katrina Leibee, a recent graduate of Colorado State University, is an editorial fellow at Westword, covering politics, business and culture.
Contact: Katrina Leibee