(Colorado Newsline) Colorado's new Office of School Safety has a leader with over 10 years of experience supporting the state's efforts to make its schools safer.
Christine Harms led Colorado's School Safety Resource Center since 2012 and has worked with the center since 2009. With the center now acting as one of the three units within the Office of School Safety, Harms took on a new role leading the office -- which falls under the Colorado Department of Public Safety -- on July 15 after being appointed by Gov. Jared Polis.
"It's extremely exciting and quite an honor to have been appointed the first director of the new office," Harms told Newsline. "The fact that both the governor's office and the Legislature have been so supportive of making sure that there are more resources to Colorado schools, we're very lucky when it comes to that."
The two new units created as part of the office are the grants unit and the crisis unit. Once the state office is fully staffed -- which Harms hopes will be done by the beginning of October -- it will have 18 full-time employees. The office came from a bill the Legislature passed earlier this year.
Polis and the Legislature proposed creating a central office for school safety after a 2019 state audit found a lack of coordination among state efforts. The audit also said those efforts did not reach enough students and that there was no way to measure the success of the state's school safety programs.
A bipartisan group of legislators sponsored the bill creating the office, with the goal of making Colorado's school safety work more cohesive.
Colorado schools experienced a record number of shooting threats or incidents in the 2022-23 school year, with seven reported incidents across the Denver area and the Front Range, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database.
The responsibilities of the resource center will continue to focus on providing training, resources and technical assistance to any educational institution across Colorado. Currently, the center has regional training consultants who work with the School Safety Resource Center posted in Cheyenne Wells, La Junta and Delta, and Harms said the office is working to find two others for northeast and southwest Colorado.
"We have discovered that when somebody lives in the region, the schools are much more likely to trust that they understand and have the perspective of what it's like to be in a rural part of the state," Harms said.
Over the last two years, the School Safety Resource Center has offered school districts that use its threat assessment and management protocols access to an online case management system. Harms said this will soon be updated to include a case management system along with its suicide assessment tool kit too.
"That really increases the efficiency and the effectiveness of doing those assessments because there's automatic messages that go out to school people to make sure that none of the students fall through the cracks," Harms said.
Colorado's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management used to operate two school safety grants -- the School Access for Emergency Response Grant and the School Security Disbursement Grant -- but those moved over to the Office of School Safety's grants unit. The legislation creating the office also provides $1 million in funding for a new youth violence prevention grant, which will be open to school districts as well as community nonprofits working on reducing youth violence.
Harms said the two employees of the office's grants unit will also look for other grant funding opportunities for schools in need across the state and help schools with workshops on how to best apply for grant funding. She said the goal has always been for grants to be as easy as possible to apply for since rural schools across the state don't have grant writers.
The crisis unit will include a manager and three mental health providers who will conduct training for school staff on how to respond to any kind of crisis. These providers will also be able to support any districts should a crisis happen and additional help is needed.
While Colorado has 178 school districts, 146 of them are small rural districts. Harms said this is where the bulk of her office's work is focused, because rural schools don't have the staff or departments dedicated to school safety that larger districts on the Front Range do. She knows the top concern parents have for their children in school is safety, and she hopes they can see how much the state and its districts are trying to protect them, she said.
"Our schools in Colorado really do work hard when it comes to safety, because unfortunately, we've learned the hard way that things can happen anywhere, and they have happened here," Harms said.
Harms also said she is looking forward to seeing how recommendations from a report expected from the state's School Safety Working Group will impact the new office and its responsibilities. The group, which includes members from five state agencies that interact with schools, is due to bring a report with recommendations to the Legislature in December.
"It's been a wonderful experience really collaborating with the other state agencies that work with our schools and seeing what everybody else does," Harms said. "I think it's going to lay a groundwork for even further collaboration across the state agencies that service the schools, and I think we're going to have a better mechanism for making sure that the schools know what resources are available."
When the working group was initially created, it never received funding from the governor's office and therefore never met, Axios reported last year. Despite a lack of initial support from Polis, legislators went through with funding the task force, enabling the upcoming report.
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