By Josh Mitchell

Missourian Staff Writer

Visiting Colorado’s Columbine High School, where 12 students and one teacher were murdered in 1999, allowed local law enforcement officers and school officials to gain ideas to improve school safety here.

“We learned more than I could have ever imagined,” said Franklin County Emergency Management Director Abe Cook. “It was intense.”

The hope is that some of the response plans used by the Jefferson County, Colo., School District where the shootings occurred can be implemented to make the 23,000 students in Franklin County safer.

Local officials hope to create a unified school safety plan across the county to get all of the districts and emergency agencies on the same page.

Kevin Anderson, school resource officer in Union, called the Columbine visit, “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The three-day trip had a heavy emphasis on mental health.

“The mental health aspect was such a huge component,” said Union Police Department Lt. Kyle Kitcher. “Our thought processes and our procedures really need to incorporate mental health a lot earlier than what we had anticipated.”

Gauging Threats

Implementing a formal threat assessment process can help prevent a school shooting, said Detective Sgt. John Biser with the Union Police Department.

The assessment would be done after a student made a threat to determine how serious it is. A standardized questionnaire would help gauge the seriousness of the threat with a level from one to five.

For a serious threat, a team of professionals from across various disciplines such as mental health, law enforcement and education, could speak to the student and parents.

It would be a confidential process where the child would feel safe, and there would be ongoing follow-up with the student, officials say.

The threat assessment could also reveal issues the child may be having at home, such as the death of a parent or a divorce, Biser said. The student could then be connected with the needed emotional help.

Bullying problems could also factor into a child’s mental health problems.

Getting Children Back to Parents

Another big aspect to a school safety plan is “reunification,” Biser noted. The trip to Columbine allowed the local officials to meet with John-Michael Keyes with the I Love U Guys Foundation. Keyes’ daughter, Emily, was shot and killed in 2006 at Platte Canyon High School in Colorado.

That organization helps schools with reunification, which is the complicated process of getting children back to their parents after a school shooting. After a shooting, getting hundreds of students out of the building safely is a “gigantic process” that could take hours, Biser said.

Kitcher agreed, saying, “Not only that, we have to manage the parents during the process.”

‘It Can Happen Anywhere’

One of the bigger problems that needs to be overcome locally is the idea that a school shooting can’t happen here, officials say.

“That culture that it’s not going to happen here has to change . . . It can happen anywhere, and it will,” Cook said.

Currently, what is lacking in the county is a central person who brings all of the districts and emergency agencies together, Kitcher said, adding, “It’s critical.”

On Monday, a committee of the Franklin County Children and Families Community Resource Board is expected to hear a presentation on the need for funding the position. An amount between $150,000 and $165,000 is being sought, and it would fund the position of school safety director, including salary, benefits, training, telephone, supplies and travel. The resource board gets its funding from a quarter-cent property tax that helps Franklin County youth 19 and under.

“This safety director makes sense,” Anderson said.

If the funding is approved, it could be available Jan. 1.

Other officials who went on the Columbine trip were Andy Robinson, Four Rivers Career Center, assistant director; Dr. Brendan Mahon, Washington School District, assistant superintendent; Sgt. Travis Blankenship, Franklin County Sheriff’s Office; Kate Henry, Meramec Valley R-III School District, certified counselor; Chris Delmain, Meramec Valley R-III, maintenance/security; and Sue Emmons, Lonedell, principal.