Douglas County School District seeks ouster of charter school that has armed staff

Negotiations underway to determine Ascent Classical Academy's future in Douglas County

Posted 8/23/19

A Douglas County charter school that allows staff to carry firearms on campus has been asked to leave the Douglas County School District and is negotiating an agreement to transfer its charter to the …

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Douglas County School District seeks ouster of charter school that has armed staff

Negotiations underway to determine Ascent Classical Academy's future in Douglas County

Posted

A Douglas County charter school that allows staff to carry firearms on campus has been asked to leave the Douglas County School District’s oversight and is negotiating an agreement to transfer its charter to the state, according to the school’s chief executive officer.

Ascent Classical Academy CEO Derec Shuler said if an agreement is not reached with the school district, he expects the district will begin the process to revoke the school’s charter in Douglas County.

He also said conversations with the school district over the school’s armed personnel began before the district’s superintendent offered testimony at the state Capitol regarding school safety, in which the superintendent stated there are not armed teachers in the district.

“We have staff who currently carry in the school who have been authorized under (Ascent’s) program,” Shuler said. “Our board authorized it over a year ago, and we have implemented it. It’s already in effect for our school year.”

Shuler would not say how many school employees carry firearms or what type of employees — specifically, whether that includes teachers — are armed, citing security concerns, but said the program is open to all staff members on a volunteer basis. The CEO was not aware of any other charter schools in Douglas County operating a similar program.

‘Fight tooth and nail’

On Aug. 20, Douglas County School District Superintendent Thomas Tucker spoke on a panel at the state Capitol as part of a hearing held by the Legislature’s School Safety Committee. Panelists fielded numerous questions from legislators concerning improving school safety.

State Sen. Rhonda Fields at one point in the hearing remarked that certain school districts allow teachers to be armed and that she believed some teachers in Douglas County are armed, and asked if those individuals would “go get their guns, or are they shooting,” in an active shooter event.

Tucker said DCSD teachers are not armed.

“We will certainly not do it in my tenure, arm teachers. So, if you’re hearing that, that is simply not true,” Tucker said.

He further stated any schools, neighborhood or charter, that decide to arm teachers would be asked to leave the Douglas County School District’s oversight.

“We will fight tooth and nail,” Tucker said.

Shuler said Tucker’s remarks came as a surprise and caused confusion among his school community, “especially since he knows that we’re already doing such a program at our charter school,” Shuler said.

Shuler added, “Dr. Tucker was right, they did indeed ask us to leave the district,” but described it as a mutual decision and said the charter school was not kicked out of the district.

“We’re currently in negotiation with the district on us transferring our charter to the state authorizer,” Shuler said Aug. 22. “We just got a first written draft from the school district this morning actually. They do want us gone immediately.”

But if an agreement is not reached, Shuler expects the district would proceed with revoking the Lone Tree school’s charter, which entails a different process than a transfer. However, Shuler said Ascent is confident it has acted in accordance with its contract.

“We will look forward to taking our case to the appropriate venue in this instance to defend our autonomy and having acted within our legal and contractual authority,” Shuler said.

District policy

Following Tucker’s testimony on Aug. 20, Colorado Community Media requested further comment from Tucker on the arming of teachers and overseeing charter schools. A spokeswoman on Aug. 21 provided a statement from the school board regarding Tucker’s testimony, saying his position was rooted in district policy.

“From the beginning of Dr. Tucker’s superintendency, he has empathically supported and endorsed the district’s safe schools plan, which is evidence- and research-based. This plan is driven by Board of Education policy ADD and state statute. Based on this, Dr. Tucker stated that he is not in support of arming staff, other than security officers who are employed solely for security purposes, and he reinforced that position at (the Aug. 20) School Safety Committee meeting,” the statement reads.

“DCSD expects all of its schools to abide by ADD and follow DCSD’s research-based practices to keep each and every student and staff member safe.”

The statement pointed to a portion of district policy stating that anyone providing armed security must be an officer employed solely for security purposes, that the officers be certified in Peace Officer Standards and Training, and that uniformed security not be allowed to conceal their weapons while on duty.

Shuler said when Ascent’s contract was approved, the school had a waiver from a different section of district policy that concerned armed personnel and allowed Ascent to begin the program it currently operates.

At the time, he said, the district’s ADD policy — its school safety policy — did not pertain to armed officers but was later updated so that it now does. He claims the district argues the charter’s waiver is inapplicable with the revised ADD policy in place.

When asked about Shuler’s statements, a district spokeswoman said officials did not have further comment.

A debate of autonomy

Sitting next to Tucker at the Aug. 20 hearing was Erin Kane, executive director of the three-campus charter school American Academy in Douglas County and former interim superintendent of DCSD. Kane testified before the committee on behalf of charter schools at the request of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

She adamantly disagrees with the district’s plans to prohibit charter schools from allowing armed teachers, if a charter school wants to.

“Certainly, the district has every right for their board and their staff and their community to make that decision,” Kane said, “for the district-run schools.”

But Kane is “a believer in charter school autonomy.”

American Academies does not allow armed staff at any of its three campuses. It is served by two school resource officers, one from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and one from the Parker Police Department.

School leadership considered the proximity of law enforcement and response times when deciding against allowing teachers to be armed, Kane said. The Parker Police Department is roughly 2 1/2 miles from the school’s Motsenbocker campus and a half-mile from its Lincoln Meadows location. The school’s third campus is in Castle Pines.

“I would feel differently if they were 20 minutes away, but they are two minutes away,” Kane said.

And although having armed staff was not the right choice for American Academies, Kane said, “I wouldn’t dream of imposing my decision on another charter school.”

“I support the right of another charter school to make a different choice, with their staff, and their families, and their local law enforcement. Who am I to get in the middle of that?” she said.

Making the choice

Shuler said Ascent decided to implement its armed personnel policy this year following the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting in May. The school held a town hall after the Highlands Ranch incident, which left one student dead and eight others injured. Parents were supportive of allowing armed staff, Shuler said.

Volunteers in Ascent’s program complete FASTER training, or Faculty/Administrator Safety Training & Emergency Response training, in addition to other courses. Staff also study firearms, “shoot-don’t-shoot” scenarios and mental preparation for responding to an active shooter.

“We have a wide range of people who are former military people who have grown up with firearms their whole lives,” Shuler said. “These are people who already have concealed-carry permits and carry every day.”

Shuler said Ascent is part of a group working with local law enforcement to improve the consistency of training among all armed security in schools, stating law enforcement and other armed guards should improve communication and train together.

Sheriff Tony Spurlock was not available for an interview at the time of this article, a spokeswoman said, but he provided a statement.

“Public safety is a priority for the sheriff’s office, and that includes safety for our children in schools,” he said. “In order to be successful during a critical incident we all need to train together. We will train with anyone working at or for the school whether they are armed or not.”

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