CA’s Safety & Security team at the Welcome Center; from Left, Andrew Kirshbaum, Glenn Garcia, Julia Shoun, and Miriah Medina

A culture of care: Safety and security at CA

Colorado Academy Director of Campus Safety & Security Julia Shoun says that safeguarding a school community is not just about locked doors, cameras, and barricades.

It is those things, of course, but it must be more, Shoun insists.

“Obviously, the first thing we look at is physical security on campus,” she says. “How do we control access? How do we make sure the people who are here are supposed to be here?”

“But almost more important,” Shoun continues, “is the culture. How are we taking care of our students’ mental health? How can we communicate more effectively among the faculty and staff about potential risks? How can we make the safety and security of everyone in our community a daily priority in our approach to education?”

Urgent questions

After the May 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that claimed the lives of 19 children and two adults, Shoun and others at CA who are charged with keeping the school and its people safe have been endeavoring to answer these questions with greater urgency than ever.

“When I read about what happened at Sandy Hook or Parkland or now Uvalde, it breaks my heart,” Shoun says. “And so my goal, my focus, my passion, my entire reason for being is making sure that doesn’t happen here.”

CA’s approach to safety and security is multi-faceted.

Working with colleagues across CA, including counselors, principals, and Head of School Dr. Mike Davis, as well as donors eager to help advance their efforts, Shoun has taken the lead in driving the evolution of a multi-faceted approach to preparedness and prevention, intended to amplify and extend structures that are already in place at CA. These include the school counseling program, advisory curriculum, and training around the use of Safe2Tell, an anonymous reporting system for anyone who learns about something that concerns their safety or the safety of others.

Building relationships

A cornerstone of Shoun’s approach is the integration of Campus Safety & Security personnel into each division of the school. Campus Safety Officer Andrew Kirshbaum ’89 is stationed in the Upper School; fellow officer Miriah Medina splits her time between the Middle School and Lower School.

In his office in the Upper School, Safety Officer Andrew Kirshbaum speaks with a student.

While both Kirshbaum and Medina have extensive law enforcement experience, and thus bring valuable situational awareness to every division, their primary focus is on building relationships.

“We want to be in front of the students every day,” Shoun explains. “Talking with them about safety, even visiting them in the classroom to read or work on a project—the more we can connect with them, the stronger we’ll be as a community.”

Shoun says she is passionate about education. “My motto is ‘Be prepared, not scared.’” From practicing a lockdown to learning to recognize signs of anxiety and depression, she says, “I really want children to feel confident and knowledgeable about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how this can help them not just at school, but in life. The goal is for students to feel a sense of ownership and control.”

The evidence is there, she says: “When students feel safe, they learn more.”

Security measures and cultural shifts

Safety Officer Glenn Garcia greets a visitor at the Welcome Center.

Shoun is equally committed to bolstering the physical security of the campus. During summer and fall 2022, she oversaw a series of improvements and additions facilitated by generous support from several CA families: access gates for the main entrance, a fleet of new security cameras, controlled access to major buildings, and ID cards for faculty, staff, and Middle and Upper School students.

These are table stakes in 2022, Shoun explains—not just for schools, but for businesses, churches, airports, and beyond.

But she is insistent that these physical measures are only effective when accompanied by cultural shifts. Shoun lobbied successfully for the establishment of a risk assessment team, a group of administrators who meet regularly to take the pulse of the student body and identify any warning signs.

“Especially given the last two years of the pandemic,” she says, “we need to be hyper-aware of how our own students are doing emotionally, and of what’s going on in the world around us—from local communities to social media.”

Safety isn’t in the hands of just a few, however; all faculty and staff members can do their part, Shoun says. “I always emphasize with our employees, ‘If you see something, say something.’ Opening up those lines of communication is key. My team is here to listen, to help, to provide support, and to give guidance if necessary.”

Counselors in the equation

CA’s Counseling team plays a central role in the effort to keep the community safe. Meeting regularly with Shoun as well as with teachers and leaders in all three divisions of the school, CA counselors are sharply attuned to the social and emotional well-being of every student, and take action when they recognize a child who may be struggling or at risk.

Upper School Counselor Kate O’Donnell

According to Upper School Counselor Kate O’Donnell, the first step in that response is reaching out to a teacher or coach to get a sense of how the student is doing. “If we hear something concerning from them,” says O’Donnell, “we touch base with the student directly, or help them identify another adult in their life whom they can go to for help.”

The Counseling team may bring a serious concern to the regular risk assessment meetings convened by Shoun, or they may simply make her aware of a student who just needs extra support and attention. “If they’re in the parking lot when they shouldn’t be, or not in class when they should be, Julia can help us find that opportunity to go walk and talk with the student to see what’s going on,” O’Donnell explains.

Prioritizing well-being

O’Donnell and Shoun agree that school culture is among the most important protections on campus. “Our two-pronged approach means that ‘hardening’ of the campus through technical measures goes hand in hand with ‘softening’,” O’Donnell explains. The Counseling team, she says, works at every grade level to nurture a caring environment in which the safety and well-being of all community members are paramount.

“At the beginning of the year we meet with every new student, at every grade level, to make sure they feel known and seen,” O’Donnell says. “Throughout the year, we visit classrooms to speak about what it means to be part of the close-knit CA community, and about being proactive in sharing concerns about yourself or others.”

CA counselors work hard to nurture trust between students, and between students and adults. “There’s almost an expectation here that you come forward with a concern about a peer,” O’Donnell says. “While kids will often come to us with a worry about themselves, they’ll just as readily talk to us about a concern they have about someone else. For the most part, when students come and tell me that they’re worried about someone, they’ve already told that person.”

The family connection

The work of the Counseling team extends beyond CA’s campus. “We also support parents,” says O’Donnell. “We meet with them to share trends that we’re seeing, things that we’re concerned about. We offer them ideas that can help with their own children, and we keep them up to date on what we’re sharing with students in the classroom.”

Shoun and Kirshbaum test one of the parking access gates on campus.

Indeed, with parents now enlisted in the school’s approach to safety, “This is a community effort,” Julia Shoun asserts.

“Of course, I understand that for parents and caregivers, who will now need identification to enter campus and will find more locked doors, it can feel that something is being lost,” Shoun says.

“But I don’t see it that way,” she continues. “I’m a parent, too. I have an eight-year-old boy, and I don’t want him to live his life being scared. I want him to have the tools and the support that he needs to be safe.”

In Shoun’s view, CA’s evolving approach to safety and security is full of positives for children, employees, and families. More children learning how to take care of themselves and others, more adults watching out for the well-being of students, more connections among faculty and staff working together across campus, and more relationships being built as parents and caregivers are invited to join the school in nurturing a culture of safety—these are real rewards salvaged from a dark national landscape whose threats to schools and other institutions appear destined to grow only more challenging.

Learn more about safety and security on the CA website or Resource Board for families.