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Local superintendent demands change in gun policies in letter to school community

Chris Gdowski said he was tired of writing the standard 'mass school shooting letters' so he took a different approach in his most recent message.

DENVER — It's a sad fact that school leaders have written too many letters to the community, following a mass shooting. 

They express their outrage and grief, the resources they will provide, extra security, etc.  

But, one local superintendent said he's frustrated, writing the same words over and over again, while gun violence in schools is seemingly increasing.

"Dear Five Star Community, I can't bring myself to write or endorse another one of the standard 'mass school shooting letters' that we, and school districts throughout the country, have been sending out over the past 23 years following the Columbine High School shooting," said superintendent Chris Gdowski, in a letter to the Adams 12 Five Star Schools community. "I suspect that most of you stop reading these letters after the first paragraph, as the content has become so familiar that most of us are able to recite the key points without reading them and are numb to them at the same time."

For decades now, the same words and sentiments are recited after a mass shooting.

"We've got to do something different so that we're not just reporting horrific situations and hoping that we'll limp along and grieve through and things will be different in the future," he said. "I believe it’s time for us to raise those age limits for shotguns, and rifles, and assault weapons to 21."

Feeling that pain and frustration more than ever, as gun violence in schools has gotten worse, Gdowski said it's time to make tangible change.

"For whatever reason around school violence, we just have this attitude of hopelessness that we can’t do anything to change it or we have wishful thinking that if we just have more law enforcement people in schools, or we provide more mental health services for young people that this is just going to go away and I think we’ve done many of those things. We’ve had more law enforcement presence in our schools, in places throughout our state since Columbine," he said. "We do a lot in terms of mental health intervention and yet those things alone are not going to solve the problem any better than what we’ve seen over the last 20 plus years. So, lots of frustration.”

Gdowski has been superintendent for 13 years and said more security, lockdown drills, and expanded mental health resources are needed and necessary to help prevent tragedy in the future.

But he also believes that even more needs to be done.

“The things we’re doing to try to mitigate these situations just fall short. They require perfection on so many different aspects of human behavior that just doesn’t exist. We’re not always going to assess threat risk of a student exactly right. We’re going to have situations where someone leaves a door unlocked that should be locked. We’re going to have situations where the communications break down, the law enforcement person on scene is outmanned by a person who has much superior firearms," he said. “All the mitigation steps we’ve done, it’s just not proven effective in preventing these kinds of incidents. We’ve got to go further than what we’ve done.”

His daughter was in kindergarten when the Columbine tragedy happened. He said he never fathomed that gun violence would only be increasing as his child is preparing to have a child of her own.

“Certainly need to do things to more dramatically punish parents and others who allow access to teenagers to these kinds of weapons. But in many, many cases 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds are purchasing these weapons and then using them to perpetrate violence including the most recent tragedies in Buffalo and then Uvalde," said Gdowski. “I think if we made weapon access more difficult for that age group, there will still be imperfections but I think we’ll limit some of these horrible incidents that we’ve seen.”

Here's the full letter Gdowski wrote to his school district community: 

Dear Five Star Community,

I can't bring myself to write or endorse another one of the standard "mass school shooting letters" that we, and school districts throughout the country, have been sending out over the past 23 years following the Columbine High School shooting. 

There are some modest variations in these letters, but the common message expresses outrage and grief that yet another shooting has occurred; indicates that our thoughts and prayers are with the families, loved ones, and school community in which the shooting has occurred; informs parents about counseling services that we'll make available in the days ahead, as well as links to other resources that can help families navigate discussions with their children about this latest tragedy; and reaffirms our commitment to safety as our top priority, along with the greater security/law enforcement presence that will be implemented in the days ahead. I suspect that most of you stop reading these letters after the first paragraph, as the content has become so familiar that most of us are able to recite the key points without reading them and are numb to them at the same time. 

I've spent my entire professional career as legal counsel to school districts and as superintendent in this school district, and over the course of that nearly 30 year time span I've witnessed significant progress in so many aspects of public education. Schools have become more inclusive and welcoming, students across diverse backgrounds are making stronger academic gains, and we continue to make progress in many other areas. 

At the same time that we've made these significant steps forward in public education, we have also seen a rise in this type of violence. We've added important mitigation measures, such as school resource officers, secure and lockdown drills, fast-locking doors and speedy crisis communication systems, threat assessment protocols, expanded mental health services, and in some districts even armed staff members. Even with these additional mitigation efforts in place, I know we could all cite a number of recent and past situations in our state and across the country that still saw violence.

These mitigations are important and need to remain in place, but there is more that needs to be done. It is time that we stop dancing around the topic and really take a look at the availability of weapons to teenagers and those with mental health conditions. It is time to bring the same willingness to confront the brutal facts, and the same urgency and resolve, to reducing school gun violence that we've brought, with success, to changing student achievement and civil rights outcomes in our schools.

My daughter was in kindergarten the year of the Columbine shooting. She is now nearly 30 and expecting her first child in the fall. Never would I have fathomed, when comforting her as a six year old after Columbine, that school gun violence would not only continue but would grow in its frequency as she moved from childhood to her current role as a future parent. It is time for all of us to advocate for changes in those laws and policies that contribute to school gun violence so that our children and grandchildren can engage in school the way we did a generation ago -- without the persistent fear and worry of school shootings.

Sincerely,

Chris Gdowski

Superintendent

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