A charter school seeking to leave the Douglas County School District in part to implement an armed-staff program will soon be under the state's oversight if contract negotiations now underway go to an agreement.
Ascent Classical Academy first asked to transfer out of the Douglas County School District and into the Colorado Charter School Institute network, the state authorizer for charter schools, more than a year ago.
The Douglas County School Board initially denied the school's request, but directors released Ascent to the state roughly one year later after the school planned to allow the arming of its teachers and staff. The program sparked debate over charter school autonomy and what the district's safe schools policy allows.
“This is not a political issue. It is an issue of what is best for that particular community,” said CSI Executive Director Terry Lewis. “That's not to say that it's an easy issue. This is something that is challenging for all of us because we all want our schools to be safe and our students to be safe.”
Lewis said Ascent and its sister charter schools sought CSI authorization mostly because they are located in different districts and wanted one authorizer.
Ascent is modeled after schools like Golden View Classical Academy, part of the charter school system run by CEO Derec Shuler. Ascent Classical Academy opened in 2018 and operates in Lone Tree. Shuler was not immediately available for comment.
The CSI board approved Ascent's transfer application in December, although the school cannot officially move until a five-year contract is approved by the state.
That could wrap up in January, Lewis said. The transfer would become final after the end of the school year on July 1. Ascent would remain a Douglas County School District school until then.
CSI staff did not analyze the armed-staff policy in approving Ascent's transfer application, but rather on its academic and financial merits, Lewis said. CSI staff set a number of milestones the school must reach in order to transfer — largely regarding special education — which are normal requests of a transfer school, Lewis said.
The school must submit a waiver request to operate the armed-staff policy, which would need later approval from CSI and the Colorado Department of Education.
Ascent's waivers must be submitted by Jan. 20. When a school submits a waiver for any policies, it must also provide a replacement policy that's in accordance with state law.
“State law does allow there to be armed staff in schools,” Lewis said. “So, what we do as an authorizer is say: If it's allowable by law, then how do we ensure the school is following the law.”
Lewis said more than 30 schools and districts throughout the state operate a similar armed-staff program but that Golden View Classical Academy was the first to implement one in the CSI network.
CSI will require Ascent to keep its school community informed as it decides to implement the program, Lewis said, and show that the community was involved in the decision.
Ascent's program allows staff members to volunteer to carry firearms on campus if they completed FASTER training and obtained a concealed carry permit. FASTER stands for Faculty/Administrator Safety Training and Emergency Response.
Ascent planned to implement the program for the 2019-20 school year after a shooting at another district charter school, STEM School Highlands Ranch. Shuler said in August 2019 the school's families overwhelmingly urged the policy to heighten security after the tragedy.
Ascent hit a roadblock when the Douglas County School Board determined the program wasn't in line with district policy. Under district policy, armed security must be employed solely for security purposes and be certified in Peace Officer Standards and Training, and uniformed security cannot conceal weapons.
Both Shuler and Douglas County School Board President David Ray have said the choice to part ways was mutual and Ascent was not forced out of the district.
“That's completely within the right of Douglas County to say, we're going to insist to have whatever policy they want,” Lewis said, adding it could be challenged at the state board but neither the district nor Ascent wanted to take on that “legal wrangling.”
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