Arapahoe High tragedy spurred change, officials and parents say

Five years after shooting, Littleton Public Schools hosts forum that includes parents of Claire Davis


In the five years since shots rang out in the halls of Arapahoe High School, Littleton Public Schools has made strides toward cultivating an environment of health and help, but the road ahead remains long.

For Desiree Davis, addressing the specters of youth suicide and school violence will require a hard look at our culture.

“We're in a culture and environment in America that lends itself to us-and-them thinking,” said Desiree Davis, whose daughter Claire Davis, 17, was shot by a classmate at Arapahoe High School on Dec. 13, 2013. She later died from her wounds.

“Everyone wants their kids to go to school and feel safe,” Davis said during a Dec. 10 roundtable with district officials and reporters. “We want to go to shopping malls and movie theaters. We need to come together as a community and work together. We're hungry for it in America. It's important for young people to see us wanting to work with the school district to create an environment and community and district that has every kid come home in the afternoon.”

District officials at the roundtable cited an abundance of measures undertaken by the district since the shooting to address student mental health. High on the list was Sources of Strength, a wide-ranging, student-led program designed to encourage a culture of wellness and support. Others included Safe2Tell, an anonymous tipster program that allows students and parents to report concerning behavior.

District officials have made hundreds of personalized interventions as a result of Safe2Tell reports, said LPS Superintendent Brian Ewert.

“Every single week we're saving lives,” Ewert said. “We're chasing down kids 24/7 who have done something that concerns their friends — say, posting something on social media.”

But officials also said suicide remains a stubborn and ongoing tragedy for the district and the state. The district has seen several high-profile suicides in recent years, including two within days of each other at Arapahoe High School in October.

“Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people,” said Jim Stephens, a member of the LPS Board of Education. “We need to figure out a way to get attention on that issue and figure out how to reduce that rate.”

Though recent years have seen a surge of focus by schools on mental health, youth suicide rates continue to climb, said Christine Harms, the director of the School Safety Resource Center, part of the state Department of Public Safety.

“Nobody's quite sure why,” Harms said. “But school districts are definitely aware. There's state money for grants, but we don't have enough mental health resources here in Colorado… We're far behind the ratios that are suggested for school counselors, school psychologists, as well as social workers.”

Crafting a comprehensive response to mental health concerns is tricky, Ewert said, because it requires the involvement of staff who may not have a background in it.

“A teacher of biology or algebra, or even a kindergarten teacher, they are now expected to provide diagnosis and intervention on kids with social, emotional and behavioral issues, and that's an incredible challenge,” Ewert said. “We rely on the resources we can bring in, psychologists and social workers, but the more resources we add, they're consumed immediately by need… We need to continue to pour resources in.”

The scope of the issue can seem daunting, said Arapahoe High School Assistant Principal Abby Kuhlmann, who said that recent state-level surveys show roughly a third of high schoolers struggle with depression.

The hope, Kuhlmann said, is that today's youth are far more aware of mental health concerns than prior generations.

“The next generation is dealing with this better than we have,” Kuhlmann said. “They're showing us the way. We have to care for everybody, and we're slowly getting there.”

Part of the response is around changing the narrative about youth mental health issues, said Nate Thompson, the LPS director of social, emotional and behavioral services.

“Most people who are depressed do get better,” Thompson said. “Most people who have mental health challenges get help. There are those who need help, but we haven't spent a ton of time talking about wellness.”

Meanwhile, the district has undertaken security reforms as well, said Arapahoe High School Principal Natalie Pramenko.

“We have a much more defined threat assessment process in place,” Pramenko said. A sheriff's office investigation into the shooting was critical of Arapahoe administration officials for what it called an inadequate response to threats by the gunman in 2013.

“It wasn't a well-developed process (in 2013),” Pramenko said.

All teachers can now access all students' discipline records, Pramenko said, and the school has added several security staff. Exterior doors that were unlocked in 2013 are now locked, she said.

Desiree Davis said she's been heartened by the district's response and growth around mental health and security.

“Seeing through the failures, there were solutions,” Davis said. “That's what we've done in the last five years. Kids and their parents needed to see that bad things happen and mistakes happen, but to move forward as a community it's so important for them to see the worst thing and something positive come from it. The next generation of Americans doesn't want to live in a community that's violent. It's all of our charge to change that direction.”

Claire Davis, Arapahoe High School, Centennial Colorado, Arapahoe school shooting, Littleton Public Schools


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