Group calls for firing of Arapahoe High principal, but district officials offer support for Pramenko

'We don't dismiss people based on an anonymous community survey,' superintendent says

Arapahoe High School at East Dry Creek Road and South University Boulevard in Centennial.
Arapahoe High School at East Dry Creek Road and South University Boulevard in Centennial.
File photo
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An anonymous group is calling for the firing of Arapahoe High School Principal Natalie Pramenko amid what it calls a destructive culture at the school.

Calling itself the Arapahoe High School Community Coalition, or AHSCC, the group comprises roughly two dozen students, parents, teachers and alumni of the school, according to its attorney, Jessica Peck.

The group says that Arapahoe's culture has deteriorated in the years since the 2013 shooting death of senior Claire Davis at the hands of a classmate, Peck said, citing several student suicides, the recent high-profile arrests of two teachers accused of sexually assaulting students, and what it calls substance abuse problems and bullying at the school.

The group plans to present the results of a “community stakeholder” survey distributed via social media at the April 25 Littleton Public Schools Board of Education meeting, as part of what Peck says will be an ongoing effort to oust Pramenko and launch an investigation into the school's culture.

Peck called the group's efforts “the end of a multi-year effort to collaborate and work with the district amicably.”

Peck said the group believes Pramenko's leadership has fallen short.

“She's got a very tough job, and we need somebody at the helm of this school who's up to the job,” Peck said. “There comes a point in every organization where it's appropriate to contemplate whether it's time to turn the page and get fresh leadership.”

Pramenko replied to the group's efforts in a letter sent to parents on April 5, touting the school's and district's reform efforts following the 2013 shooting, as well as efforts to address issues surrounding mental health, drug abuse and sexual misconduct.

“I want to be very clear that I too share these serious concerns,” Pramenko's letter read in part. “Moving forward, I will be doing more to tackle these tough issues to strengthen our community. A task force that includes students, parents, faculty, staff members, and community members will be established to dive more deeply into issues of mental health, suicide, social media, substance abuse, and school culture.”

In a later phone interview with Colorado Community Media, Pramenko called the group's push disheartening.

“There's a lot to be proud of at Arapahoe,” Pramenko, who became principal of the school in 2012, said. “I'm tired of people dragging our school through the mud. We've been through hard times and made significant improvements, and I feel like whoever's doing this is dragging us backwards.”

No members of the group have agreed to go on the record with Colorado Community Media about the claims, citing fear of community backlash and retribution from district officials.

Littleton Public Schools Superintendent Brian Ewert said he is “not dissatisfied” with Pramenko's job performance, and called Arapahoe “one of the state's premier high schools.”

“Arapahoe is a great school,” Ewert said. “It's emotionally supportive. All of our schools are under-resourced, and Natalie is the right person to lead the school at this time. We don't dismiss people based on an anonymous community survey.”

LPS Board of Education President Jack Reutzel called the group's efforts — particularly the online survey — misguided.

“We take constructive criticisms to heart,” Reutzel said. “It's not that we're upset about the survey, because I haven't seen the results. But the idea that we're being asked to go outside a procedure that works well to make changes based upon social media is something we don't agree with. It's not what we do.”

Peck said Ewert and Reutzel are misreading their approach, and that the group didn't decide to call for Pramenko's firing until after the principal sent the letter home. 

"The request for (Pramenko's) resignation is not dependent upon the results of the survey," Peck said by email. "This coalition is calling for resignation based on past events, and then as a progressive step toward facilitating inclusive change, the group is soliciting the input of those otherwise excluded or marginalized under the current administration. We have no expectation that the district would remove a principal based on some online push poll. Just the opposite: we want the district to make an educated, fact-based assessment and the results of this survey will help them do this in a more efficient, respectful, comprehensive manner."

Ewert said the district does plenty of internal data gathering to measure staff performance, and Pramenko and Arapahoe measure up well.

Reutzel praised Pramenko's job performance.

“I think she's been sincere, honest and forthright,” Reutzel said. “When the kids suffer, she suffers. When the kids are happy, she's happy. The amount of support she's received has been overwhelming. She's been nothing but really appropriate.”

Peck, the group's attorney, says Pramenko and the district have failed to properly address issues raised by a 2016 report on the shooting prepared by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. The report criticized the school and the district for what it called failures of interdepartmental and interagency information sharing, "groupthink," threat assessment and access to mental health resources.

“After four or five years of saying `trust us, trust us,' and three years since the report chronicling the failures of this school that led up to Claire Davis's death, we see that those problems exist but are exacerbated and getting worse.”

Reutzel pushed back against the group's assertions, saying the district may not be perfect, but has made strides since 2013. Reutzel cited Sources of Strength, a nationwide suicide prevention program enacted at LPS in recent years, and a slate of security and threat assessment reforms, including better training and use of Safe2Tell, an anonymous reporting system.

“We've implemented a majority of the findings” from the 2016 report, Reutzel said. “Would we love to do more? Absolutely. We've done what our dollars allow us to do.”

The group alleges that eight Arapahoe High School students have died by suicide since Davis's murder. An LPS spokesperson said the number is six, compared to one student suicide in the same time period at Heritage High School and none at Littleton High.

Ewert called the relatively higher number of suicides at Arapahoe an anomaly.

“I'm as frightened around student suicide as any parent,” Ewert said. “I don't have answers to the epidemic of teen suicide. No one does. But we catch kids who have suicidal ideation all the time through Safe2Tell.”

The group's accusations are frustrating to Tamara Highsmith, who has two children enrolled at Arapahoe and whose eldest daughter was a student during the 2013 shooting.

Highsmith said her children have encountered “nothing but support, kindness and encouragement” from Arapahoe faculty and administrators.

Highsmith's middle daughter has experienced mental health issues and suicidal ideation, Highsmith said, adding she's pleased with the school's response.

“The school counseling department has gone above and beyond to connect us with doctors, helped us get an (Individualized Education Plan), and all sorts of things I would not have known how to navigate on my own. As long as the parent is willing to engage, the school is more than willing to reach out.”

Peck said coming weeks will flesh out the group's concerns in greater detail, as they plan to go public with the results of the survey. The survey had received more than 1,000 responses as of April 9, Peck said.

“I can tell you, though, that regardless of what this survey says, the leaders of this coalition will have the same view: we've got to have leadership change,” Peck said. “We're just in the early stages here.”

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