The Littleton school board won't seek the firing of Arapahoe High School Principal Natalie Pramenko, but it is interested in taking a deeper dive into concerns spurred by a largely anonymous coalition alleging a toxic culture at the school.
The Littleton Public Schools Board of Education dug into many of the concerns raised by the Arapahoe High School Community Coalition at its May 9 meeting, and ultimately decided to formulate a districtwide community discussion group to provide advice and feedback on unanswered questions and grievances.
The coalition, said to consist of parents, students and teachers frustrated with Arapahoe's administration and culture, made headlines in April by calling for Pramenko's firing.
Jessica Roe, parent of an Arapahoe student who has emerged as a public face of the coalition, said she's been heartened by deeper discussions with the school board, and later said she intends to run for a school board seat this fall.
“The board has generously spent a lot of time with me over the past week, and I've come to the conclusion with their communication after meeting with me that we pretty much have common ground,” Roe said at the meeting. “We all want what's best for the future of Arapahoe High School.”
'An era of violence'
The big picture, board members said, is that Arapahoe may have problems with bullying and mental health issues — but so do many other schools amid disturbing cultural shifts.
Though the district has made strides in recent years, “the LPS system is struggling to keep up with a changing world,” said board member Carrie Warren-Gully.
The coalition approached its concerns in the wrong way by using a questionable survey to try to show dissatisfaction with Pramenko, said board member Robert Reichardt, but he felt there were truths behind their concerns.
“Our community has and continues to experience horrific things,” Reichardt said, referencing a climbing youth suicide rate that has claimed several Arapahoe students in recent years and the 2013 shooting death of Arapahoe student Claire Davis.
“The pain from those events continues to reverberate among all of us,” Reichardt said. “The reality is it's become normal. It's beyond our ability to not normalize it… We will never be able to meet all the mental health needs of our students and our families.”
The discussion took on a new profundity on the heels of the shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch two days earlier, said school board President Jack Reutzel.
“It's horrific that these kids have grown up in an era of violence,” Reutzel said.
Still, Superintendent Brian Ewert said LPS has emerged as a national leader in developing programs to respond to a darker world.
“The work we're doing in LPS to capture marginalized kids is spot on,” Ewert said, citing goals of developing post-secondary plans for every student and a host of social, emotional and behavioral health programs.
Tell me something good
District staff work tirelessly to respond to student crises, said Guy Grace, the district's director of security and emergency planning.
Grace and his staff of 13 security personnel respond to hundreds of calls that come in through the Safe2Tell program each year, he said, crediting the anonymous reporting program with saving many lives.
“We've had kids who have overdosed, who cut themselves — we even had a young person hanging from a rope who we found and cut down, who's alive today,” Grace said. “When we save a life, we're not out there touting it on the news, but those things are happening all the time.”
The job takes its toll — Grace said he was recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his work — but he's grateful to intervene in moments of crisis.
LPS is charting a bold path for mental health outreach, said Nate Thompson, the district's director of social, emotional and behavior services.
Thompson cited a program that raises money to pay for private mental health services for families who can't afford them, and a program that helps families navigate private insurance. The district has also applied input from three reports into Davis' murder, Thompson said.
Intervention programs and mental health outreach might be for naught without an examination of the culture of high achievement, Warren-Gully said.
“We're in a community that has high expectations for (student) achievement based on traditional measures of success,” Warren-Gully said. “How do we start having a conversation with our community about the fact that we're hearing from our students that they're majorly stressed out, they've got way too much homework and way too much expectations (to participate in) extracurriculars?”
Room to grow
Board members also dug into more acute accusations by the coalition: that numerous concerned parents say their phone calls and emails have gone unreturned, and that students, parents and teacher's are afraid to speak up about problems at school for fear of retaliation.
The district does not have a way to track how many complaints have been answered and satisfied, Ewert told the board, and said he wasn't sure what it would take to implement one.
“We'd have to think about that internally,” Ewert said. “How's that increase our workload? Also, for us to take action on a complaint, it needs to have content. It can't just be someone saying they're concerned about the climate at the school.”
State law and district policy protect whistleblowers, said assistant superintendent of human resources Mike Jones, though he said it's impossible to know how many people want to come forward with concerns but don't.
We need to talk
Board members concluded the meeting by pledging to work on creating a community discussion group to further the conversation. The coalition's monthlong campaign has made clear there are parents who have worries and concerns they want to share, Reichardt said, and the district would like to share some items back.
Reichardt would like Roe to be part of the discussion group, he said. The board will begin brainstorming the discussion group in greater detail at a mid-June retreat.
Reutzel praised Pramenko's handling of the high-profile brouhaha.
“I'm impressed by your fortitude and ability to withstand the storm,” Reutzel told Pramenko, who sat in the audience.
Roe said she felt heartened by the board meeting.
“It's going to get better after this conversation,” Roe said. “They gave (our concerns) a thorough vetting. They brought in all the right people. I'm excited to be part of the community conversation.”
Pramenko said she's hopeful too.
“I felt the support of the board and the superintendent,” Pramenko said after the meeting. “I've been saying the whole time: They're focusing on the wrong thing. This isn't about me. We need to all come together and talk about how we can help our kids. This is a much bigger issue than Arapahoe High School. Our teenagers in America are in crisis. Hopefully now we can do the right work and spend energy in the right way. Who knows? Maybe we can be groundbreaking with saving our kids.”
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