Arapahoe High tragedy: Five years later

Programs, community involvement help LPS become safer, better

Guest column by Brian Ewert, LPS superintendent
Posted 12/12/18

Colorado Community Media Editor Chris Rotar asked me to write a guest column looking back five years to the tragic events of Dec. 13, 2013. On that day, Arapahoe High School student Claire Davis was …

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Arapahoe High tragedy: Five years later

Programs, community involvement help LPS become safer, better

Posted

Colorado Community Media Editor Chris Rotar asked me to write a guest column looking back five years to the tragic events of Dec. 13, 2013. On that day, Arapahoe High School student Claire Davis was murdered by a fellow student at school, who then took his own life.

What have we learned? What’s different today? We’ve learned a great deal. We know it’s about Dec. 13, 2013 and every tragedy our community has faced including and since that day. Every student life lost through violence or suicide is devastating.

We are always looking for ways to improve safety and security in our schools. The fact that we have been ranked in the top 20 nationally by industry-leading Security Magazine since 2011 and now sit at No. 4 on that same list nationally tells us that our work has made a difference. It’s an ongoing effort that must evolve with the changes that occur in our community and in the world.

Physical safety alone is not enough. We’ve learned that what’s most important is the human touch — the compassion and understanding for one another as well as continuous vigilance — that truly has the biggest impact on keeping students safe. We increased the number of adults in our schools that can intervene when students are struggling. The LPS Board of Education devoted nearly $1 million to provide more mental health experts in our schools. In 2013, LPS had 59 counselors, psychologists and social workers in our schools; today there are 88. We need more.

A number of age-appropriate mental health programs are now in place in all of our schools. For example, our high schools and middle schools recently implemented Sources of Strength, which is designed to harness the power of peer social networks to change unhealthy norms and culture, with the goal of preventing suicide, bullying and substance abuse. The program is relatively new to LPS and time will tell if the impact is significant. Teen Sources of Strength leaders from several of our schools shared their personal stories of struggle and recovery at a Sources of Strength event earlier this fall; the power of this program to them personally was undeniable. The LPS Foundation has even created a special program to pay for mental health treatment for any student or family who has a need.

Our teens are also leading schoolwide efforts to develop resiliency and help their classmates make connections with at least one trusted adult at their school. Students now have additional tools and training to help enable them to know how and when to tell an adult if they are worried about a friend or classmate. LPS receives tips through Safe 2 Tell every week, and our highly skilled team of district security, mental health professionals and law enforcement experts respond immediately to each and every one. Safe 2 Tell has alerted LPS first responders to 49 suicide threats since July 1 of this year. There is no question that lives have been saved.

We’ve learned that there is so much more to do. The stress our teens feel in today’s culture is increasing, and we as a society are not solving the problems.

Many teens struggle with feelings of isolation and loneliness. These feelings are intensified when social media posts only reinforce “perfection” and a false sense of community. Often, the lives teens portray on social media are in reality completely devoid of the face-to-face and physical interactions that are a basic human need. Social media never stops, and so the pressure to be perfect and be included, the feelings of loneliness, and the bullying that also occurs, never stop. Social media might begin as benign, but it also can quickly become a real source of pain and stress and something that adults cannot truly understand.

The cultural pressure to achieve an unrealistic level of “success” in school, sports, college entrance exams and getting into “the right colleges” is felt by many of our students. Some students turn to drugs and alcohol and engage in other harmful behaviors as a way to cope. As a district known not only for academic success but also for extracurricular achievements, we are aware of our role in helping our students to strike a balance. We as a district believe that success is about far more than grades and accolades. We want our students to grow into happy, healthy and well-adjusted young adults.

We’ve learned that when tragedy occurs, it is natural to want to place blame. The truth is schools are a reflection of the communities they serve. We continue to engage national experts and researchers to help us understand and explore possible solutions. We learn from other communities who have lost children due to school violence and suicide. We also share what we’ve learned with other communities that have suffered similar tragedies. We can all agree that our students deserve our very best. While there is much to celebrate in the progress we’ve made, there is much more work to do.

We see hope and promise that if the community as a whole continues to work together, we will continue to improve, to better recognize the warning signs, make it more culturally acceptable to ask for help and have the appropriate help available quickly. As a result, our schools will be safer and our students will be healthier and happier.

We don’t have all the answers. But, we will never stop working to improve. Our students need all of us in this together now more than ever.

Brian Ewert is the superintendent of Littleton Public Schools.

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