Arapahoe High School Reports Offer Many Lessons For Colorado Schools

Listen Now
Photo: Arapahoe High School students in Jan. 2014 (AP Photo)
Arapahoe High School students walk together in January 2014, during a lunch break on the first day of classes since a fatal Dec. 13 shooting on campus, in Centennial, Colo.

Three independent reports released this month conclude that a lot more could have been done to prevent the 2013 shooting at Arapahoe High School that killed two students.

Among the findings: Staff at schools across the state are overly cautious with sharing information about students because they don't understand privacy laws. School culture and a desire among officials to appear strong can inhibit open conversation among students and teachers about problems they are facing. And Colorado's status as a local-control state makes it difficult to know how widespread such issues are.

Read the reports:

The reports were commissioned after Claire Davis, 17, was shot by classmate Karl Pierson, who then shot himself. Davis’ parents were frustrated they couldn’t get information from the district about what happened at the school prior to shooting. At the suggestion of the county sheriff, they met with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence to see if there was a way to extract lessons learned from their daughter’s death.

The family eventually entered into an arbitration agreement with Littleton Public Schools. It meant full public disclosure -- in the form of the three reports -- of the events that led to the shooting. In exchange, the family wouldn't sue the district. The Davis family said it was their "gift" to the state so that others could learn from the tragedy.

The Davis family was also the driving force behind legislation that passed a year later - Senate Bill 213, also known as the "Claire Davis Public Safety Act." Starting in 2017, victims of school violence can sue a school or district if they feel the school didn’t demonstrate “reasonable” care in protecting students and staff from “reasonably foreseeable acts of violence.”Photo: Michael and Desiree Davis (AP Photo)

A companion bill also set up a legislative committee to study how to help students in crisis and make schools safer, and to define what steps a school must take to show “reasonable care.”

The three studies released this month are what’s expected to inform that definition of “reasonable care." Claire’s father Michael Davis told lawmakers his family wants to make sure schools don’t miss the opportunities that were missed at Arapahoe.

"This process is no longer about our precious daughter Claire, nor is it about Karl Pierson, who was a teenager in crisis who we believe would have made very different choices if a helping hand had reached out from a system that was designed to not miss the opportunities to help him," Michael Davis said. "This process is now about the next student in crisis who is on the brink of hurting themselves or others."

Systemic Problems

The shooter had let loose a series of escalating outbursts in his classes -- and many other warning signs, the reports said. But no one person knew about all of them.

"One individual knew this person was engaging in this concerning behavior, another individual knew he was buying guns, another individual knew he made threats – none of these folks talked to each other so it seemed like a series of isolated incidents," said John Nicoletti, a national expert on violence risk assessment and a co-author of one of the reports. "All you got to do is develop a vortex – and individual or a team – where all data flows into and then they see the whole picture."

The reports found that people within the district didn’t understand a federal student privacy law called FERPA and were overly cautious about sharing information.

"It got to the point that even though there was a student of concern who had all these problems, people felt like they couldn’t share that information with each other," said Bill Woodward of the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. "And then sometimes when they asked, ‘Well, why can’t I share that information?’ somebody said ‘FERPA.’ "

But the federal law applies only to educational records being shared outside the school – it doesn’t apply to behavioral concerns about a student within the school. This isn’t just a challenge at the Arapahoe High School. Experts said there is widespread misunderstanding about FERPA among educators across Colorado and nationwide, and it gets in the way of a team approach, with one person monitoring the flow of information on each student, so patterns are noticed.

The school district’s threat assessment for spotting a troubled teen was complex, confusing and essentially ineffectual, the reports said. Training was spotty. Many mistakes were made -- so the shooter was placed at low-risk. Nobody was monitoring his behavior and he wasn’t given support services.

Also, because Colorado is a local-control state where individual districts oversee curriculum and behavior at schools, it's hard to tell how widespread problems like this are. However, there is evidence that many school districts are doing threat assessments well.

Colorado is ahead of the curve on them because of Columbine, said Christine Harms with Colorado School Safety Resource Center. She also sits on the committee advising the legislature on this issue.

"When we have school districts that are doing hundreds of threat assessments every year and not having an incident, I think that there’s some important working going on here," said Harms. "Many of our large schools have been doing threat assessments for years now and very successfully. I think schools are trying their hardest to make sure that they have things in place."

Denver Public Schools performed 224 threat assessments last year; Aurora 130; Jefferson County 283 (with an additional 864 suicide assessments) and Douglas County 206. But the state doesn't really know whether these assessments are evidence based. All three studies recommend auditing schools to check on that. But audits are not cheap - $2,000 per school is one estimate from a non-profit, Safe Havens International. Rural districts in particular struggle with the costs of doing threat assessments.

The Role Of Students

Research shows that in at least 80 percent of these cases of violence, a student has leaked information about what they were planning to at least one person. In 50 percent of cases, they’ve leaked it to two or more people.

But getting students to report what they’ve heard can be a challenge. Colorado has had website and hotline called Safe2Tell. It’s an anonymous way to report tips about bullying, suicide intervention, assaults, or guns or other weapons at schools. Each year it grows in usage. In the 2014-2015 school year in Colorado there were 3,467 tips. But even though Arapahoe High students had heard threats and knew the shooter had guns, he wasn't reported.

University of Northern Colorado criminal justice professor Sarah Goodrum, co-author of one of the three studies, offered one explanation for that: At the time of the shooting, the school and the district did not have a policy on formally training students or staff in Safe2Tell.

At a recent press conference, new Littleton District Superintendent Brian Ewert mentioned that school staff tells kids about the program at assemblies and have posters on school walls. But all three studies said that for Safe2Tell to be really effective, there should be formal training in small groups.

"What we saw was a breakdown in the detectors," said John Nicoletti, a co-author of one of the three studies. The “detectors” he’s referring to are the students, teachers and bus drivers – the people who hear threats.

"Kids don’t know what to report. If they’re not trained, how do they know, ‘hey this is something I should report.’ Some of the teachers don’t know what to report," Nicoletti said. "Another very concerning thing we saw is teachers, adults, engaging in unilateral risk assessment. They saw certain behaviors by [Karl Pierson] that we saw as very concerning and they said, ‘Ah boys will be boys. No need to report that.'"

All the reports say teachers and students need more training in how to properly assess troubling behavior or threats.

School Culture

Experts say alongside having systems in place to train teachers and students in assessing threats, the school’s “culture” plays a big role in how much violence there is at a school. How teachers interact with each other and with students and how administrators interact with teachers and other employees says a lot about school culture. University of Northern Colorado’s Goodrum said researchers found evidence of “group think” at Arapahoe High School.

"The school culture did not appear to allow much room for failure and it tended to discourage questioning, and criticism and reflection," she said.

Goodrum said there’s some research that shows schools that emphasize “warrior strong” or that continually talk about how great the school is can inhibit reflection. Such schools can also be reluctant to allow open dialogue about concerns.

"When teachers disagreed with an approach to a student’s concerning behaviors ... some of deposition testimony revealed that not only were teachers not heard when they wanted to express that concern, but in some cases, teachers felt they could not even voice that concern," Goodrum said.

Teachers at other schools, speaking anonymously, say administrators don't take a student’s behavior seriously. In one major district, teachers speak about pressure to get numbers of office referrals down, pressure on teachers to not report disruptive behavior. There can be a clash between the transparency needed to keep a school safe, and a district or school’s desire to maintain an image that all is well.

The reports said a culture of openness and critical self-evaluation is key. They recommended school climate surveys. Many schools in Colorado do them, but again, there is no central record of how many precisely or their quality.

How To Help Troubled Students

The reports discuss the critical need for mental health treatment, and follow-up and monitoring of students in crisis. But many experts say the biggest deficiency they see in Colorado schools is a lack of money for mental health support. Schools don't have enough social workers, psychologists and counselors.

The national recommendation is one school social worker for every 273 students. In Colorado, there is one for every 2,738 students. As for school psychologists, nurses and counselors, Colorado is also well below recommendations.

Littleton Public Schools increased the budget for mental health specialists, but Superintendent Brian Ewer is doubtful that can be sustained. In metro Denver, larger schools may have dozens of incidents a day – fighting, self-harm, defiant behavior – and there is maybe one school psychologist and social worker who already have massive caseloads to deal with all those issues. And rural school districts are really struggling, too.

"I can think of one school district that has a school psychologist one day a week and has one school counselor at the high school, and that’s it for their mental health services," said Christine Harms from the Colorado School Safety Resource Center.

That raises the question: when schools can be held liable for school violence starting next year, can it really be held accountable if it is severely lacking in mental health resources? That’s something Harms thinks about.

"I think it’s going to be difficult for our small schools to have resources to meet the requirements of Senate Bill 213," she said.

Lawmakers React

Lawmakers call the reports a “must read” for any school administrator. In fact, the Littleton superintendent emailed Colorado’s 178 superintendents the report in the hopes that some may realize that such incidents could happen at their school.

Senate President Bill Cadman sits on the School Safety Committee. At the end of Friday’s four-hour hearing on the three Arapahoe shooting reports, he said parents aren’t built to attend the funerals of their children.Photo: Arapahoe High School shooting report hearing (Staff)

"For all of the parents and teachers and staff of the more than 800,000 kids, this is a call for action," Cadman said. "Few issues in 16 years here have risen to this level -- frankly maybe one other issue. It has to remain in the top of our priorities."

So lawmakers seem motivated to sponsor legislation – perhaps pass more mandates for schools. But if it’s not backed up with resources, some fear it won’t mean much.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Sarah Goodrum's affiliation. She's an associate professor at the University of Northern Colorado.