Desiree Davis sat stoically as the state school-safety committee she helped create, and of which she is a member, listened to painful facts revealed by three separate studies into what led to the death of her daughter, Claire.
But stress was …
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But stress was evident and heartbreaking in the voice of Claire's father, Michael Davis, as he addressed the committee at the state Capitol in Denver on Jan. 22.
“This process is no longer about our precious daughter Claire, who we will miss until the end of our days, nor is it about Karl Pierson, a teenager in crisis who we believe would have made very different choices if a helping hand had reached out from a system designed to not miss the opportunities to help him,” he said. “This process is now about the next student in crisis who is on the brink of hurting themselves or others. It's about implementing meaningful changes that will help identify those kids early and intervene with positive support to prevent the next tragedy.”
The reports, released on Jan. 18, are the outcome of arbitration between the Davis family and Littleton Public Schools. In exchange for the proceedings, the family agreed not to sue the district over the shooting death of their daughter at Arapahoe High School on Dec. 13, 2013.
“There was not one individual cataclysmic mistake by LPS,” said Michael Roche, the Davis family's friend and attorney. “Rather, there was a steady stream of small failures that led inevitably to a catastrophic result. These were not just individual mistakes. I wish it was that simple. Because if that were the problem, it would be easier to solve. Getting rid of a few bad apples is much simpler than changing an institutional mindset.”
But, according to the researchers that undertook the studies, changing the institutional mindset is exactly what needs to happen.
“The evidence of faulty systems thinking within AHS and LPS included a tendency for groupthink, a reluctance to reflect on and admit failure, and the minimization of sincere concern,” reads the report by the University of Colorado Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. “These findings represent the most challenging and the most important of the problems to solve, because information sharing and threat assessment cannot overcome an unhealthy organizational system.”
All three reports had findings consistent with each other. The Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing on the part of Arapahoe High or school district officials, but Superintendent Brian Ewert and the researchers acknowledge there were definite missteps.
Generally speaking, the major flaws came in the areas of unreliable reporting on, and follow-up, of behaviors throughout shooter Karl Pierson's years in LPS, a lack of sharing of information among people who could do something about it, and the school culture of “groupthink.”
State Sen. Linda Newell, who represents the district that includes LPS and had two daughters graduate from district schools, asked what the specific indicators of groupthink are. Sarah Goodrum of the University of Colorado Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence said there are two major ones at Arapahoe High.
“First, the school culture doesn't allow much room for failure,” she said, noting a strong “we” culture that emphasizes “Warrior Strong” over uniqueness and is not healthy.
Second is a reluctance to allow for open dialogue about concerns, she said.
“The teachers were not heard, and in some cases, teachers felt they could not even voice their concerns. … When there's a great deal of agreement, it's an indication something's wrong.”
Newell also asked whether the district is on track with how it deals with mental health issues, having spent more than $800,000 last year for an in-house counseling center.
“We've seen some positive things,” said Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit security group that conducted one of the studies. “We're a little concerned about sustainability.”
Dorn added, and the other studies agreed, that the district should have more control over discipline matters rather than letting all such decisions be made at the building level. After the shooting, LPS did create a district-level team that reviews all incident reports weekly, and Dorn said that's a plus.
State Rep. Jim Wilson asked whether schools should consider metal detectors or armed guards. The experts didn't necessarily support either option.
“When you are going to do it right and support it, it's very effective,” said Dorn of metal detection, adding it costs about $1 million a year per building. “It's not something we would recommend. There are other approaches.”
John Nicoletti, who specializes in police and public safety psychology, said having police on site is preferable to armed guards.
“But it's not a typical recommendation for us,” said Nicoletti, who helped write one of the reports. “There's not an easy answer to your question. We're very situation specific.”
Committee member Linda Weinerman, a juvenile justice advocate, asked the question that perhaps has been on the top of the minds of many in the community: How can you tell when a student poses a serious threat?
“We're talking about kids,” she said. “Kids often do knucklehead, silly things.”
Dorn noted that there are answers to that in all three reports, but thorough threat assessment based on proven techniques is key.
“Maybe you determine they're not a threat, but they do require some sort of assistance,” he said.
Nicoletti noted his firm, after the fact, rated Pierson a risk on many levels, but Arapahoe High had rated him as a low threat.
“What we saw was a breakdown in the detectors,” he said.
State Sen. Mark Scheffel, committee chair, thanked the researchers for their hard work on the reports, and said it would now be important to figure out how to get their recommendations in place.
“Waiting for them gave us hope, but having them gives us power,” he said.
To read the reports, depositions and discovery materials, go to safecoloradoschools.com
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