Centennial

Reports claim missteps before Arapahoe High School shooting

Lack of reporting, 'groupthink' played roles, say researchers

Posted 1/17/16

Three separate and independent reports have concluded there were failures in the Arapahoe High School administration's handling of Karl Pierson in the months and even years before Dec. 13, 2013.

That was the day he walked through a door, which …

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Centennial

Reports claim missteps before Arapahoe High School shooting

Lack of reporting, 'groupthink' played roles, say researchers

Posted

Three separate and independent reports have concluded there were failures in the Arapahoe High School administration's handling of Karl Pierson in the months and even years before Dec. 13, 2013.

That was the day he walked through a door, which the district acknowledges should have been locked, with a gun and fatally wounded fellow student Claire Davis moments before killing himself.

Pierson "was deemed low risk using insufficient data that was gathered." That was just one of the conclusions reached in the 108-page report by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.

The CSPV study was commissioned by Claire Davis' family, and is arguably harsher than the two others prepared at the request of Littleton Public Schools — one by mental-health consultant Dr. Sarah Kanan and one by security consultant Safe Havens. All three reports were released on Jan. 18 after months of arbitration and depositions came to a close.

"In retrospect and with the benefit of a great deal more information than was available at the time, we now understand that some warning signs were missed by those both inside and outside of LPS," writes Superintendent Brian Ewert in a fourth report addressing communication during and after the incident. "We are profoundly sorry that this may have contributed to the loss of two students' lives that day."

The first three reports all agree that procedures were not followed that could have interrupted Pierson's plot, which he had embarked on and began journaling that September. The reports were released 15 months after the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing on the part of Arapahoe High or school district officials.

Communication breakdown cited

Not only was LPS using unverified methods of reporting behavior that should, and did, raise suspicions that things were not well in Pierson's world, the paperwork was not being filled out completely, accurately or meticulously, the reports say. No one person at Arapahoe High knew the entire picture of the oddities that were becoming more common in his behavior, though several students, teachers and counselors knew bits and pieces.

Nobody ever called Safe2Tell, an anonymous reporting resource, nor were the details of Pierson's behavior shared with anyone outside the school or above the level of Principal Natalie Pramenko, whether it be district administrators, the LPS security team or even the school resource officer assigned to the school, Deputy James Englert. Most either went unreported or stopped at the desk of Kevin Kolasa - who is now an assistant principal at Euclid Middle School but at the time was the assistant principal in charge of discipline at Arapahoe - or counselor Esther Song.

Englert did, however, know about a threat Pierson uttered in the school parking lot against librarian and debate coach Tracy Murphy, who had just kicked Pierson off the debate team. Safe Haven's report asks why Englert didn't charge Pierson with menacing at that point, or at least investigate the matter further.

Murphy and at least one other teacher tried to discuss concerns about Pierson with Pramenko, but she referred them back to Kolasa, according to the depositions.

In her deposition, Pramenko said it was part of the school's culture for teachers and administration to not talk.

"There was this wall [between teachers and administrators]. ... I thought that wall just automatically came down when I became the principal, and it didn't," she said. "And I know I still have work to do."

An 'unhealthy' climate

There was little to no follow up on any of at least 30 incidents dating to 2003, when Pierson was in second grade and hit two fellow students with a lunch box "because they weren't moving fast enough." The incidents continued until after he turned 18, bought a gun, showed it to a few friends and then used it on Davis and himself the following week.

CSPV says the lack of focus on Pierson's behavior is a result of "groupthink" that pervades the Arapahoe High hallways.

"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 CSPV report. "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."

Comments made by Tracy Murphy in his deposition reflect an example.

"You know, nobody likes bad news," he said. "We're a school of 2,100 kids, you know, a large suburban high school. ... [W]e have to confront the fact that, you know, not every kid at Arapahoe High School is the cream of the crop. ... [I]t would be healthier at Arapahoe High School to ... admit that, you know, it's not perfect here, that there's always room for improvement, that mistakes are made and that you can learn from those mistakes. And we tell kids all the time that, [but] sometimes I wonder how true it is, it's okay to fail, it's okay to make mistakes, but then we don't let them."

According to CSPV, that statement and other evidence suggests that "AHS's climate was unhealthy."

Learning from the past

That seems to reaffirm one of the major findings of the district's own safety and mental-health committee, launched in 2014 in the wake of the tragedy.

"We believe that LPS and the greater community recognize an emphasis on high achievement and high performance, with the unintended consequences of creating a climate for mental-health issues and pressures on students," it found in a report released in June 2015. "Given that, there need to be supports for students (and, by extension, parents) around coping skills, resiliency and recovery."

All three reports note that many other districts throughout the country have similar shortcomings, and Safe Haven stresses that LPS was better than many even before the shooting. All applaud the district for steps taken since December 2013, like adding school resource officers, security cameras and counselors.

"We are proud of the LPS community, which has emerged from this tragedy stronger than ever," writes Ewert, who took over as superintendent in fall 2015. "LPS will continue to debrief, discuss, learn, and improve in all areas of the organization. LPS appreciates the opportunity to learn from the various reports prepared by experts during this process. After an initial analysis, we are pleased to see that LPS has already implemented many of the recommendations in the reports. All other recommendations will be carefully considered as the district continues to identify ways to implement meaningful and thoughtful improvements for the benefit of all students."

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