Schools, parents share burden of student mental health, officials say

Broadening definitions of success could help kids, superintendent says

David Gilbert
dgilbert@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/2/20

Littleton Public Schools officials say the district is putting serious effort into addressing students' mental health challenges, but they can't do it alone. “We're investing in the safety and …

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Schools, parents share burden of student mental health, officials say

Broadening definitions of success could help kids, superintendent says

Posted

Littleton Public Schools officials say the district is putting serious effort into addressing students' mental health challenges, but they can't do it alone.

“We're investing in the safety and mental health of our children, and inviting people to help us,” said school board member Robert Reichardt at a town hall-style community forum on Feb. 26. “We're facing a crisis around adolescent mental health that's nationwide. If we knew the answer, we'd do it. We're on this journey of trying to figure out how to respond to these big challenges.”

The meeting was the final of four held in January and February to discuss climate and culture in the district, spurred by a largely anonymous coalition, said to consist of parents, teachers and students, that alleged a toxic culture at Arapahoe High School and lackluster district response last spring.

The district is undertaking a wide array of efforts toward studying and addressing student mental health, school board members said, including an ongoing study by Dr. Anna Mueller of Indiana University into youth suicide at LPS. Board members also touted efforts to break down information silos around student behavioral health incidents, and a program that helps parents find and even pay for mental health care providers.

Several parents at the meeting praised the district's efforts.

“The team at LPS has been dedicated to communicating with us and with my kids,” said Chelsea Marx, who said her sixth-grader is on the autism spectrum and her third-grader has been diagnosed with ADHD.

“I hear stories from parents in other districts, and I realize we're really fortunate,” Marx said.

Still, some parents said the district could do more. In anonymous messages written by parents during the meeting, some said they found teachers and counselors overburdened, overwhelmed or inadequately trained to address their children's needs.

Asked whose voices aren't heard often enough in the district, parent Kris Carafelli said: her own.

“I want to say that there's a lot of trauma in this community,” said Carafelli, who said she happened to be across the street from Arapahoe High School in 2013 the day student Claire Davis was murdered by another student.

“When I send my kids to school, I tell them I love them, and I hope I see them again,” said Carafelli, adding she vividly recalls the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. “I feel the district is doing good, innovative work, but there's a lot of pain and fear out there.”

Carafelli said her fellow parents sometimes also shut out her voice.

“There's such pressure to be the perfect mom,” she said. “I feel like parents have to pretend there's nothing wrong in their lives. I don't fit in.”

Arapahoe High School was a common topic at the meeting, with parents asking about the school board's response to scandals that have rocked the community, including Davis' murder, two teachers who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing students and a number of student suicides that eclipses the district's other two traditional high schools.

School board President Jack Reutzel said the district did all it could to vet Ian Ahern and Sarah Porter, the two teachers who abused students.

“All we can do is rely on what someone's reported before,” Reutzel said. “The idea that we're prescient enough to looking into someone and see that in them, that's too high of a standard.”

Superintendent Brian Ewert said he commissioned an internal investigation into Porter and Ahern's vetting and found no red flags.

As far as Arapahoe's higher level of troubling incidents, Reichardt, the school board member, said Arapahoe really is different.

“It's an achievement-oriented place,” Reichardt said. “That's reflected in parents, alumni and teachers. That's not great for all kids. There are children at Arapahoe where it's not the right place for them to be. But I don't think the administration or the board are the right people to go to individual parents and say this is not the best fit for your kid.”

Ewert said Arapahoe administration and the district in general are becoming more open to alternate definitions of achievement.

“There's no evidence to suggest that a 4.0 GPA — or a 4.5, which some of our kids are striving for — makes any difference later in life,” Ewert said. “Kids who are well-rounded and try their best, that matters more than a 4.0.”

Reutzel said the schools can't solve all mental health problems, nor should they be expected to.

“The job of parents is to support the district in educating your children,” Reutzel said. “The job of the school district is to support parents with kids' mental health. We don't have all the resources we need, but we're there to help kids. In my opinion, mental health begins at home.”

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