School safety: It takes a team
Mental health training, threat assessments key, say former counselor, district officials
News of the Dec. 13 Arapahoe High School shooting hit former Rock Canyon High School guidance counselor Susan Young hard.
“The second I heard it, I just sat down in my living room and started crying,” she said.
Young didn’t know Highlands Ranch resident and shooter Karl Pierson or his victim, Claire Davis. But as a 15-year high school guidance counselor, she knows the pressures unique to teens, and the counselors who serve them.
“Every one of us has had students we worked with that have taken their lives,” said Young, who retired last year and now runs an independent counseling business. “It’s devastating when that happens.”
Young is equally certain the team at Rock Canyon prevented tragedies.
Post-Columbine, the Douglas County School District developed “an extensive protocol” for threat assessments that included counselors, social workers, psychologists, security staff and teachers, among others, she said. No red flag was ignored.
“Even if a kid made a comment, ‘I just wish I wasn’t alive’, boom, we did a suicide assessment,” Young said. “We’d cancel our appointments for the day. We didn’t ignore anything.”
At about 900-to-1, DCSD’s ratio of students to counselors is well outside the 250-to-1 level recommended by the American School Counselor Association. But that figure doesn’t include other mental health workers employed by the school district. Adding psychologists and social workers to the total halves that ratio to 452-to-1.
DCSD’s current plans call for new training, but not adding staff.
In March, campus security will be the first district staff members to undergo training in “Mental Health First Aid,” a program offered through the Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network that shows how to spot a developing emotional or mental health crisis and steps to take until help arrives or the crisis passes.
“What we really want to do is build a community of safety,” said Colette Hohnbaum, student wellness program manager. “It takes that concerted effort.”
DCSD prides itself on its safety protocols, particularly a $674,000 school marshal program introduced at the start of the school year it says is unique in the country.
“From our board of education, superintendent and on down, we’ve identified safety as our number one priority in the school district moving forward,” said DCSD special education director Jason Germain, adding that includes both physical and psychological safety.
Its efforts include cross-agency relationships to more quickly identify troubled students, text-a-tip and other student programs designed to encourage peer support and reporting, anti-bullying, suicide prevention and constant teacher and staff training. Its efforts extend well beyond school walls and throughout Douglas County.
“If the entire community works together, that’s how we keep our kids safe,” Hohnbaum said.
Counselors, whose job duties are myriad, need all the help they can get.
Young was responsible on average for about 400 high school students each year. A third of her time was devoted to a child’s social/emotional needs, another third to academic concerns and another to career counseling. Counselors also are sometimes asked to supervise the lunch room, and proctor tests — taking more time away from their primary duties.
It was much more than a 40-hour-a-week job.
“You never felt you could do what you needed to do working individually with students and meeting the needs of parents,” Young said. “I looked for those kids who were struggling. But it was hard.”
Parent Laura Mutton, president of a community group called Strong Schools Coalition, wishes more emphasis were placed on mental health.
“We’re spending $675,000 a year to have policemen walk around our elementary schools,” she said. “As a parent, I don’t feel my child’s any safer because of this. I question that priority over mental health.
“I’m afraid these services are cut so far back it’s hard for them to identify kids in a timely manner,” said Mutton, whose son knew Robert Klamo, the Mountain Vista High School student who killed his mother and then himself in their Highlands Ranch home Jan. 31. “How can we help them ahead of time so they don’t get to the point where they’re falling apart?”
Young knows she and her fellow counselors provided a critical service.
“I’ve had kids come back and tell me, `I really was going to kill myself, but you were there and you talked to me’,” she said.
For her, the job is an ongoing effort to pay it forward.
“I had a counselor that really helped me when I was in high school,” Young said. “If it hadn’t been for those significant people in my school, I don’t know where I’d be.”