A farewell to Grace: Littleton schools security director rides off into the sunset

Guy Grace looks back on decades of lives saved, trauma endured

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Guy Grace is trying to get used to waking up to silence.

For years, Grace, the longtime director of security for Littleton Public Schools, personally responded to every “Safe2Tell” alert the district received. Many times, it was a late-night call about a student in crisis, on the verge of suicide or overdose.

“We were saving lives,” Grace said. “But it destroyed my sleep. Three nights a week, I was lucky to sleep an hour.”

Grace, 53, quietly retired from LPS over the summer, after more than 30 years on the job. In early August, he awoke for the first time in his new home, on eight acres outside Green River, Wyoming.

“I wasn't unhappy with my job,” Grace said. “I realized time was fleeting. My wife and I are getting older. I'm watching my kids grow up. We've always dreamed of going somewhere more rural, and if I didn't do it now, I'm not sure I ever would.”

Green River, less than a six-hour drive from Littleton, is a world away. An old railroad town of around 12,000 people, it sits in the desert of southwest Wyoming, one of the last true vestiges of the Wild West. Grace said he's looking forward to taking his kids, 10 and 13, on adventures.

But, as he sat in the dining room of his new home, surrounded by moving boxes, Grace said it was going to take some adjusting.

“It's tough,” he said. “For years I've woken up with a mission. That's gone now. It's hard not to feel like I'm not doing my part. I'm trying to distract myself.”

Grace's contributions to school security are legendary, earning him a slew of national awards and a write-up in Popular Mechanics. He remains the chairman of the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools, and measures he developed have been emulated in districts nationwide.

Vandals and thieves

When he started on the district security team in 1989, as a 22-year-old not long out of the Army, school security was more about catching vandals and thieves than preventing suicides and shootings.

Still, Grace took his job seriously from the start.

“We used to have burglaries in the schools every other week,” he said. “I emphasized patrols and mandatory responses to all alarms. As a young man, my Friday night was waiting to see who would break into a school.”

The approach worked — vandalism and burglaries plummeted, and district officials took notice.

Then, in 1999, everything changed.

End of the 'innocent times'

In the aftermath of the Columbine High School shooting, in which two students killed 12 classmates, a teacher and themselves in the nearby Jefferson County school district, suddenly school security rocketed to the top of districts' priority lists nationwide.

A month later, Grace found himself promoted to head of Littleton's security department.

In the years that followed, he kept LPS at the forefront of the movement to reshape school security, guiding Littleton through a series of firsts: the first district in the state to integrate its radio network with those of first responders, to attend federal emergency training, and to develop an incident command structure.

“We were exploring everything possible, to give the community the satisfaction that the district was taking things seriously,” he said. “We weren't resting on our laurels. We never have.”

Meanwhile, Grace and his team began hardening schools: cameras, access control, fewer entrances.

“Back in the 1990s, you could walk up to any elementary school and find almost any door unlocked,” he said. “It's sad to look back on. Those were the final students who went to school in the innocent times.”

Security enhancements are a difficult and delicate line to walk, Grace said. 

"Whatever you do, the end goal is to enhance the ability of teachers to teach without fear," Grace said. "For the community to be productive without worrying about their loved ones in school. But if you go overboard, you create a fear mindset. Schools can't feel like prisons."

The post-Columbine pendulum swing ushered in heavy-handed attitudes. Across the country, school districts implemented “zero tolerance” behavior policies, and students who got in fistfights often found themselves in front of judges.

“Sometimes, involving the criminal justice system is necessary, but I greatly prefer restorative justice principles,” Grace said. “Nobody wants to see a school-to-prison pipeline. Zero tolerance policies have fallen by the wayside, and that's absolutely for the best.”

Grace pushed back against the idea of arming teachers as a method to address school shootings.

"I'm pro-second amendment, but arming teachers doesn't solve anything," he said. "Shooters don't care if someone at school has a gun. They're homicidal and suicidal. Then, say a teacher pulls a firearm out, it's still a nightmare for everyone involved. Pre-emption is so, so much more valuable."

Troubling trends

As the 21st century matured, more tragedies would follow. Troubling trends began to emerge in youth mental health — increasing rates of anxiety, depression and suicide.

Grace said student suicides weren't unheard of in decades past, but theorized the digital revolution, and the explosion of social media, has upended how young people interact and view themselves in distressing ways.

“How I'm supposed to look. How I'm supposed to act. What's expected of me in terms of popularity. It's a terribly skewed impression of reality,” he said.

School shootings increased as well. Schools began paying attention to student mental health to greater degrees, and the field began to meld with school security.

In the early 2010s, Littleton onboarded Safe2Tell, an anonymous reporting system that allows students or families to report concerns or threats.

Calls numbered in the dozens in the program's first years. Still, Grace's job began to involve a new paradigm: crisis interventions, rushing to save young people from disaster. Many calls came in the middle of the night. Grace responded to every single one.

Missed opportunities

Then, in 2013, tragedy struck. On Dec. 13, a student stormed into Arapahoe High School with a gun, killing classmate Claire Davis before turning the gun on himself.

“I was planning on leaving for my mom's that day,” Grace recalled. “My car was loaded. I got a call from the security office — it was bad. I raced over to the school. I destroyed the engine on my car, actually.”

Grace oversaw the incident command, evacuating the school and reuniting families.

“It was one of the most stressful situations I've ever been in in my life,” he said.

In the months that followed, inquiries and investigations into the shooting found gaps in information-sharing and missed opportunities.

“I had never heard (the shooter's) name before that day,” Grace said. “There was a threat assessment, but it wasn't followed up on like it should have been. I hate that kids died for us to learn. I hate it.”

The aftermath only intensified Grace's attitude toward his job. Processes and procedures were revamped. Information-sharing increased. Amid other school violence around the nation, Grace and his team hardened schools even further.

“It put me into a mayhem of trying to do better,” he said. “We tightened up everything. What can I do better? How can I learn from my mistakes? How do I save these kids' lives?”

'The failures are what follow you'

The district's security apparatus kept evolving, with controlled entrances, and a growing district-wide panopticon of cameras.

Meanwhile, Grace responded to students in crisis at a feverish rate. Safe2Tell reports skyrocketed following the Arapahoe shooting, growing from dozens a year to nearly two a day, motivated in part by a greater familiarity with the program.

Grace knows he saved many lives. He sent paramedics to rescue teenagers from overdoses. Responding officers cut one girl down from a noose in the nick of time.

Still, Grace was haunted by the suicides he couldn't prevent. A teen busted for drinking on school property. A former student who returned to Arapahoe High School's field to die. A student who died on camera on a school playground while Grace was en route.

“We had so many more successes than failures, but the failures are what follow you,” he said.

'In the peace of the night'

By the tail end of the 2010s, Grace was struggling.

“Safe2Tell. Safe2Tell. Safe2Tell. Arapahoe. Suicides. I haven't told you half of what I saw, what we dealt with. It was spinning in my head. Racing thoughts. In the peace of the night, I couldn't shut it off.”

Grace, Army tough, said despite his job, he hadn't always been the type to seek mental health care himself. That changed, and he sought treatment for PTSD.

On the phone from Wyoming, Grace paused.

“If I'm honest,” he said, “it's why I've sought a quieter life. I want to be here for my kids. I think they like me most of the time. I'm proud I'm still married.”

In good hands

Still, he grapples with guilt.

“I miss responding. I woke up this morning really sad, actually. You wonder who you're not saving.”

By no means is Grace leaving his field of expertise. He is staying busy recording presentations for the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools, where he is working on an updated version of safety recommendations for K-12 schools nationwide. He has also been recruited to develop safety protocols for high school and college sports seeking to reopen amid the challenges of the novel coronavirus era.

In coming years, Grace and his wife, a school psychologist, want to start a support network for school employees who have endured tragedy.

“There are a lot of people out there hurting,” he said.

Grace said he's confident he left Littleton Public Schools in good hands. He praised the expertise, passion and devotion of the district's security personnel, mental health team, faculty and administration.

He expressed deep gratitude to the LPS community for the opportunity to pursue his calling and work with wonderful staff, parents and students.

Still, he harbors concerns.

“I'm worried about what will happen when schools return,” he said. “Will they be so focused on COVID, while nothing else has disappeared? The issues could be compounded. Kids are going through a major disruption. Mental health crises aren't going away. Shootings aren't going away. Heck, tornadoes aren't going away. When you're not looking, that's when these things happen.”

But, for the time being, Grace is trying to keep his mind in Wyoming, with his wife and kids. He tries to quiet his mind as he watches mule deer tiptoe through his yard, or the sunset paint the distant bluffs.

“I might even try to go fishing,” he said.

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