Committees present ideas to improve safety, mental health in schools

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After several meetings, two committees formed to address mental health needs and physical safety in Douglas County schools presented drafts of their recommendations to the Douglas County Board of Commissioners.

Committee members, as well as Douglas County officials and a handful of parents, agreed that consistency and collaboration are key in tackling solutions to school violence. The July 16 special meeting in Castle Rock was in response to the May 7 shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch that left one student dead and eight others injured.

“Commonality is a very significant thing,” Clint Dorris, chair of the Physical School Safety & Protection Funding Committee, said July 16. “The more that we can share data, the more that law enforcement can get a consistent feed.”

On May 28, three weeks after the STEM shooting, Douglas County commissioners voted to allocate the one-time gift of $10 million, along with an ongoing $3 million to fund 61 school resource officers in the county by the 2021-22 school year, contingent on a $3 million annual match from schools in the county.

The commissioners' resolution also called for the formation of the security committee and the Supportive Mental Health for Students Funding Committee. Both were charged with making recommendations on how to spend the one-time gift of $10 million.

Stakeholders in the county recommended the committee members, which the commissioners appointed and include a mix of DCSD representatives, experts in the mental health and security fields and parents.

In just three weeks, the committees used data collected from research, interviews, visits to facilities and more to form their recommendations. Next steps of the process remain unknown.

Mental health committee

Sarah Ericson, deputy district attorney and director of the Diversion Counseling Program at the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office, presented the mental health committee's recommendations, many of which list a menu of options.

The recommendations address a key point of data from the 2017 Colorado Healthy Kids Survey, which shows that 48 percent of high school students surveyed in the Douglas County School District reported what was called "a low commitment" to their schools.

“Low commitment is considered a risk factor correlated to substance use, delinquency, teen pregnancy, school violence and dropout,” Ericson said.

The committee asked the county to provide funding for several countywide efforts, including the expansion of Text-a-Tip — an existing anonymous reporting service offered by the Douglas County Sheriff's Office — to include a more comprehensive response to mental health tips.

The recommendation also asks for the creation of a navigator program for youth using Text-a-Tip to access funds for treatment by contracting with a community-based partner.

Other recommendations include:

• Fund assessments in each school in order to understand strengths, needs and gaps in mental health and student safety.

• Fund programming including social emotional learning, mental health services, and suicide prevention and intervention, that is supported by the assessments.

• Fund an age-effective marketing campaign with the goals of raising awareness of Text-a-Tip and reducing stigma.

• Fund youth Mental Health First Aid training in all middle and high schools.

• Fund Trauma Informed Care training for school employees, parents and students.

• Fund Handle with Care, a trauma notification protocol, in every school.

Ericson said: “We understand that talking about mental health can be hard. We don't always have the words to do it, but we want to let our community, especially young people, know that we don't have to whisper when talking about mental health.”

While county commissioners lauded the presentation, some parents in the audience wished the recommendations took a more universal approach.

“You get certain training at one school and you've got students at other schools not getting that same level and that creates a hole in the entire district,” said Erik Newman, a parent and licensed clinical psychologist. “You don't have the same level of understanding.”

Security committee

Dorris' committee called for a greater focus prevention, as well as consistency across the district in the areas of training, radios, entryway control, surveillance systems, annual reviews of security measures, interagency data sharing and school culture.

Dorris did not divulge specific costs associated with his committee's recommendations.

Rich Payne, DCSD's director of school safety and security, said the presentation reflected the district's current practices. He considered the committee's presentation a “report card” for the district, he said after the meeting.

“The district allowed this group to come in and look at the stuff we have — we are talking about consistencies and nonnegotiables,” Payne said. “Our schools are safe.”

Payne pointed out that funds from a $250 million bond passed by voters last November are addressing security needs, such as cameras and interoperable radios across the district. But, he said, the process of implementing physical safety measures takes time.

“We don't just throw money at something,” Payne said. “We have to make sure we use research-based programs and best practices.”

Some parents in attendance said they stand behind Payne's expertise and his department's oversight. The problem, they said, is school culture.

“I think my kids feel safe at school,” ThunderRidge High School parent Cathy Lees said. “But they don't feel connected at school.”

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