Mental health committee explores causes of school violence

Panel put together by commissioners meets for the first time


Leaders in mental health, education and the criminal justice system sat around a table in a conference room at the Douglas County Department of Human Services building in Castle Rock. One by one, they introduced themselves before diving into a complex conversation on school violence.

“I think that the eyes of our nation are on us, and you are going to be the leaders to solve this problem,” Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas said to the group.

Members of the Supportive Mental Health for Students Funding Committee met for the first time June 21, six weeks after a school shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch that left one student dead and eight others injured.

Two STEM parents and a parent from Sandy Hook Elementary, where a gunman shot and killed 20 children and six adults, attended the meeting as spectators.

On May 28, Douglas County commissioners voted to allocate $13.3 million toward school safety initiatives.

Their plan outlined an ongoing $3 million to fund 61 schools resource officers in the county by the 2021-22 school year, contingent on a $3 million annual match from schools in the county, along with the formation of two committees that would dictate spending of a $10 million one-time gift.

The Physical School Safety and Protection Funding Committee met for the first time June 14 at the Douglas County Sheriff's Substation in Highlands Ranch.

Members of the security committee — a mix of law enforcement, school district representatives, parents and security experts —strategized a plan for how to reach an agreement on school safety recommendations for the board of county commissioners by July 14.

The Mental Health for Students Funding Committee also aims to have recommendations for commissioners by mid-July.

At their first meeting, members discussed at length the correlation between mental illness and school violence, causes of school violence, access to care and best practices.

“School-based mental health services work,” said Sarah Davidon, research director at Mental Health Colorado, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the treatment and prevention of mental health and substance-use disorders. “Not only in terms of effectiveness, but the likelihood that students are going to follow through with that support.”

The committee's nine members each bring a different perspective to the table.

Douglas County School District representatives interact with students on a daily basis. Representatives from the 18th Judicial District work with kids who are caught in the criminal justice system.

Members from statewide mental health organizations bring a breadth of knowledge on environmental factors that can lead to violence, such as trauma, violence in the household, bullying, and on best practices, such as a universal mental health screening.

The goal of the committee is to understand where violence comes from in order to prevent it from happening.

“We need to understand more, I think, about what is driving the violence,” said Sarah Ericson, deputy district attorney and director of the Diversion Counseling Program at the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office.

Committee members are compiling research and will reconvene at 8:30 a.m. June 28 at the county's department of human services building, 4400 Castleton Court, Castle Rock.

Meet the members:

Douglas County School District representatives

Stephanie Crawford-Goetz, director of mental health services

Keith Sousa, lead behavior specialist

Charter school representative

Julie Felske, psychologist/counselor at Platte River Academy in Highlands Ranch

Representatives appointed by Douglas County Commissioners

Sarah Ericson, committee chair, director of the Diversion Counseling Program and deputy district attorney at the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office

Doug Gray, chief probation officer at the 18th Judicial District

Jason Hopcus, president of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for Arapahoe/Douglas Counties

Representatives recommended by the Douglas County Mental Health Initiative

Sarah Davidon, research director at Mental Health Colorado

Erin White, social Worker and site director at Manna Connect, a personal development program, and DCSD parent

Mia Hayden and Melanie Zhou (rotating), co-founders of Oasis Mental Health, a nonprofit organization promoting mental health at ThunderRidge High School in Highlands Ranch


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