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Sun Investigation

Twenty years after Columbine, Colorado schools are assessing an astonishing number of student threats

Some Colorado districts are evaluating an average of four threats per school day. Administrators say the process is sound, but others worry students' civil rights are trampled in the rush to protect schools from liability.

Tim Leon, director of safety and security for Mesa County Valley School District 51 , works with school resource officers to secure external school doors during a lockdown drill at Broadway Elementary School in Grand Junction March 28, 2019. The district has nine full-time security officers and contracts with local law enforcement for another 15 officers. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The Snapchat messages were chilling.

“13-inch steel knife,” a 15-year-old boy wrote to a fellow student, describing his weapon and including a list of kids at Green Mountain High School that he planned to “eliminate.” She could keep her friend off the kill list, the boy noted, if she came over to his house or gave him some money.

“Have I told you that I take meds that numb my entire body, so I can’t feel anything?”

The girl’s mother saw the messages from 15-year-old Aidan von Grabow and alerted authorities, prompting Jeffco Public Schools to launch a threat assessment to determine whether the threat was credible and how the school should react. The process is routine, so much so that it happens an average of four to five times per school day in the district that includes Columbine High School.

A Colorado Sun investigation to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1999 Columbine shooting found the number of threat assessments at Colorado school districts has surged in recent years, multiplying more than tenfold in some districts. School officials say they are a necessary step to prevent student violence of all types, including the worst-case scenario, a mass shooting like Columbine, which left 13 victims dead and woke the nation to the possibility that classrooms could become killing grounds.

In Jefferson County, threat assessments numbered just 43 in the 2007-08 school year and already have surpassed 800 this year. Denver Public Schools completed 815 threat assessments last year, up from 94 in 2008. Aurora was up to 539 last year, from 80 just three ago.

Even small districts are experiencing the increase — Cortez school officials assessed 20 threats last year, compared with just two five years ago.

The volume and seriousness of threats has led school districts to create their own security forces, hire additional staff to triage the threats and partner with local law enforcement.

School officials across Colorado say the process is working, that they are stopping violent plans in their tracks and referring students who need help to mental health counseling. But as threat assessments have grown exponentially, others worry that some students’ civil rights are disregarded in the rush for schools to protect their own liability.

In the case of the threats to the Green Mountain students, Jefferson County Public Schools deemed the messages a serious risk and suspended von Grabow from the district. The move prevented him from harming anyone — but only at school.

The teen was arrested after the threats and placed in a psychiatric hospital in Highlands Ranch for nine days, but his troubles escalated after he was released. Von Grabow lunged at his mother with a hunting knife when she confronted him about packages containing military-style knives delivered to their house, according to a police report. He shoved his grandfather, causing the elderly man to fall headfirst into a bedroom wall, breaking through the drywall. He stabbed his grandfather’s phone and sped away in his parent’s Hyundai Santa Fe, wielding a knife and wearing a helmet and ski mask.

Police, after responding to his mother’s call for help, photographed the Molotov cocktails von Grabow had amassed in his bedroom and the 2-foot long machete he had left behind.

And the next day, Makeyla Grote, 20, was dead, stabbed in her family’s Longmont apartment. She was found by neighbors struggling for air at the base of an outside stairwell.

Grote was the older sister of the girl who received von Grabow’s Snapchat messages, the ones the girls’ mother showed to authorities. Later, police found a “death list” with the names of seven teenagers in von Grabow’s home. Among his listed supplies: “duck tape (lots of it)” and bleach.

“We protect what we can in our environment,” said John McDonald, the district’s executive director of school safety and security. “Had we not done that assessment, we would have had an open environment for him to complete an attack in the school.”

Put directly, more young people might have been murdered.

The increase in threat assessments is due not just to districts taking threats more seriously, but also because the threats are becoming more alarming.

“We’re seeing more aggressive behaviors and students engaging in attack behavior at younger ages than ever before,” McDonald said. “Now, we’re also seeing more female students becoming aggressive than before. It is crucial that a process is in place where we’re counteracting it and mitigating it and managing it.

“Our community demands this, and if we don’t do this and don’t take this seriously then we are sending out the message to everyone that was ever lost that their lives didn’t have any value. Our community demands safe schools.”

Von Grabow is claiming “involuntary intoxication,” blaming an antidepressant and acne medication.  A trial for first-degree murder and other charges is set for next month in Boulder County District Court, where von Grabow is being tried as an adult.

Scot Bingham, principal of Broadway Elementary School in Grand Junction, announces the school is under lockdown over the intercom during a drill on March 28, 2019. Mesa County Valley School District, which has about 22,000 students, expects to complete about 165 threat assessments this school year. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Columbine shooting on April 20, 1999, prompted a major shift in how schools incorporate safety into their list of responsibilities.

Today, districts partner with local sheriffs offices to place officers on campuses and on patrol. In some districts, including Denver and Jefferson County, officials have created entire safety departments — with 24/7 dispatchers and armed patrol officers — that function similar to a city police force.

A year after Columbine, lawmakers passed the Safe Schools Act, requiring every school district to write a safety plan and train employees in crisis response. Safe2Tell, an anonymous tip line for students to report threats, launched in 2004. In 2005, The Colorado Trust funded a $9 million grant program to prevent bullying.

And in 2008, lawmakers and former Gov. Bill Ritter realized schools needed more resources and opened the Colorado School Safety Resource Center as part of the state Department of Public Safety. The center trains schools in Colorado and beyond how to assess threats of violence.

But the recent upswing in threat assessments has more to do with another school shooting than it does with Columbine. After the 2013 murder of Arapahoe High School senior Claire Davis, who was shot in the head by a classmate as she ate a cookie on a hallway bench before physics class, the legislature removed immunity provisions in the law that had protected school districts from lawsuits related to violence on school grounds.

The change meant school districts, starting in 2017, became liable for penalties up to $350,000 per victim, or a maximum of $990,000 for serious injuries or deaths when there was a finding of negligence by the school. It put more pressure on districts to reduce the chances of murder, assault or sexual assault on school property.

The boy who shot Davis, Karl Pierson, had been exhibiting troubling signs at the school for months. In September, more than three months before the shooting, Pierson announced he was going to kill the debate and speech coach who had removed him as captain of the team for inappropriate behavior. Arapahoe High officials reviewed the threat, but deemed it low level.

An independent review from the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence and University of Northern Colorado’s Department of Criminal Justice later found that Arapahoe High’s threat assessment of Pierson was cursory. A more thorough assessment could have disrupted Pierson’s violent plans, the review concluded.

“A properly executed threat assessment would have revealed a higher level of concern, and a higher level of concern should have prompted more serious disciplinary action and more thorough monitoring and support planning,” the independent review found.

The school didn’t update the threat assessment after Pierson continued to have outbursts at school, including an incident where he banged repeatedly on the door after another student locked him out of his Spanish class. Nor did the school update it after Pierson warned another student, “Don’t make me show you Kurt Cobain,” which was the nickname for his new shotgun.

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Even after school security personnel saw Pierson in the cafeteria viewing photos of guns and mass shootings on his computer, he was deemed a low-level threat.

As Pierson’s academic performance sputtered from a B-plus GPA to the point where he was on the verge of dropping out of school, his debate coach, Tracy Murphy, become more concerned. Murphy reported to the school’s assistant principal, Kevin Kolasa, that Pierson was continuing to have violent outbursts, according to sworn testimony taken later.

“This is a big red flag,” Murphy later testified that he warned the administrator. “And he kind of shrugged his shoulders and kind of brushed it off saying, ‘Let him hang himself’ kind of thing.”

The independent review by CU’s nonviolent center and UNC’s criminal justice department criticized the attitude at the school, finding that although the Columbine shooting had happened just 8 miles from Arapahoe High School, the “feeling that a ‘shooting could not happen here’ appeared to have remained prevalent among school staff and students.” Officials at Littleton School District, which includes Arapahoe High, acknowledged shortcomings in the handling of the assessment and have since overhauled the process.

The independent review of Arapahoe also suggested the state’s School Safety Resource Center audit school district threat-assessment programs. The state never adopted that recommendation, however.

Instead, in a state with local control of schools, districts largely have been left on their own to decide how best to conduct threat assessments.

In the years before the shooting at Arapahoe High, the state’s resource center had trained 20 districts on best practices for assessing threats. And since districts became liable for violent acts? The center has trained more than 120. All but five of those were in Colorado.

The four-hour training teaches districts how to create a team with a mental health professional, a discipline official, the school’s resource officer and possibly a member of local law enforcement, who would be familiar with any prior criminal behavior. Assessments also should include people — a teacher and parent — who know the student in question.

The center uses protocols created by the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI. Both agencies released reports specific to school violence in the past year, and in recent years have updated protocols to include social media investigation — in other words, looking up a kid’s Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat accounts.

The increase in threat assessments, particularly a dramatic jump in 2017, is directly related to the change in immunity law, known as the Claire Davis School Safety Act, said Christine Harms, director of the state school resource center. And to her, that is a good thing.

“The volume has increased tremendously, and always, there is an upsurge when something like Parkland happens,” she said, recalling the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people. “Knock on wood, we haven’t had an incident since the Arapahoe High School shooting. That tells us what they are doing is effective.”

“People are doing thousands of threat assessments with no negative consequences,” Harms said. And because of the assessments, more kids are likely getting resources they wouldn’t have had otherwise, including referrals to mental health treatment or help with school work if they are feeling pressured academically.

“There is still more to be done,” she said. “I would hope particularly parents know that there is a lot that happens behind the scenes every day to keep their kids safe.” Even so, she knows they still worry.

Mesa County Valley School District 51 School Resource Officers Robert Baker, center, and Ronnie Brinkley walk through a locked down classroom during a lockdown drill at Broadway Elementary School in Grand Junction on March 28, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Across the mountains in Grand Junction, a team at Mesa County School District worked 166 threat assessments last year and is on pace for about that many this year. That’s up from 93 assessments three years ago.

But those numbers are small in comparison to the suicide risk assessments the school has done. This school year, suicide risk assessments are approaching 900, up from 210 in 2014. A similar uptick is happening at schools statewide.

If a suicide tip comes during the school day, a school counselor will pull a student out of class to talk to them. And if it’s after school, a district officer will visit their home to make sure the kid is OK.

Sorting through multiple suicide risk assessments and threat assessments per day is why the district now has a security team of nine officers, a safety coordinator and a mental health crisis coordinator who follows up with the student after the team creates a safety plan.

Many of the threat assessments start with a tip from Safe2Tell, which allows students to text, call or email tips related to violence, sexual assault, suicide and anything else they have to say. The program sends reports to school districts in real time, if the school district chooses to use it.

Mesa County began using Safe2Tell about two years ago. Any tip that involves a weapon or threat of harm is assessed by a district-level team, which determines whether they are fleeting, serious or serious-substantive, said safety director Tim Leon, a former police officer hired by the school district 11 years ago.

The lowest-level threat would include the scenario of one elementary school student saying to another, “I’m going to get a gun and shoot you,” but the student has no means to get a gun and was acting out in a fit of anger. The same scenario rises to a second-level threat if the student talked about how to get a weapon, and becomes a threat of the highest-level if the student actually had a plan and the means to get the weapon.

“We have had cases where information has been received to either district or law enforcement where individuals have taken serious steps to cause harm at a school,” Leon said. “I feel like we have avoided some very serious situations.”

The district added its first four district-level security officers after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012 and has added five more positions since. The district also partners with local law enforcement to put armed officers at Mesa County schools, bringing the total armed staff to 24 to cover a district with about 22,000 students.

In Jefferson County, where there are more than 86,000 students, assessments happen at the school level and are reviewed by a five-member threat-management team at the district level. Threats that team finds serious get bumped up to a school district threat-assessment committee made up of representatives from police, the school district, school security, prosecutors, mental health professionals and child welfare workers.

“The challenge for educators is that they think the best of their kids and want them to succeed,” McDonald said. “Educators are glass half-full, optimistic people. But this threat-assessment process has some conflict built into it. You have to ask probing questions, and you have to be suspicious. You have to be the one to confront the lie.”

The district-level committee decides whether a safety plan is needed and if so how it will work. It can require students to use clear backpacks to make sure they aren’t hiding weapons. It can ban cell phones from school grounds or demand that students submit to daily searches before entering the school. The safety plan may require monitoring or surveillance, including escorting certain students to the bathroom. In the most extreme cases, the safety plan calls for suspension or expulsion of a student, as was done with von Grabow.

The first threat-assessment team in Jefferson County schools was put in place in the 2007-08 school year, when just 43 threats were assessed, 10 of which got a district-level review. Last school year, there were 767 school-level threats, 76 of which were serious enough to get a review at the district level.

More than 800 school-level threat assessments  already logged in Jefferson County so far this this school year, said safety director McDonald.

The committee ensures police and school officials share information, he said. Lack of coordination between police and school officials about previous threats and incidents was a factor in both the April 20, 1999, Columbine shooting and the Feb 14, 2018, attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, McDonald pointed out.

“It is remarkable how much of this goes back to April 20th,” McDonald said. “Everything we do goes back to the lessons we learned that day. If you are operating in silos, you lose every time.”

Mesa County Valley School District 51 School Resource Officer Robert Baker, left, opens a locked classroom door as the district’s Director of Safety and Security Tim Leon looks on during a lockdown drill at Broadway Elementary School in Grand Junction March 28, 2019. The district has nine full-time security officers and contracts with local law enforcement for another 15 officers. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As the numbers of threat assessments have skyrocketed, critics are concerned that harsh discipline too often takes the place of needed mental health services or support for students with special needs.

The lack of defined standards for threat assessments troubles Jacque Phillips, a Thornton lawyer who specializes in representing families and students challenging discipline procedures by school districts. “The threat assessment is the gatekeeper to disciplinary removal, to suspensions or expulsions,” she said. “In many cases, I’m seeing school districts doing only bad things. There’s a discriminatory nature to the threat assessment.”

Phillips said she has worked with some school districts that refuse to let parents see a threat assessment conducted on their children. Also, some contain errors and bias. She’s seen threat assessments that deem children at high risk of violence because their parents have served in the military, she said. In one case, a child was deemed a threat in part because his parents had reported attending marital counseling years earlier. In another, a factor that helped determine a student was a violent threat hinged on reports that his parents let relatives stay at their home for weeks.

“The school just didn’t know the family and was making assumptions,” Phillips said. “They thought the situation was that a bunch of people were crammed into a two-bedroom apartment.” In reality, the parents were wealthy. When their relatives from the Middle East visited, they had ample room at the family’s 5,000-square-foot home in an upscale neighborhood, she said.

In one threat assessment that Phillips challenged, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights agreed that a student’s suspension — which came after he made a death threat against another student — was improper.

In that case, federal authorities determined Stargate Charter School in Thornton — Colorado’s largest charter school for gifted and talented students — did not provide special education services that the elementary school student was entitled to because of a known disability. And instead of involving parents in the decision, the school’s executive director unilaterally determined the child would submit to daily searches and his parents would remove him from the school during recess and lunch and his school day would end early.

In a followup meeting held with the school, the father decided to keep the child at home after the executive director informed him the school did not have the capacity to deal with the child’s disability and warned that police would be called if the child continued to act out.

The school’s counselor, in a separate complaint, said she was fired after she complained about  the school’s handling of that student and other matters. Stargate, which has faced numerous other civil rights investigations, including allegations that the high school volleyball coach preyed on teenage students, agreed to submit to federal monitoring.

Officials with Adams 12 School District, which includes the 1,400-student K-12 Stargate school, said improvements have been made since then in threat-assessment protocols at Stargate and other schools in the district. The executive director at Stargate resigned last year.

“There’s a recognition now that this is where we’re at,” said Kevin West, the charter school liaison for Adams 12. “They have to have good systems in place and have to devote a lot of time and resources to those systems that probably weren’t present a number of years ago.”

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