Tamara Durbin is responsible for making sure more than 4,300 students across some 5,000 square miles of Colorado’s Eastern Plains get mental health care when they need it.
She does so with a patchwork of staffers that comes nowhere close to what the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for student safety.
The region has one nurse for every 2,438 students, a staffing ratio barely one-third as robust as what the CDC recommends. As for psychologists, there’s one for every 1,155 students, about half the recommended staffing ratio. Social workers in Durbin’s schools are similarly burdened. Only five of the 12 school districts in her area even have counselors on staff, with just two schools meeting the CDC recommendation that schools have one nurse for every 250 students.
But when Durbin asked for mental health funding this year from a state grant program, she got zero dollars.
“Sometimes we just feel that students and their families need more support than we have support to provide,” said Durbin, the director of special education services for the Northeast Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which coordinates educational programming and supports in an area the size of Connecticut. She’s responsible for providing care to students in schools from Akron to Yuma.
The lack of mental health workers and other key staff on the Eastern Plains isn’t unusual throughout Colorado, according to a Colorado Sun investigation to mark the 20th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School. Those staffing shortfalls persist in the midst of a state spending boom on school security, including installation of new panic buttons and surveillance equipment, and upgrades to police-school emergency communication systems.
The Sun’s review found the state will award nearly $35 million in grants this year to improve school security and emergency communication. But when it comes to health and behavioral health needs, the state will only award about a third of that amount — $11.9 million in grants. The disparity in funding exists despite the fact that not one school district in the state meets CDC-recommended staffing levels for all key areas of psychology, nursing, counseling and social work.
Mental health experts question whether enough is being done to address the hidden vulnerability of mental health in the state’s schools. They say districts throughout the state don’t have the staff and resources needed to adequately address underlying psychological tensions in students that could erupt into extreme violence or self harm. And they’re supporting a push by Democratic state lawmakers to add $3 million annually to the amount the Colorado Department of Education awards for behavioral health staffing needs in schools.
“We need to be prepared if a crisis happens, but that shouldn’t be the system around which all our funding is built,” said Sarah Davidon, director of research and child and adolescent strategy at the nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health Colorado. She stressed that mental health care can help prevent crises before they spiral into tragic violence.
Mental health as violence prevention
Mental health experts who reviewed the Columbine shooting that left 13 victims dead lend credence to Davidon’s stance. One of the Columbine killers was a psychopath and the other was suicidally depressed, the experts eventually concluded.
For its investigation, The Sun reviewed legislative testimony, federal staffing data, grant applications and interviewed behavioral health advocates and school officials.
To meet recommended staffing rates, Colorado districts would have to nearly double the number of nurses and social workers working in schools and bolster the hiring of school psychologists by 40 percent, according to a study by Mental Health Colorado, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group. Schools would have to add more than five times as many social workers to meet the recommendation, that study found.
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School districts that applied last school year for the $9.7 million in behavioral health grants the CDE made available described dire needs in their applications.
The Woodland Park School District in Teller County, which has 2,380 students, told the state it needed $351,000 to hire two social workers for three years to help it contain surging drug use by students.
Woodland Park administrators reported in their application that three students, in separate incidents, had overdosed recently at a school nurse’s office and had to be transported to a hospital for recovery. Another middle schooler had just been caught with marijuana and said he needed it to deal with anxiety and depression. Heroin use among Woodland Park students was occurring at a rate twice as high as reported by students for the entire state, and the school’s rate of cocaine use also was higher than the statewide average, according to student surveys. Officials were having to conduct drug searches up to three times a week between the middle school and high school.
Student surveys also revealed that nearly 18 percent of the students in the district reported they had seriously thought about killing themselves.
The Colorado Department of Education funded Woodland Park’s request.
State education department could fund only 42 of 66 behavioral health requests
Mental health intervention is key to stopping violence, said Ellen Kelty, director of student equity and opportunity for Denver Public Schools.
In fact, about 90 percent of young people who commit a school shooting are suicidal, said Kelty, who has worked in the district for 20 years and was in her first year as a school psychologist when Columbine happened. “Columbine changed the role of school psychologists nationally,” she said, noting that it wasn’t until after the 1999 tragedy that psychologists regularly took on the job of assessing potential violence.
Kelty, who has trained other school leaders throughout Colorado on risk assessments as part of programs through the state School Safety Resource Center and the Department of Education, has spent time interviewing family members of people responsible for murder-suicide. “You learn a lot from those people,” she said.
Durbin, the person in charge of mental health care for 12 school districts in Northeastern Colorado, hoped to snag $135,000 of the state’s behavioral-health grant money last school year to hire a nurse and social worker to help coordinate services in her schools. She said money for behavioral health needs is pinched in part because travel expenses drive up costs. Staff must travel long distances to cover schools throughout the largely rural area.
The Colorado Department of Education had only enough money to fund 42 of the 66 behavioral health grant applications submitted. It rejected nearly $10 million in requests.
Durbin’s area didn’t make the cut.
“We’re always trying to identify our resources and use them appropriately to meet the need, but there are shortfalls,” Durbin said.
Schools in the area, however, have managed to make physical safety improvements. There are new door-locking systems, panic buttons and surveillance equipment both inside schools and along their outer perimeters. Emergency-preparedness and crisis-intervention drills are routine, Durbin said.
Those improvements are necessary, “but the real challenge is dealing with the needs of students who have had threats as well as mental health needs that aren’t being addressed,” Durbin said. “What we know from past instances of school violence is that there is a connection to mental health.”
Assessing the mental health of students in her area who make threats or act out isn’t always possible given the limited staff and community resources, she said.
“Because we’re in a rural area, it has been difficult to get an immediate response to fully evaluate the situation and understand if it’s really a threat or is not a threat,” Durbin said. When a threat is made, it often falls to police to follow the student to ensure safety until appropriate services can be found, she said.
Money is spent on building security, but in secret
Just what schools are doing with the money the state sends them for security upgrades and new police-school communication equipment is cloaked in secrecy. The Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, which oversees those grants, refuses to share details with the public, saying that doing so could give potential attackers a blueprint to exploit. Division officials, in response to a Colorado Open Records Act request from The Colorado Sun, said they would provide only the 136 grant applications for school security and communications upgrades after redacting them of any security vulnerabilities or arrangements — at a cost of $4,020.
The secrecy shields from view an area of spending that has grown exponentially throughout the nation as school administrators respond to pressure from parents to protect students following mass shootings at schools. It’s an area of spending questioned by a federally funded 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University that concluded there “was limited and conflicting evidence in the literature on the short- and long-term effectiveness of school safety technology.”
But Colorado officials defend the security spending as necessary while acknowledging more also must be done for mental health in schools. The requests for security funding from schools across the state were dire, each asking for money to improve what many educators and parents consider of ultimate importance: student safety, said Christine Harms, executive director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center, who reviewed the requests with other state officials.
One school has front doors that do not seal or lock, she said.
Another has no fence around its playground, leaving school staff to worry a car will someday jump the curb and plow through the playground.
Several said their classroom doors do not have locks, meaning they could not deter an armed gunman if one ever walked the hallways.
Harms said she is acutely aware of the need for physical safety improvements across Colorado. She read schools’ grant applications after the state legislature agreed to spend nearly $35 million on school security upgrades and police-school communication improvements last year. The 136 requests for improvements in schools or school districts totaled more than $70 million, meaning many went unfulfilled.
“We still have school districts in rural Colorado that don’t have classroom locks on the doors,” she said. “As far as I know, we’ve never lost a student in this country that has been behind a locked door when there is a shooting in the building.”
But while the need for building safety improvements is great, even greater is the need for mental health care, she said. Improving the mental health of students is key to preventing school violence, Harms said, noting the link between acts of school violence and suicide.
In 2016, there were 77 suicides of Colorado youth ages 10 to 19. A year later, that number increased to 98. Suicide is the leading cause of death among Colorado teenagers.
“Just in the last week, I’ve heard of five suicides in our high schools,” Harms said this month. “It’s just not stopping.”
Consider one district’s spending on physical safety versus mental health.
Littleton Public Schools passed an $80 million bond that included security updates for all of its buildings in 2013. Since then, the school has increased its budget by about $2 million for mental health upgrades — including a mental health “wrap-around team” in 2014, elementary school mental health staff and a social-emotional coordinator.
The school board consistently makes mental health a priority when it comes time to set the budget, superintendent Brian Ewert said, and each time, “that need bumps up against a long list of other critical needs that should be funded.”
“The problem is, the amount of money is simply not adequate,” he said. “In LPS, we do what we can, but it’s not enough. We are always looking for ways to improve and expand the mental health supports we offer to students and families. If we had the financial resources, we’d do more.”
The state Office of Behavioral Health, part of the human services department, has upped its efforts in recent years to use its limited funding to target the mental well-being of students, said Camille Harding, director of community behavioral health. The office recently got approval to spend nearly $400,000 and hire eight staff members to run a statewide suicide prevention campaign called “Below the Surface,” which promotes a text line with a live response from counselors.
The state’s “Children and Youth Mental Health Treatment Act” has an annual budget of $3 million to help families pay for treatment, whether in a residential setting or in the community. The act is meant to help people who do not have private insurance and cannot afford mental health care. Also, the state office spends $1.3 million annually on specialists in each of the state’s 17 community mental health centers whose job is to work on mental health in schools. The program was created in 2013.
But Jacque Phillips, a Thornton-based lawyer who represents families and students challenging school discipline cases, said families of troubled students she represents who have moved from other states often are shocked at how little mental health care is available in Colorado’s schools.
She recounted one case that she said is emblematic of the challenges faced by students struggling with depression and other mental health issues in Colorado. The daughter of one of the 12 people killed in the July 20, 2012, Aurora theater shooting struggled in school with symptoms of PTSD. The school she attended was unable to provide the specialized services she needed to thrive, and the girl began to act out.
She’s since been subjected to a disciplinary removal from the school and the filing of criminal charges. The girl now spends her days in an area group home for troubled children after becoming tangled in the juvenile justice system, Phillips said.
“I can say this for sure,” Phillips said. “If that student would have had the mental health services she needed in school, she never would have been charged, and she would still be in her school.”