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Sun Investigation

What we learned investigating school safety for our “After Columbine” series

Takeaways from The Colorado Sun’s months-long investigation into school safety 20 years after Columbine

  • Credibility:

The Colorado Sun’s After Columbine series of investigative reports found that much has changed in Colorado schools 20 years after that mass shooting pierced the nation’s consciousness.

Here are a few of the big things we learned during our reporting:

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The number of student threats assessed by school districts is growing …

The Sun investigated the use of threat assessments in Colorado schools and found their use is surging in recent years, multiplying by more than tenfold in some districts. Among the findings:

  • In Jeffco Public Schools, where Columbine occurred, threat assessments numbered just 43 in the 2007-08 school year and have surpassed 800 this year. Officials there credit a threat assessment with limiting the violence caused by a knife-wielding 15 year old who is charged with killing one woman. The teen, who is being tried as an adult for first-degree murder, was suspended from the school district after a threat assessment, which prevented him from completing an attack at the school students on his “kill list” attended, officials said.
  • Colorado’s school officials say threat assessments are a necessary step to prevent student violence, but as their use has grown exponentially, others worry that some students’ civil rights are disregarded in the rush for schools to protect their own liability.
  • The recent upswing in threat assessments in schools has ties to another school shooting. After the 2013 murder of Arapahoe High School senior Claire Davis, who was shot in the head by a classmate as she sat on a hallway bench before her physics class, the legislature removed immunity provisions in the law that had protected school districts from lawsuits related to violence on school grounds.
  • In the years before Davis’ death, the Colorado School Safety Resource Center had trained 20 school districts on best practices for assessing threats. After districts became liable for violent acts, the center trained more than 120.

 


… In some districts, patrol officers are working 24/7 …

  • Denver Public Schools received 161 calls in one 24-hour period in which The Colorado Sun shadowed one of the district’s 18 armed patrol officers. The calls routed through the district’s dispatch center included concern about a knife in a backpack, sexual assault, self harm and suicidal thoughts.

 


… Despite connection between safety and behavioral health resources, schools are spending much more on physical security …

The Sun also took a look at how Colorado prioritizes spending for school safety 20 years after the Columbine shooting that left 13 people and the two gunmen dead. That investigation found:

  • Behavioral health staffing shortfalls persist throughout Colorado in the midst of a spending boom on school security, including installation of new panic buttons and surveillance equipment, and upgrades in police-school emergency communication systems.
  • 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 award only about $11.9 million in grants to school districts.
  • The disparity in funding exists despite the fact that not one school district in the state meets staffing levels recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for all key areas of psychology, nursing, counseling and social work.
  • Experts say there is a link between mental health issues and violence at schools. Mental health experts who reviewed the Columbine shooting that one of the killers was a psychopath and the other was suicidally depressed.
  • Schools say they are battling surging rates of depression and drug use they fear leave students prone to violence and self harm. The Woodland Park School District in Teller County, which has 2,380 students, told the state in a grant application that three students, in separate incidents, recently overdosed at a school nurse’s office and had to be transported to a hospital. The use of heroin and cocaine also is on the rise there, Woodland Park district officials reported, and student surveys there found that nearly 18% of students in the district reported they had seriously thought of killing themselves. In 2016, there were 77 suicides of youth ages 10 to 19 in Colorado. A year later, that number increased to 98.

 


… Columbine “hacked the media’s instincts” and unwittingly helped inspire other killers …

In the aftermath of Columbine, the media created a narrative of the killers that has been inspiring murderers ever since. It was the idea that these were bullied teenagers striking back with vengeance, the idea that their personal motives mattered for trying to prevent future shootings. In an essay, reporter John Ingold looks back at the well-meaning reasons this storyline took hold — including in his own coverage — and how it spread from shooting to shooting. The insights gleaned from Columbine coverage have important implications for how the media should approach mass shootings in the future. But, Ingold asks, with so much different now about how information spreads, can the media alone contain the contagion?

 


… Use of Colorado’s anonymous student tipline is spiking

In the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine shootings, everyone — from law enforcement to school administrators to the general public — wrestled with the same questions: Should we have known what these students were planning? If so, how?

Safe2Tell, an anonymous tip line aimed at students that officially launched in 2004, marked one effort to solve that riddle. From telephone to text, computer and mobile app, from struggling nonprofit to state-funded program integrated into the attorney general’s office in 2014, Safe2Tell has played an increasingly prominent role in the school-safety toolbox.

Now, it has largely become ingrained in much of Colorado’s school culture:

  • Safe2Tell reports have spiked remarkably — particularly in the past two years — and a former director has theory about the reason for the increase.
  • In the last two data years, Safe2Tell reports increased by 58% — and then by another 75%.

But Safe2Tell’s 2018 annual report also highlighted an unintended consequence of such a successful program cloaked in anonymity — false reports designed to bully, prank or harass other students, usually with no consequences for the fake tipster.

  • Tips that maliciously targeted another individual last school year made up only 3.3% of the total, but that’s still a cause for concern. One expert explains why.
  • Add in the less malicious tips, defined as  pranks and misuse, and the total is closer to 7%, though some school safety officers estimate it approaches 20%. By either estimate, it amounts to a lot of wasted time and effort to track down the truth.

 

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