DENVER (AP) – Five of the state’s largest school districts have investigated more than 400 threats by students this school year and put 40 of them at the highest levels of concern, according to records obtained by The Denver Post.
But more than a month after the fatal shootings at Arapahoe High School, administrators at Littleton Public Schools won’t say whether a threat made by gunman Karl Pierson in September prompted the district’s highest security response.
In the noon hour Dec. 13, Pierson, a senior at Arapahoe, entered the school through a door that was propped open. The 18-year-old – armed with a shotgun, a machete, three Molotov cocktails and more than 125 rounds of ammunition – killed student Claire Davis and killed himself inside the library.
Littleton was among school districts across Colorado that bolstered protocols for identifying the severity of threats and fashioned response plans after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Jefferson County left 13 people dead. The two gunmen, both Columbine students, then killed themselves.
Littleton schools did not respond to a request for the number of threats by students, but surrounding districts – Denver, Jefferson County, Cherry Creek, Aurora and Douglas County – provided figures.
Littleton Superintendent Scott Murphy said in a letter to parents and staff members Thursday night that any time a threat is made, the district follows its threat-assessment protocol.
The Post obtained a copy of the district’s Threat Assessment and Action Plan through the state’s open-records act. The plan says campus administrators should form a team that includes a counselor; a social worker or psychologist; a teacher who knows the student; and administrators. Law enforcement officers who work at the school district also could be asked to evaluate threats with the team.
The assessment would gather information from eyewitnesses, academic and discipline records, and observations from staff members and parents, and would require a student interview to assess whether a threat is credible.
Members of the team are expected to check off a list of indicators to determine the seriousness of each threat. A threat would be of low concern if it is vague and indirect, lacks details and seems unlikely. The threat would reach a medium level if it contains some thought but is not fully planned out. The highest level of concern suggests that concrete steps have been taken to carry out the threat, and there is imminent danger.
Three months before the shooting at Arapahoe High, Pierson directed a threat at his speech and debate coach, Tracy Murphy. The threat was reported to law enforcement, but neither the district nor the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office have explained any other action that was taken.
A lengthy Facebook post by one of the school security guards who responded to the scene called into question the district’s initial response and follow-through.
Scott Murphy has said he supports the actions of Arapahoe administrators and that the online discussions were mostly “based on inaccurate information, rumor and innuendo.” He has declined to comment on the shooting, citing an ongoing investigation by law enforcement.
Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, said efforts to scale back zero-tolerance policies have heightened tensions over how to properly respond to threats and other discipline-related issues involving students. Earlier this year, the federal government released guidelines intended to limit strict school discipline policies that may disproportionately push minority students into the criminal justice system.
“School administrators in many areas are under an enormous amount of political pressure, internally and externally, to keep their numbers down, which means you are going to have more conflicts with teachers and security personnel who are frustrated that they are not seeing consequences out of the limited tools that are available to principals,” Trump said.
John McDonald, director of safety and security at Jefferson County Public Schools, said threatening to kill someone is considered a direct threat in the district and would immediately be reported to law enforcement officials. Law enforcement would then determine whether to pursue charges through the district attorney’s office.
The school district would also suspend the student while it investigates the threat and formulates a monitoring plan for the student’s return to school. Letters would be sent to parents about the threat.
“Parents have an expectation that we are going to keep their kids safe and that we are going to let them know when a threat is made so they can make the appropriate decisions for their kids,” McDonald said. “We work under the premise that if something were to happen, how do you go back later and justify why you didn’t share the information?”
McDonald said the district could file a restraining order in cases where officials determine that the threat is significant; where the student has access to weapons and has a history of behavior that points to future concerns; and where the threat reaches a level at which staff and students are scared to be in the school.
Officials for several school districts said threatening to kill someone would not automatically trigger a report to law enforcement or a suspension.
Kenlyn Newman, director of intervention services at Adams 12 Five Star Schools, said a well-trained staff is crucial to the threat-assessment process. She said training and community partnerships help the district “paint a picture for what the reality of the situation is and helps us identify and respond to it.”
Sharing of information
Psychologist and school-violence expert John Nicoletti, who helped develop many of the state’s threat-assessment plans, said the system should encourage the sharing of information, which was lacking before the Columbine shooting. A governor’s commission tasked with reviewing the Columbine massacre found that various people in the school had bits of information that, if shared, could have set off red flags about the two gunmen.
The final report, released by the commission in May 2001, offered a slew of recommendations intended to encourage the sharing of information, which included the establishment of threat-assessment teams in every Colorado high school and middle school.
“If somebody broadcasts a threat or potential action, you need to believe it, but believing it doesn’t mean you kick the person out of school or put him in jail,” Nicoletti said. “Believing it means you start an investigation and assessment. ... And, once somebody makes a threat like that and gets on your radar, you need to keep them on your radar.”
Trump said best practices implemented after the Columbine shooting are ineffective if school districts do not routinely train staff and remind administrators of their importance.
“The lessons of Columbine still ring true,” he said, “but the problem that we face now is that we’re dealing with this whole new generation of principals, teachers and safety officials – people who are in the positions today for whom the lessons of Columbine no longer are fresh. People who never were exposed to the details, and others who haven’t been trained.”