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What are student safety plans and who has them?
March 24, 2023
The East High School staffer who had been checking a 17-year-old student for weapons each morning wasn’t available Wednesday, leaving two administrators to perform the duty instead, according to the Denver Public Schools superintendent.
Police say the student, during the pat-down required under his safety plan, shot and wounded two East High administrators, Eric Sinclair and Jerald Mason. The teen fled the school and later died by suicide in Park County.
Dr. Alex Marrero, the superintendent, called the situation “inexplicable and definitely unforeseen” during a news conference Thursday, wondering aloud whether the change in routine prompted the student to turn to violence.
Student safety plans and pat-downs like the one performed at East on Wednesday have come into focus since the shooting, shining a light on how schools in Colorado and elsewhere routinely deal with a wide range of students’ behavioral concerns.
Marrero said “there’s no way for us to pinpoint” the number of students across DPS schools who require daily pat-downs for weapons. That number, he said, changes daily.
“This is common for all schools and all districts,” Marrero said Wednesday of safety plans in general. “It’s very common across the nation.”
Although armed police will be returning to Denver high schools for the rest of the academic year, they haven’t — and won’t be — conducting these weapons checks, he said. Officers need to have probable cause to pat down students, Marrero said, whereas educators are allowed to under a caretaker exemption.
“That will not change and will continue to be our policy,” Marrero said.
Safety plans are commonplace in Colorado schools and around the nation. They’re created with the goal of curbing problematic behavior that spans from suicidal ideation and violent tendencies to more routine behavioral concerns.
Schools have threat assessment teams, often comprised of mental health providers, administrators, school resource officers and other adults who know the student in question. This team receives referrals from teachers who may have seen something in class or Safe2Tell reports from students.
Safety plans can be triggered if a student has brought in weapons in the past or written something that alarmed an instructor. It could be related to a fight or drug-related behavior.
“You want to paint a picture of a student so you can understand their life,” said Dr. Lina Alathari, chief of the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, which consults with schools on safety. “Once you do that, you’re going to identify what are intervention points. Is it counseling? Do they need mental health support? Do they need additional peer support? More social pro-social programs?”
Safety plans cover everything from a student having a weapon to someone “throwing a teddy bear,” said Rachel Childress, a DPS spokesperson.
Denver Public Schools officials said Thursday that they did not know how many students across the district have school safety plans, saying that such measures are “broad and hyper-focused.”
Searching students for weapons is frequent in Denver schools, said Michael Eaton, former DPS Department of Safety chief.
“In addition to searching them or their belongings for past behaviors, we’re also trying to put in measures or support services to support that student,” said Eaton, who led the department for more than a decade and left DPS in November.
Large school districts face around 600 to 800 threat assessments a year, while rural districts may deal with fewer than 10, said Christine Harms, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center.
The Douglas County School District said it searched nine students Thursday across nine neighborhood high schools. Those numbers, though, include monitoring for vapes, drugs and alcohol in addition to weapons.
Steve Saunders, a spokesperson for Westminster Public Schools, said the daily pat-down is “part of our possible options,” though he didn’t know if any students were under that plan currently.
The Boulder Vallery School District does not conduct daily pat-downs, said Randy Barber, a district spokesperson. If a student poses a potential risk to student safety, administrators may place them in alternative learning situations, including online school.
Potential threats are reviewed either at the school or district level, or in collaboration between the two, Barber said.
Various school safety experts disagreed on whether school resource officers or armed security guards should conduct high-risk checks, such as the one at East.
It’s not unusual for the task to be done by administrators, Harms said.
Susan Payne, the founder and former executive director of the Safe2Tell, said these types of searches should not be done without a school resource officer or armed security present.
“That should never be on two school administrators who come through the ranks as educators,” she said.
But it’s important, Payne said, that risk assessments not be hidden from parents and school leaders.
Alathari said it’s all about early intervention to prevent these atrocities from occurring in the first place.
Schools need to take in information and immediately act, she said, whether that’s with bullying, or suicidal or depressive signs, or helping a student academically.
“We don’t wait til there’s a specific threat or imminent risk to act,” she said. “We have to act with kids early on so they don’t result in violence to solve problems.”