After a threat caused schools around the Front Range to close for a day, Denver Public Schools and mental health providers turned their focus to the needs of students.
DPS joined other districts across the state and closed its schools on April 17, following a threat from 18-year-old Florida resident Sol Pais. The FBI reported that Pais was “infatuated” with the Columbine High School shooting, which happened on April 20, 1999. Following a manhunt, Pais was found dead near Mount Evans that same day.
Principals and administrators with DPS spent the closure holding conferences on how to address student mental health needs, said Ellen Kelty, director of student equity and opportunity with the district.
The district also put together materials from the National Association of School Psychology, which provided tips to parents on how to talk to their children about school shootings. The information was put on the main page of the DPS website and was available in several languages.
Emily Garcia, program manager for school-based services at the Mental Health Center of Denver, said it is important to let your kids know they have a safe place to talk. With younger children, the best practice is to find out how much they already know and to address any feelings associated with it, such as fear and confusion.
“We have to give credit to the kids that they do often understand more than we think,” she said. “If we aren't being available to them, they may hear it from somewhere else.”
Kelty said that the district had prepared some of the materials before the threat happened, but the closure pushed schools to prepare for students troubled by the event.
“Anniversaries of traumatic events are hard for people,” she said. “Unfortunately we needed it more than we would have hoped.”
The week of the closure, DPS worked with the Denver Police Department, which increased patrols near schools. Division Chief of Patrol Ron Thomas said the police department looks at all threats to schools and uses its intelligence team to determine if they are credible.
DPD's intelligence team vets threats by looking at the location of the person as well as if they have the means to carry out a particular threat.
Thomas said “we pay very close attention to anniversary dates." DPS reopened schools the following day, but DPD continued its increased patrols throughout the week. Thomas said he felt comfortable with the safety plans put in place by police officers as well as security at DPS.
Kelty said the district works hard to make sure schools are safe. "We really have a lot of protocols in place to make sure that happens," she added.
Reopening schools can also help with student mental health, said Garcia. A regular routine is healthy for children. Since children often spend a lot of time in schools, parents also want to make sure their children feel safe there.
Although there were a lot of unknowns on the day of the closure, Garcia said its important to return to a routine in situations like this.
"We don't want to do more harm by causing anxiety about a place that is safe," she said.