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A candid conversation about the layers of safety in a Colorado school district

“The whole system is completely overwhelmed, just like it is everywhere"
A candid conversation about the layers of safety in a Colorado school district
Posted at 8:06 PM, Mar 30, 2023

BRIGHTON, Colo. — As the director of intervention services for 27J Schools in Brighton, Jaime White and her team take care of everything that inhibits kids from accessing their education.

“Attendance, behavior, all discipline, threat assessments, suicide assessments, the mental health teams, the nurses, foster care, students experiencing homelessness," White said, listing off a number of those barriers.

White met with Denver7 during the week of the Nashville school shooting, and a week after the shooting inside of East High School.

“We've seen a decline in the mental health of our administrators, our leaders, our support, everybody, because it's a fearful place to be right now," White said. "The whole system is not well.”

The stress on the school system weighs on the students, White said. Her job is to try and combat as much of that exterior stress as she can, to ensure the students can continue to learn.

When students came back to the classroom after remote learning during the height of the pandemic, White said there was an uptick in mental health needs. The district had a bit of financial relief in the immediate aftermath, but not nearly enough to support the resources necessary for the behavioral health support they would like to provide every student.

“There's no sustainability behind that money, because now we're at a place where it's done and gone. And we still have the same problems, if not more than we had coming out of the pandemic," said White.

There are school counselors inside of every school in the district, which also pays for school-based therapists who can focus more intently on the mental health of students.

“They're making a huge impact, but there's just not enough of them," White said about the school-based therapists. “Schools everywhere are just a microcosm of the rest of the world. Are we seeing mental health problems in the world? Then we're seeing them in schools, right.”

Following the shooting at East High School, many criticized school safety plans for students, since the suspect was being pat down as part of their specific plan to enter school every day. White explained how those plans work within 27J Schools, where they are called response management support plans.

"When a student makes a threat, or you know, posts about a threat, social media, those types of things, the school team responds to that threat in the same manner, a process that we use across Adams County... A threat assessment screen, which is comprised of an administrator, a mental health person and an SRO. In all of our schools, we either bring in an officer, some of them have them in there already, that sit and hear about that particular student," White said.

If the questions cannot be answered at that stage, then the district is prompted to conduct a full threat assessment, which requires someone from her team to join the conversation.

“Regardless of whether it's a screen or a full, we write a response management support plan for the student. That could range in interventions for kids from searching to all the other things that we would like them to learn, the skills so that we don't continue to have the same behavior," White said. “Many of the interventions are not about searching kids and are not about doing things that are punitive to kids. They're about us helping kids learn that's not what we do, that's not how we behave."

White said many times, those plans include an emphasis on behavioral health support.

“We are a small, less resourced district that does an amazing job of trying to provide what we can, but we are stretched so thin that it's very, very difficult to provide what kids need," she said.

She would love to see more counselors and therapists in every school, but said that would require a significant investment from the state.

The district has school resource officers (SRO) on all middle and high school campuses, and in the fall, is planning to have SROs at elementary schools, too.

“We have found a balance between how our SROs interact with our kids in our schools and how they interact with the discipline side of things. And that's where we're hearing some of that imbalance and some of the other districts," said White. "It provides a perception of safety, which is what people are looking for in the immediate. It's a quick fix. It's not going to change what's happening around us.”

White believes there is no singular answer to the issues surrounding every school, but said regardless, more resources are needed to help with the mental health needs of students.

Currently going through Colorado's legislature is a bill that would create mental health screenings for students from sixth grade to high school seniors.

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