Researchers Study School Shooting
Their report offers recommendations for improving school safety
By Anne Cumming Rice
As lawmakers and school officials read her co-authored report about what led to the
December 2013 shootings at Arapahoe High School in Littleton, Sarah Goodrum, Ph.D.,
hopes they come away with one thing.
“I really hope we take action on these recommendations and stop this cultural belief that there’s nothing we can do about school shootings,” says the UNC associate professor of Criminal Justice. “I think this feeling has paralyzed us into accepting that this is our fate, and we’re just going to have to live with this.”
Goodrum and William Woodward, her colleague at the University of Colorado Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, teamed up to produce the independent fact-finding report into what led senior Karl Pierson to shoot and kill 17-year-old classmate Claire Davis before he shot and killed himself.
Goodrum and her team attended depositions with AHS employees and district officials and then analyzed thousands of pages of interview transcripts, drawing conclusions to understand what lessons could be learned to improve youth violence prevention in schools.
While projects like this can take years, this one took six months. The goal was to give the report to the state assembly for consideration during the current legislative session. Goodrum and Woodward delivered, presenting the findings in January to the Colorado Senate Committee on School Safety and Youth in Crisis.
The Major Issues
What surprised Goodrum was many of the things coming out of the depositions were the same issues addressed in the Columbine Commission report released after the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999.
“Here we are 16 years later, and there are still symbolic and logistic barriers,” she says. “We told the Legislature, ‘We have to make progress on these now. We cannot find more excuses not to address these things.’”
Certainly some things have changed — in particular, law enforcement response to school shootings and school programs focused on anti-bullying to promote positive school culture and prevent school violence.
But the research into AHS also revealed other factors, which constituted the report’s three major findings — failure of information sharing, failure of threat assessment and failure of systems thinking (the report notes that preliminary evidence suggests that AHS has made several changes in approaching school safety since 2013.) What makes this especially challenging is that schools in Colorado are managed site-by-site, leaving each school to figure out how best to address these factors.
Finding No. 1:
Goodrum and her colleagues discovered that no one at AHS had a complete record of Pierson’s history of concerning behaviors over his three years at the high school. They also found that school staff members misinterpreted the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), thinking they perceived a higher level of negative liability than what the law actually intended.
“It’s common for many schools to swing way too far to protect a student’s information,” Goodrum says, noting that there’s a fear of overreacting, a fear of parents complaining and of losing federal funding.
“But there hasn’t been one school that lost funding because they were in violation of FERPA. That fear is totally unfounded.”
The report recommends consistent use of a student information system to document student concerns and make it easier to identify early warning signs of violence, escalation in anger management issues and decline in academic performance.
Also revealed was a lack of awareness and formal training for how to use Safe2Tell, an anonymous reporting tool that provides a safety net for those with concerns about a school threat. The system was instrumental in stopping a threat of violence in December at Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch.
Andrew Thompson, a UNC graduate assistant who worked on the report, is also an AHS graduate. As he read through the depositions, he said he was shocked by some of it.
About the Report
The Arapahoe High School Community Fund Honoring Claire Davis, a donor-advised fund of The Denver Foundation, approached the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder to help collect and interpret data. The report includes 32 recommendations for improving school safety.
Examples of Report Recommendations
- Principals, assistant principals, teachers, counselors, psychologists, coaches, and school resource officers consistently use a student information system (e.g., Infinite Campus) to document matters of a “public safety concern,” including student behavior concerns, conduct violations, interventions, academic concerns, threat assessment results, and safety and support action plans.
- Schools and districts promote Safe2Tell in formal trainings to students and staff each year.
- Schools and districts install a validated threat assessment process.
- Schools and districts conduct an established school climate survey of students and staff every one to two years and when the findings exceed established norms, select and implement experimentally proven interventions, programs and practices.
For example, about two months before the shootings, two students reported seeing Pierson looking at pictures of guns and mass shootings on a computer during school.
“Nothing was done about it,” Thompson says. “That surprised me.”
Finding No. 2:
The report recommends schools use a validated threat assessment, such as the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines that resulted from shootings at Virginia Tech University in 2007.
Threat assessments evaluate whether a student’s concerning behavior poses a real threat of violence or could lead to one.
While AHS’s own threat-assessment procedures weren’t followed, those procedures were still flawed, Goodrum said.
“Schools need to stop using their own checklists,” Goodrum says. “With no clear standards and expectations, school principals are trying to figure it out on their own. They need to use a tool that’s been validated by empirical research.”
Spencer Weiler, a UNC associate professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies who prepares prospective school principals, agrees that a uniform threat assessment for all schools in Colorado would help.
“There should be a standard, objective, quantifiable way of threat assessment that involves people who have the professional training needed to do it,” he says. “State law could dictate this. It should include administration, teachers, parents, school psychologists, school resource officers to come together to ask, ‘Is this a legitimate threat?’”
Finding No. 3:
Failure in systems thinking, or “groupthink,” is the most subjective of the findings in the report.
The school and school district “failed at many points to get a handle on (Pierson’s) problems, in spite of the fact that there were many warning signs and many opportunities,” the report’s executive summary states. “The evidence of faulty systems thinking included a tendency for groupthink, a reluctance to reflect on and admit failure, and the minimization of sincere concern.”
“The systems thinking piece is a hard one to grasp,” Goodrum says. “But we started to see deposition witnesses almost shrug their shoulders and say, ‘There was no one I could talk to about this.’”
Part of the solution may be for schools to develop partnerships with organizations including mental health service providers that can work with students who need help.
Another idea is to conduct an established school climate survey every one to two years. These can reveal how students feel about the overall climate at school.
Cheryl Spittler is a UNC adjunct faculty member in the School of Special Education who also owns a consulting business that provides training for school districts on positive school climate as it relates to classroom safety. She says climate is about the strength of relationships in a school.
“When you have an element of trust — students trust teachers, teachers trust administrators, and back and forth – you can have open conversation,” Spittler says. “It boils down to whether we as individuals are proactive about our thoughts and responses.”
Parents, too, can play a part in gauging the climate of a school.
“Parents should be asking a lot of questions of both your student and your school,” she says. “Questions like ‘What’s it like to be a student at this school? Who do you talk to when someone is mean to you? How do they handle it?’”
The climate at AHS seemed to be about being the perfect school, Goodrum says. While an emphasis on achievement can be good, it can also have a detrimental effect on school climate.
“In a culture of ‘we are fantastic,’ highly invested in achievement, failure can be considered a crisis,” she says. “It makes it more difficult for a kid to say, ‘I’m struggling. I don’t fit in here.’”