By Kevin Beaty
When a crowd of shaken and crying students poured out of East High School last March, there weren’t many professionals around to make sure they processed this fresh trauma in a healthy way. Two administrators had been shot by a student, and it had only been weeks since one of their classmates was shot in his car near campus.
Though 19 of Denver Public Schools’ campuses have Denver Health clinics with counselors embedded within them, it was obvious after these episodes that the district needed more help.
“It seemed clear that we needed a whole team to be able to do that,” Dr. Sonja O’Leary, a pediatrician who’s led Denver Health’s school-based clinics for a decade, said about that realization. “For the last couple of years, our adolescents have been suffering for anxiety and depression at levels that we’ve never seen before. We’ve also had to think outside of the box.”
On Thursday, Denver Health and DPS announced they’d won $1.7 million from the Caring For Denver Foundation to build that new team. They’re calling it the Therapeutic Response and Urgent Stabilization Team, or TRUST, which will comprise of three therapists, one psychiatrist and two care coordinators. It will be “out of the box” in that TRUST will be flexible. They can rush to a scene like the one outside of East High last spring, or take up residence in a school dealing with less emergent problems.
“Not only do they respond to big emergencies, what happened at East High School, but also traumatic events like the death or the suicide of a student,” O’Leary told us. “It should be able to shift and move depending on the need.”
One reason mental healthcare must be flexible, she added, is that it may be impractical to install counselors on every DPS campus.
“We’d love to have mental health providers at every school, like three of them, but there’s not always space. And remembering that schools are places of education, we have to honor that. So this is a way to do things a little bit differently,” she said.
The Caring for Denver grant will also fund permanent therapist positions in three schools, Manual High School, Lincoln High School, and Kepner Middle School.
For one DPS parent, a leader of a movement to address violence in schools, TRUST’s creation is welcome news but not a panacea.
Six months after East High’s administrators were shot on campus, Steve Katsaros and a handful of fellow DPS parents met outside the school to remind their community they still had work to do on school safety. They released six doves, each representing someone affected by gun violence at the school.
Though a school board election loomed, Katsaros and his colleagues from the Parents – Safety Advocacy Group said their message was not about who was running for office. Instead, they just wanted to pressure anyone in power to reform the district’s safety protocols.
“Safety is something that’s hard to put your finger on,” he told us after the birds disappeared into the sky. “I can just tell you that seeing the impact of it is when students are thriving. And DPS hasn’t even gotten to the point of talking about student outcomes. They’re so locked up in their own petty politics.”
When we told him about TRUST this week, Katsaros responded with a positive – if not somewhat cynical – take.
“I view this as good news. At least they’re doing something,” he told us. “Apparently the board of education and DPS’ administration have resigned to the fact that violence is going to be present, and we applaud their decision and partnering with other city entities to find a solution to help kids in trauma.”
He reiterated that his group wants to see more violence prevention. While he acknowledged the causes of gun violence stretch beyond a school board’s purview, he said the district has opportunities to do more. In particular, he hopes administrators might move potentially dangerous students into schools that specialize in treating mental health issues before things come to a head, a policy that the district has resisted. His group is also pushing for a revival of Denver’s City-School Coordinating Committee, a defunct group that formally weighed in on district issues before it was abandoned by Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration.
“The bottom line is DPS really needs to be proactive and ready for these extreme violent episodes, because they’re going to continue based on the discipline policy,” he said. “If they’re going to deny they have some role in mitigating and stopping it, then they’ve got to be there to help kids with the emotional side.”
Dr. O’Leary said she’s thinking about the bigger picture, too. While she and her colleagues can only impact one piece of this puzzle, they’re happy they can pitch in where they’re needed. And outside of emergencies, they’ll do what they can to keep kids happy and thriving.
“You need all of it. You need better gun control. You need safety in schools. You need mental health resources for when things do happen,” she said. “I hope nothing like what happened at East happens again. But if it does, we’re there. And even if not, we’re going to be busy regardless.”