How Montrose students in crisis get help: a community-based approach has been in place for over two and a half years
When a self-identified parent called into Montrose High School on Feb. 2 to report that their student had brought a gun to school, the building went into lockdown for more than three hours while teams of law enforcement officers swept the building for weapons — none were found.
MCSD Executive Director of Operations Jim Pavlich attributed the cooperative and speedy response on Feb. 2 to the partnerships with local law enforcement agencies, the Center for Mental Health, Hilltop, and the 7th Judicial District.
“Montrose County’s Threat Assessment process ensures that all threats are taken seriously, investigated thoroughly, and firmly focused on keeping our students and staff safe,” Pavlich said.
Pavlich declined to comment on whether any MHS students were under active investigation at the time of the incident.
Last week’s incident was a high-stakes, urgent threat that merited a serious response, but the school district, as well as a group of community organizations, have been carrying out hundreds of investigations into students’ threats to harm others or themselves over the past two and a half years.
Since the fall of 2019, the West Central Colorado Student Threat Assessment Team has worked with students and families mostly in Montrose, but some have come from other districts in the Uncompahgre Valley.
Before a model for collaborating on assessing threats was implemented, one of the biggest challenges was determining whether student threats were serious or not, Montrose Police Department Cmdr. Matt Smith said at the October board meeting. But the new approach and shared language help schools and community partners determine the credibility of threats and help students and families in the process.
The Salem-Keizer system presented a solution: the multi-agency, shared liability approach gave the agencies the same language to talk about student threats and work on them over time, instead of the targeted moment.
As Pavlich explained, the three goals of the approach are increasing the psychological safety of school community members — students, staff, and families — as well as supporting youth actively in crisis, and bringing suspended or expelled students back into the school system as quickly as possible.
“It takes care of the whole child, so it’s not just the legal or the school consequences, or the mental health needs,” said Laura Byard, the clinical director for the Center for Mental Health.
For assessing both suicide and threats to others, the process starts with an interview with the student. If the situation escalates, the team reassess and might assign them to a level two threat, which entails an even more thorough investigation and additional interviews.
The threat assessment protocol moves in tandem with the discipline process, any potential law enforcement involvement and mental health treatments.
“It’s a very systematic way to respond every time,” Pavlich said.
Assessments for suicide risk have been carried out approximately twice as often as threat assessments, according to data Pavlich shared with the board of education at the Jan. 11 meeting. About one in four of both suicide and threat risks are bumped up to a level two process.
More middle school students were assessed for suicide risk more than any other group consistently over the past three years of data and high schoolers had the second-highest frequency. On the other hand, younger elementary students had the most threat assessment risks for the first two full years of the program.
Pavlich said that the baseline for entering a serious threat assessment process is low. Some of the reports are unfounded, but the investigation process often finds other ways that the team can support the family, he told the school board this fall.
The first level of a threat assessment usually involves a small team of school staff that interview the student and parent and review questionnaires from teachers. Then, three people at a minimum — an administrator, school resource officer and a counselor, but teachers and coaches sometimes join — meet and review what has been compiled.
Level one assessments are usually done within 48 hours of the incident, with student and parent interviews completed before the end of the school day if possible and a teacher survey completed before the student returns to school, Pavlich said in response to a question posed by board member Tom West.
If the team cannot sufficiently help out the child or the threat lingers, then a community-based team with more representatives gets involved. The process for reviewing and working with a level two threat assessment often takes up to two weeks, but can vary depending on the complexity of the situation.
MCSD Threat Assessment Coordinator Megan Farley supports administrators and counselors with carrying out level one investigations and carries out the level two investigations.
Not all of the investigations find that the initial threats were credible, Pavlich said, but the process still helps the student and their family in some way.
“Some of (the threats) are deemed unfounded, but in almost every case, we figure out that we need to support this kid or this family in some way, so what this does is it gives us an opportunity to talk to that family,” Pavlich said.
Suicide is a growing epidemic among teens, especially in Colorado, which has the fifth-highest rate of teen suicide among the states. Adolescents are at a higher risk for suicide than the rest of the population, especially ones experiencing mental health issues, have a history with drugs and alcohol, and identify as LGBTQ+.
If administrators determine within the first phase of investigating suicide threats that they need to bump the severity to level two, where they figure out the best way to get the student to see a mental health professional as soon as possible.
“We have a habit in our culture of being ashamed of suicide and not sharing concerns, because we’re worried about what the impact of sharing might be, but we’re working to change that,” Pavlich said at the school board meeting on Jan. 11, 2022.
Concerns about student threat or suicide risk can be reported anonymously —or not — to school administrators, community partners or through Safe2Tell, a statewide system to report serious concerns about students.
“If you’re still thinking about something with the kid, six to 12 hours after you had contact, you should report it,” Pavlich said.