From the outside, Arapahoe High School looks like a typical educational facility. But beneath the surface, tension over a series of high-profile incidents — a fatal school shooting, eight suicides, a pair of teachers arrested on suspicion of sexual assault over a two-month period, plus concerns about bullying and drug abuse — has been building for years.
This week, the controversy went public. And the situation is all but guaranteed to get uglier.
The latest conflict sparked on Saturday, April 6, when Arapahoe principal Natalie Pramenko sent a letter to parents in response to an online "Community and Stakeholder Survey of Current Leadership at Arapahoe High School" assembled by a coalition of concerned parents. In the message, Pramenko wrote, "Moving forward, I will be doing more to tackle these tough issues to strengthen our community," and she pledged to establish "a task force that includes students, parents, faculty, staff members, and community members...to dive more deeply into issues of mental health, suicide, social media, substance abuse and school culture."
Responds a coalition member and AHS alumni who spoke to Westword anonymously: "It's too little too late."
In October 2016, Arapahoe High School — an affiliate of Littleton Public Schools, whose representatives haven't been made available in response to Westword's interview requests at this writing — conducted a survey of its own in the wake of a highly critical report about the 2013 murder of student Claire Davis by a fellow student. That effort, which addressed concerns about communication breakdowns of the sort that allowed warning signs to be missed in the Davis tragedy, among other things, attracted the participation of 57 parents. In contrast, more than 1,200 people to date have taken part in the coalition's survey, whose introduction explains that it was launched because "AHS community stakeholders believe the District's most recent climate surveys did not address topics specific to the concerns about the current leadership at AHS. Further, there are questions with regard to the implementation of the recommendations provided in the report..following the shooting in December, 2013."
Attorney Jessica Peck, who represents the coalition, stresses that its survey, which was originally intended to remain open until April 14 but may be concluded early because of the flood of replies, was not sent to the news media. "They've been working hard to handle things internally," she says. "They don't want bad headlines any more than the administration does."
This sort of showy gesture makes sense given Pramenko's background. In an August 2018 newsletter to parents, Pramenko pointed out that in addition to entering her "29th year in public education" and spending "the last 19 years as a high school administrator (eight of those as an assistant principal at AHS in the Office of Curriculum and Instrumention)," she has "also coached the sport of cheerleading" throughout her career.
The coalition member who spoke to us anonymously notes that Pramenko's daughter is currently part of the AHS squad and says the principal began to cry about a recent bullying incident involving the team when discussing it over the school's public address system.
As for the rally, "everybody has a right to free speech and that's wonderful," the member points out. "But unfortunately, there are going to be a lot of people who think they're standing up for the school by standing up for the principal, even though the first time she's addressed all of these massive situations was when she responded to the survey in an email to everyone — and that's well beyond what should have happened."
The coalition consists of more than two dozen parents, the member estimates, and some of their criticism of Pramenko involves alleged favoritism for cheerleaders, athletes and students who score above a 4.0 grade point average. But the administration is also faulted for the way it's dealt with a rash of student suicides, many of which were publicly reported. Note a September 2017 item about an Arapahoe High junior who jumped to his death from a mall parking garage after posting about it on social media, and an October 2018 piece mourning two AHS students whose suicides took place within three days of each other.
And then there were the teacher arrests. In January, AHS drama instructor Ian Ahern was charged with two counts of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust over an incident that had allegedly taken place five years earlier. Then in March, Sarah Porter, who taught Spanish and coached volleyball and track at Arapahoe High, was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault on a child by someone in a position of trust, and of sexual exploitation of children/pornography/obscene material related to allegations involving a sixteen-year-old student. The tips about both teachers came via the Safe2Tell system.
Attorney Peck stresses that the coalition isn't accusing Pramenko or other AHS administrators of breaking mandatory reporting laws related to any of these events. But the coalition member feels the school's overseers have been more interested in saving face than in doing the hard work necessary to figure out why so much terrible stuff has happened at Arapahoe High and putting systems in place to improve the situation.
"Each of us in the coalition has stories about making our concerns known through Board of Education meetings or with the administration itself," the member maintains. "In fact, most of us started at the administration, and we had actual meetings with the superintendent [Brian Ewert heads the LPS system] and director of secondary education [Clay Alba]. But no action was ever taken other than a pat on the principal's back. They'd say, 'She's doing the best she can, and we've provided her with more tools and more assistant principals, yadda yadda yadda.'"
The member adds: "They've just simply been supportive of the principal, and while I'm sure she's a wonderful person and a wonderful mother, there's a groundswell of folks who think that if this was a business and she was the CEO of a company where all of these horrific things have taken place — suicides, bullying, the proliferation of drugs on campus — she would be gone."
The survey attempts to determine how widespread such impressions are. Answers to a question about participants' level of concern for the current state of Arapahoe High's reputation include "I am not at all concerned"; "I am a student and I believe community stakeholders are overblowing all the issues in the news. These things that put AHS in the news are happening everywhere and I am not terribly troubled"; "AHS used to be a school with a giant 'National Blue Ribbon School' banner around it, but I am now either frustrated, embarrassed or disgusted with the school's current climate"; "I am so troubled by the current climate that I would either hesitate or not allow my student to attend AHS"; "I am so concerned about the current climate I am considering moving my student out of AHS and into another school"; and "I want AHS's reputation to be restored and keep my student at the school, however I must see changes ASAP as I am deeply troubled by the current climate."
Other questions pertain to "Climate and Culture," "Administration," "Counseling Department," "Suicide Prevention and Intervention" and "Threat Assessment," which links to the Davis shooting analysis and asks, "Do you believe recommendations from the report have been followed through?"
The coalition member offers a resounding "No" to this last query: "It is our opinion that the same problems that led to the shooting not being stopped by people in the know are exactly the same problems going on today."
Peck compliments Pramenko for her pledge to create a task force to study issues like this, but says, "The message of 'Trust us' isn't one that can work anymore. And it's disheartening that the principal would move forward with sending out the email articulating what her vision for the school is. The coalition has made every effort before going to the media to talk to the school to see if there's a possible mechanism or opportunity for collaboration. But once she did that, we had to respond. The cat's out of the bag."
A school board meeting is scheduled for tomorrow, April 11, and Peck hints that some results from the survey may be shared there. But that's unclear because "the district right now is saying the coalition would get three minutes, and that's unacceptable. There are a lot more problems at Arapahoe High School than you can talk about in three minutes."
Here's the text of the email sent to Arapahoe High School parents on April 6.
Principal Natalie Pramenko letter:
Dear Arapahoe High School Students, Parents, Faculty and Staff,
I am writing this letter to address several issues impacting our school community. I am aware there are concerns about substance abuse, suicide, employee misconduct and school culture at Arapahoe High School. An anonymous group has created and distributed a survey raising questions about how we are dealing with many of the challenges our families and students face in today’s world. Others have reached out to our superintendent, Brian Ewert, members of the LPS Board of Education, and to my direct supervisor, Clay Abla.
I want to be very clear that I too share these serious concerns. I am personally and professionally devastated and angry about the recent unlawful behavior of two Arapahoe employees that put students at risk, despite a thorough district and state level (Colorado Bureau of Investigation) process vetting each candidate prior to hire.
Being a parent of a teenager in today’s world is difficult, and I know this as a parent myself. I worry the use of vape pens, drugs, alcohol, and other harmful substances is increasing among teens. I am deeply troubled by the dramatic increase in the number of teen lives that have been lost to suicide, especially those here at Arapahoe and in neighboring schools in our community.
While I know these issues are not specific to Arapahoe and are endemic in schools across the country, what matters most to me is how these issues affect Arapahoe and how we are going to continue to address them. We have had these conversations over the past few years and put in place several great programs such as our TRIBE advisory groups and Sources of Strength. These two programs specifically connect students with caring adults in our school.
Following the shooting in 2013, we called on national experts to help improve our district threat assessment process. Every concern regarding threatening behavior is investigated thoroughly, and appropriate measures are taken to ensure the safety of students. In cooperation with our Arapahoe County School Resource Officers, we have hosted several events to address and educate parents about substance abuse as well as suicide prevention and awareness. I will continue to provide these opportunities to our community in the new school year. If you have not had the opportunity to attend one of these events, I encourage you to do so. These experts have provided great resources and insightful advice to parents. While these measures have been steps in the right direction, we need to do more, together. With this, I need your help.
Moving forward, I will be doing more to tackle these tough issues to strengthen our community. A task force that includes students, parents, faculty, staff members, and community members will be established to dive more deeply into issues of mental health, suicide, social media, substance abuse, and school culture. We will work closely with Dr. Anna Mueller, sociologist and professor from the University of Chicago. Dr. Mueller, at the invitation of LPS, is currently conducting research in the broader LPS community related to social worlds and youth well-being. Future communications will invite you to be a part of this work.
At the beginning of this school year, my administrative team and I asked every Arapahoe teacher to define their “why?” for becoming a teacher. Not only did they define it, they shared it with many of you at back to school night last fall, and you will see it posted outside their doors to the classrooms. When I look back on my formal schooling, I remember those who made a positive impact on my life and who helped shape me into the person I am. I became a teacher, a coach, a sponsor, and ultimately an administrator to make a positive difference in the lives of students, and with the teachers who work with them every day. It is an honor to give back to this sacred profession. The very best part of my day is talking to students in the halls, in the cafeteria, and wherever they gather. I love hearing what’s on their minds, what they are looking forward to, and what they worry about. I love our students very much, and I care deeply about their well being and their futures. I feel grateful every day to come to work at Arapahoe High School.
Arapahoe is a truly unique high school with a tradition and spirit that transcends a very long and proud history. On the first page of the 1964 Calumet (our first yearbook), you will read the words from our very first Warriors, “Our spirit is proud, and we are ready to accept any challenge in order to make the history of Arapahoe High School a glorious one.” It is our collective obligation to perpetuate the proud tradition of this beautiful high school.
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I invite parents to visit the school, take a tour with me, and share your thoughts. Your voice matters to me. I am making these one-on-one conversations a top priority in the weeks to come. Please contact my assistant, Amanda Clark...to schedule time with me.
It is truly an honor to serve as your principal, and I look forward to connecting with you soon.
Arapahoe High School