Arapahoe High Shooting Report: "Major Failures" in Threat Assessment

A just-released report on the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting faults the school administration for failing to share information about troubled teen Karl Pierson, performing an inadequate threat assessment after Pierson declared that he wanted to kill a teacher, and ignoring other serious red flags in the months leading up to Pierson's final rampage and the shooting death of 17-year-old student Claire Davis. 

The report is a joint effort by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence and the University of Northern Colorado's Department of Criminal Justice. Through an unusual agreement between Davis's parents and the Littleton Public Schools to seek arbitration rather than engage in a long, drawn-out lawsuit over her death, various depositions of witnesses and other materials were made available with the aim of making improvements in school violence prevention policies. The approach is in marked contrast to the kind of secrecy surrounding other school shootings fallout, including the multi-year legal battle that parents of victims in the 1999 Columbine shootings endured to learn what law enforcement and school officials knew about the two shooters before the attack. 

Yet many aspects of the Arapahoe High shooting sadly echo the Columbine tragedy. As we've previously reported, Pierson studied the 1999 attack on Columbine intensely and, to an eerie degree, found inspiration in that much-imitated template. And as the new report makes clear, the inadequate investigation of Pierson's bullying, outbursts and threats prior to the 2013 shooting indicates that schools such as AHS still are not properly training staff in threat assessment or encouraging students to report suspicious and alarming behavior. 

Pierson had a history of such behavior that apparently dated back to elementary-school assaults on other students. At Arapahoe High, he came to the attention of various teachers and other adults through classroom tantrums, attention-seeking stunts on the speech team, and a loud threat to kill his debate coach. But an assessment conducted after that incident deemed him a "low risk" —  but only by ignoring key risk factors and failing to gather all the necessary information. Three months after that assessment, Pierson was bragging to other students that he'd purchased a shotgun; the following day, he killed Davis and himself.

In an introduction to the report, parents Michael and Desiree Davis write: "The current state of our society demands that it’s time to change our thinking about the role schools should play in the lives of students in crisis. Schools are the first place in most children’s lives where they learn to socialize and it should be one of the first places where children learn to practice respect for themselves as well as others. In many, if not most cases, helping troubled youths with unmet emotional needs costs nothing more than some time given by a caring administrator or teacher to lend a helping hand, share words of hope and encouragement, and open the door to other available resources. The goal of this report and the entire arbitration process was to encourage this change in thinking about our public schools – to challenge parents, administrators, teachers and legislators to embrace a caring, tolerant and compassionate culture that empowers our schools to intervene and help kids in crisis."

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