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Colorado’s top lawyer focuses on youth behavioral health during Durango visit

Phil Weiser says early intervention can reduce crime, prevent tragic outcomes
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser talks with Samantha Tower, left, principal of Big Picture High School and site administer of The Hub; Karen Cheser, near left, Durango School District 9-R superintendent; and Katy Pepinsky, executive director of the La Plata Youth Services, on Wednesday as he tours The Hub at Big Picture High School. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser visited Big Picture High School on Wednesday in Durango to discuss how the school’s youth behavioral support programs have been working since Durango School District 9-R received a two-year grant of $100,000 from the Healthy Youth/Strong Colorado Fund.

Weiser also toured The Hub, located near the back of Big Picture High School, which serves as a resource center for students with behavioral issues.

The Hub includes office space for La Plata Youth Services, the La Plata Collaborative County Management program and a pediatrician who is on-site two days a week to help with access to health services. The pediatrician is focused specifically on behavioral health. Students can visit the services center at Big Picture in half-day increments up to four times a week.

Services in The Hub are aimed at students in grades 6 to 12, but the school district hopes to expand it to K-12. Last year, The Hub began with a focus on middle schoolers and was expanded this year to include high school students.

A key part of the school’s behavioral youth services program, said Principal Samantha Tower, is that it tries to identify troubled students early before their behavioral issues.

Weiser asked about the process of identifying potentially troubled students early enough to act. Tower said Big Picture uses a “robust intake process,” in which the school surveys students to determine if they are at risk to themselves.

The survey asks how students are feeling and whether they are experiencing loneliness or ostracization, which Tower said is a key signal that a student might be prone to hurting himself or herself.

The survey seeks to identify students who need help before their behavior becomes so self-destructive that the school can no longer adequately respond and must seek outside referrals. But outside referrals can also present barriers, such as when a student can’t find adequate transportation to an independent program or service.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has his picture taken with, from left, Katy Pepinsky, executive director of the La Plata Youth Services; Samantha Tower, principal of Big Picture High School and site administer of The Hub; Karen Cheser, Durango School District 9-R superintendent; and Aaron Imber, a therapist with The Hub, on Wednesday as he tours The Hub at Big Picture High School. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Another boon to the school district is that it has a relationship with Denver Children’s Hospital, which allows it to conduct remote student evaluations. The district is the only school district in the state with that relationship, Tower said.

The Colorado Attorney General’s Office awarded a grant to La Plata County Health, which manages the funds for the school district, to address student behavioral issues.

Weiser described the thought process behind the grant.

“If we don’t help kids and instead we view kids with behavioral problems as criminals and they get put in the juvenile justice system, they end up staying there and it’s a tragic consequence,” Weiser said. “Whereas, if you find ways to do early interventions, can you develop proven programs that will save people from committing future crimes from having to be sentenced, and instead they can be productive citizens?”

Weiser said the behavioral programs could present a “huge potential return on social investment.”

“One of the things that surprises me is how much of my work is about public health,” Weiser said.

The funding that supports the programs implemented at Big Picture was granted through the Healthy Youth/Strong Colorado Fund. UnitedHealth Group established the fund in coordination with the Attorney General’s Office with a contribution of $5 million from successful litigation that resulted in a settlement after UnitedHealth-owned Rocky Mountain Health Plans sued Congress.

“In a settlement with UnitedHealth Group after a ligation was successful, they (UnitedHealth Group) had to decide what to do with the money,” Weiser said.

Weiser said he appealed to UnitedHealth Group to get its investment into the Healthy Youth/Strong Colorado Fund.

“So we’re supporting Sources of Strength, which deals with (suicide prevention),” Weiser said. “And separately, we sued pharmaceutical companies for fueling this opioid epidemic. And so today we’re figuring out how to use those monies again to help all people who are helping, including young people.”

Weiser also referenced the Safe 2 Tell program, which is an early reporting service used to help prevent young people from being harmed.

Although Safe 2 Tell was formed after the Columbine High School shooting on April 20, 1999, Weiser said the No. 1 threat to young people identified through the program is suicide. Self-harm and bullying follow as the second most likely threats, with planned school attacks below them on the list.

Weiser said the Attorney General’s Office is considering a loan repayment program for youth mental health and behavioral services that are inserted into rural and underserved areas.

The attorney general also referenced a certificate program in peer counseling. He said in regard to substance abuse there is a program that allows people who have recovered from such abuse to become certified as addiction coaches, which enables them to help others who are going through what they have gone through.

Weiser took input from school leaders at Big Picture, including Tower and Superintendent Karen Cheser, and he also listened to insights provided by La Plata Youth Services Executive Director Katy Pepinski.

Weiser asked the school and youth service leaders to develop their ideas and reach out to his office. He also asked for feedback about ideas the state could be considering for the future.

One suggestion was to expand from counselors to dedicated therapists in schools who are able to identify behavioral issues and connect with families.

“If we in Colorado said youth behavioral health is critical to our future – ‘It’s really important for us to build infrastructure, school counselors, folks in behavioral health across the state’ – how much would that cost?” Weiser said.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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