Jessica Ridgeway: Local schools respond to Jessica’s death

Officials suggest talking to kids, staying vigilant

Photo by Jefferson Dodge

This story is part of Boulder Weekly‘s Jessica Ridgeway package.

Map of Arvada and Westminster with Jessica’s home, where her body was found and where her backpack was found

Map of Jessica’s neighborhood

Killer’s ‘awareness space’ might lead to clues, by Joel Dyer and Jefferson Dodge

Sketches of a killer, by David Accomazzo and Elizabeth Miller

Local schools respond to Jessica’s death, by Elizabeth Miller

Boulder County sheriff: trick or treat with your kids this year, by Jefferson Dodge

Westminster Police: Ketner Lake attempted abductions may be linked to Jessica Ridgeway, by Boulder Weekly staff

Local law enforcement reacts to Ridgeway murder, by Jefferson Dodge

The first thing kids often ask in the face of a tragedy is, “Why?”

Unfortunately, that’s the same question adults have a tough time answering.

In communications that Boulder Valley School District sent to parents after the announcement that the body found near Arvada on Oct. 10 was Jessica Ridgeway’s, counseling staff encouraged parents to talk to their kids about the questions without trying to answer them.

“It is very important not to focus on trying to answer the why, but to listen to their feelings, to bring [kids] back to how they are feeling, and to what we can do to help the child feel better,” Andrew Tucker, BVSD counseling coordinator, said in a notice to parents.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends being reassuring and emphasizing human resiliency, highlighting the compassion and humanity in other people (like the thousands who attended memorials for Jessica around the city in the days after her death), maintaining continuity and normalcy, and doing something to help others in need.

“Our coordinator for counseling services says the key for children is to let them know that they’re safe and that their life will return to normal, and that in this case Jessica did not do anything wrong to warrant this,” says Briggs Gamblin, director of communications for Boulder Valley School District.

Gamblin says he hasn’t seen as much heightened concern as he expected in response to Jessica’s case, but that it may just not be visible yet.

“The person who did this has not been caught. That’s going to be high stress, and the brutality of the crime and the randomness of it — we’re told by law enforcement and by psychologists that it is extremely rare, so that only heightens the concern,” Gamblin says. “The fact that we’re right on the border with Jefferson County, the business with the backpack in Superior — I think Jefferson County is the most impacted, but of the adjacent school districts, we have a connection that others don’t, and I think that’s added to the stress.”

In a typical school year, Gamblin estimates that his office handles two or three instances of “stranger danger” over 10 months. They’ve already managed one incident this year.

A Southern Hills Middle School sixth grader reported being approached and offered a ride by a man and a woman in a black car similar to a Cadillac at around 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 25. The student was riding her bike home on Table Mesa, west of Vassar Drive, when the couple pulled up next to her and offered her a ride. She declined, and they followed her farther and asked again. The suspects were described as a young couple, late 20s to early 30s. The woman, who was driving, had reddish-brown hair, and the man in the passenger seat had dark hair, a moustache and a goatee. The middle schooler biked home and reported the incident to her parents, who notified her school and filed a police report.

“My understanding is she felt more empowered than frightened by the experience,” Gamblin said of the girl. “That said, as a parent, it has to be one of the most frightening things you can hear. … I think the hardest thing to cope with as a parent, and this is speaking more as a parent, is that we can’t be — if they’re going to grow up and be confident young people and grow into young adults ready for the world — we can’t be with them every moment and we can’t be over them every moment, but we can take reasonable precautions. We can talk to them.”

The incident has changed the way schools in Boulder Valley handle these incidents. Previously, the principals of area schools notified one another of those incidents, and those principals notified the schools’ parents at their discretion. In this case, parents at the student’s middle school, Southern Hills, and two neighboring elementary schools, Bear Creek Elementary and Mesa Elementary, were notified. But complaints came back from parents who had students enrolled in schools on the east side of the county through open enrollment but who lived in the neighborhood where the incident occurred. Almost 40 percent of BVSD students are open enrollment, so the superintendent, Bruce Messinger, decided to revise the system, and reports of these incidents are now sent district-wide.

St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont has also already had two incidents reported. On Sept. 19, two ninth-grade female students walking on Clover Basin in southwest Longmont on their way home from school reported being followed by a red truck and being chased by its driver. The truck had slowed while passing them, then stopped, so they walked to a house, making it look like they lived there. When the truck left, they continued home, and the truck driver found them again and pursued them on foot. They went to a second home, and an adult there eventually walked them home.

They described the driver as a white male, 40 years old or older, possibly hunchbacked.

In a second incident at 4 p.m. on Sept. 20, a 7-year-old girl was approached as she was walking home from school on Mountain View. A sedan she described as blue or green pulled alongside next to her, and the driver, a white or Hispanic male in his late 40s with short black hair, asked if she would help him look for a puppy. She said, “No, thank you,” and he drove away.

The reassuring, recurring theme in the cases reported in Boulder and Longmont area schools this year is that the children knew what to do — they run or bike away from strangers, yell, or approach other adults.

“It’s about messages of prevention and common sense continuing, and listening to our kids if they’re nervous or worried, and not every danger to a child, unfortunately, comes from a stranger, so that’s another reason to listen and build relationships of trust, as opposed to relationships that are based in fear and scaring the child about the world they live in,” Gamblin says. “But letting them know that there are risks in the world, and as the adults in their life who care about them and love them, we are people they can come to, and whatever we’re doing, no matter how busy we are, if it’s that important, we’ll stop, and they come first.”

“We take safety and security extremely seriously every day, our teachers, our administrators, our campus supervisors, our volunteers, our bus drivers, we’re all on a high alert all the time,” says John Poynton, director of communications for St. Vrain Valley School District. “This is a tragic situation, but I think that our job as adults never ends in terms of being vigilant for safety and security for our kids.”

Each day, 28,000 students go to school in the St. Vrain school district, and 29,000 attend Boulder schools. Looking at the scale, Poynton says, school is one of the safest places in the country your kids can be.

“I’m a parent, and I’m concerned, and I would expect that not only parents but everyone in our community, regardless of whether or not they have children, is very concerned,” Poynton says.

“Jessica Ridgeway[’s case], for obvious reasons, caused a lot of fear, so I think it’s always important for parents and children to be vigilant. I think it’s always important for kids to have safety planned, to have some ideas, so they’re not trying to think about what to do if something happens to them,” says Jeff Satur, public information officer with the Longmont Police Department. “The Jessica Ridgeway story is extremely scary, but kids are much more likely to be victimized by an acquaintance, a relative, something like that, so I don’t think that message should be lost, too.”

Counseling is available both for children and parents through Boulder Valley School District and St. Vrain Valley School District.