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Mother of boy on 'safety plan' says Colorado needs more behavior health services

A mother shares the story of her son's behavioral health journey so far, and the difficulties she has faced searching for help.

DENVER — Very little is known about the teenager accused of shooting two deans at Denver East High School on Wednesday morning or the reason he brought a gun to school that day.

What is known, is that a security and safety plan was in place for him to be patted down each day before school. 

Such an incident is part of what led to Jennifer Theisen to reach out to 9NEWS to share her experience with her child, who she said was on a safety plan at a young age while attending Denver Public Schools. 

"My goal has always been to make it easier for other families to let other people know that they're not alone," Theisen said Friday. "You feel like you're the only one and that nobody else is going through the same struggles you are because people just don't talk about it."

Credit: Luis de Leon
Jennifer Theisen speaks to 9NEWS in an interview about her experiences with her son's behavioral health journey.

A journey with behavioral health

Theisen's son, Emmett, will soon turn 10. He has been dealing with behavioral health issues since preschool, when Theisen said they started to recognize differences with his behavior. 

"Even in preschool, he was biting kids longer than other kids were biting," she said. "He was more aggressive." 

She said she and her family struggled to find someone to treat a child as young as her son was back then. Theisen also said Emmett is neurodivergent.

Eventually, their pediatrician agreed to treat him. 

"We were working with psychiatrists," she said. "We were working with primary care physicians and did parenting groups and parenting education in sibling groups and everything we could find."

Eventually, a school put her son in what's called an "affective learning classroom," which she said mixes education with therapy and other services. 

She said the teachers at the time were a huge help and made a strong connection with Emmett. 

Still, Theisen said her son's behavior did not improve, and he began showing aggressive behavior that led him to damage to parts of their home and their car. 

"We couldn't really make plans during the day to get anything done because we were likely to get called by the school to come and pick him up or to come for a meeting or to come calm him down," she said. 

Theisen said they switched Emmett's school since "affective needs" only went up to second grade. After, the disciplinary measures continued.

"And within that first week of school he had suspensions," Theisen recalled. "And eventually we did safety plans and eventually, you know, we had threat assessments."

The safety plan, she explained, included having an adult with him at all times, and in some cases, taking classes alone. 

Theisen said they spent months searching for an alternative way for Emmett to learn, while also working on his behavior.

"We were assessed by multiple schools who felt like they couldn't manage him, mostly because of his elopement, because he, you know, he would have to have a staff member be able to follow him," she recalled. 

Credit: Photo courtesy of Jennifer Theisen
Theisen's son, Emmett, embraces a former teacher.

Meeting the call

Eventually, she said they found help from the Tennyson Center for Children

The center provides services to children and families who have been impacted by childhood trauma, among other things. 

While they focus heavily on intensive in-home services, they also combine therapeutic services with education for their day treatment. 

"We try to always connect them [families, in general] with somebody that's appropriate to provide those services for them if we can't," said President and CEO Mindy Watrous. "But there's an incredible demand." 

According to Watrous, they're seeing an increase in demand and the number of kids they serve has grown 60% compared to this time last year. 

"Their main concerns is getting their kids help as early as possible," she said. "So things don't escalate.". 

Children come to them mainly through referrals from different school districts, she explained. 

Currently, the center works with around nine districts in the state. 

"So our program is more of an early intervention or mid intervention type program where we start to work with kids as young as kindergarten to help them achieve the success they need to do so they can return to their school," Watrous said, adding that the shooting at East High this week is heartbreaking. "Because it's incredibly traumatizing for everybody involved, even those of us in the community just learning about it. And it speaks to me about the huge demand for mental health services for kids that need help, that need therapeutic services, and how can we increase those in our state."

Watrous said she encourages parents to trust their instincts.

"If you feel like your child needs more help, then don't stop advocating to get that help until you get that for your child because you the best indicator of what your child needs," she said. 

Credit: Luis de Leon
Mindy Watrous, the President and CEO of the Tennyson Center for Children, speaks to 9NEWS in an interview Friday.

Advocacy for change

This week, Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and others introduced the Better Mental Health Care for Americans Act to expand access to mental and behavioral health care for Americans on Medicare, Medicare Advantage, Medicare Part D, and Medicaid.

"I hope that the state recognizes that they need to be doing better by these kids, that so many of them are getting lost," Theisen said. "Their parents don't have the resources that his dad and I did of being able to leave our job and do 100% advocacy for him financially."

As for advice to parents, she echoed the message that Watrous had. 

"They have to just keep searching and keep advocating for their kids," Theisen said. "I think the resources can help the students and the families, both the ones that are the victims and the ones that are the suspects."

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