The Other 60 Percent

Colo. whooping cough cases pass 1,000

Colorado’s whooping cough epidemic has now triggered 1,090 cases of the highly contagious disease, making 2012 the worst year for the disease since 2005 when the state recorded 1,383 cases.

Other states that have declared epidemics are Washington and Wisconsin. In 2010, 10 babies died in California from an outbreak there.

So far, no one has died from the illness this year in Colorado, but Dr. Rachel Herlihy of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said there have been several close calls with infants who often get the most severe cases of the disease.

“We’ve had a large number of cases with infants and some close calls with infants who have had to be on respirators,” said Herlihy, director of the state health department’s immunization section.

Herlihy urged parents and people who work around children to get vaccinated and to make sure both young children and adolescents are up to date on their immunizations for the disease, which is also called pertussis.

Colorado cases of whooping cough by county
  • Broomfield, 32 cases; highest rate in state with 56 per 100,000
  • Boulder, 130 cases; second highest rate in the state: 43 per 100,000
  • Adams, 155 cases; rate: 34 per 100,000
  • Jefferson, 164; rate: 30 per 100,000
  • Denver, 174 cases; rate: 28 per 100,000
  • Douglas, 71 cases; rate 24 per 100,000
  • Arapahoe, 132 cases; rate 23 per 100,000

Source: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“It’s especially important for those who have contact with young children who are more vulnerable to whooping cough. Child care workers, health care workers, parents, grandparents and siblings of young children should all make sure they are up to date on their whooping cough vaccinations,” Herlihy said.

All adults should receive the whooping cough booster vaccine, which is called Tdap, but few have received it, or even know they should get it, Herlihy said. There is no lifetime protection against whooping cough. People can get it more than once and the vaccine wanes over time.

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Some families in Colorado choose not to vaccinate their babies. Boulder and Broomfield counties have the highest rates of pertussis right now and Boulder is frequently cited as one of the national hotspots for people who refuse vaccines.

While some unvaccinated children are spreading the disease, it also seems to be striking some older children whose vaccinations may be wearing off early.

Herlihy said infected children also may be returning to day care or school too soon and also could be continuing to spread whooping cough.

“You are supposed to isolate yourself for a full five days of antibiotics. Unfortunately, we’re seeing kids who are going back to school too soon and they are continuing to spread the infection,” Herlihy said.

The telltale sign of the disease is a persistent cough that won’t go away. Herlihy said that in China, the disease is called the “100-day illness.” Anyone who has a family member who is experiencing a long-lasting illness with a cough should call or visit a doctor.

Infants under six months are too young to have received all the vaccine doses necessary to protect them from pertussis. So it’s critical for people who live and work around them to be immunized.

The Tdap vaccine is recommended for the following groups:

  • Pregnant women in the third or late-second trimester
  • Parents of infants under 12 months of age.
  • Caregivers of infants, including grandparents, babysitters and child care workers.
  • Health care workers
  • Others who plan on having close contact with an infant
  • All adults need a tetanus booster if they have previously not received Tdap

Pertussis is a bacterial infection of the respiratory tract that can easily spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The illness often starts with cold-like symptoms, including sneezing, a runny nose and a mild cough. Often there is no fever or just a low-grade fever. The cough becomes more severe during the first week or two and people who are ill can have coughing fits, followed by a high-pitched “whoop” or a coughing fit so severe that the person vomits. The cough may last for a couple of months and is more frequent at night.

Since symptoms in adults and adolescents can be relatively mild, individuals may not realize they have pertussis and can easily spread it to others. Young infants with pertussis often do not have a cough but gasp or struggle to breathe.

Symptoms of whooping cough or pertussis
  • Causes coughing spells so bad that it is hard for infants to eat, drink or breathe. These coughing spells can last for weeks. It can lead to pneumonia, seizures (jerking and staring spells), brain damage and death. It is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and spreads germs.

Who needs to be vaccinated?

  • Children should get 5 doses of DTaP vaccine, one dose at each of the following ages: 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15-18 months, 4-6 years, 11-12 years
  • Anyone who comes in contact with your baby – parents, grandparents, caregivers, siblings, plus extended family and friends – should receive the adult booster (Tdap) to help shield newborns from whooping cough.
  • In January 2011, the CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices updated the Tdap vaccine recommendations to also include certain adults 65 years of age and older and under-vaccinated children aged 7 – 10 years.

Sources: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”

Road map

A new guide aims to help Colorado school districts offer mental health support to students

First-graders at Denver's Munroe Elementary do a mindfulness exercise led by school psychologist Amy Schirm.

A new toolkit to be officially released Monday will help Colorado educators, parents, and district administrators infuse mental health support into classrooms and schools.

The 60-page online guide from the nonprofit Mental Health Colorado comes out at a time when many school leaders say they desperately need help addressing students’ mental health needs and districts have increasingly emphasized social and emotional skills.

The guide includes 10 key practices for promoting mental health in schools, including offering services in school-based health centers, reducing the stigma around mental health treatment and prioritizing suicide prevention. Besides listing effective curriculums and programs, it provides examples of how Colorado schools and districts are using proven practices.

The kit also includes suggestions on how to secure funding for school mental health initiatives.

“There are ways to do that and examples of how to do that because most people have no idea how to get the ball rolling,” said Jen Marnowski, spokeswoman for Mental Health Colorado, which advocates for the prevention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders.

Leaders in the Jeffco and the Estes Park districts are among those who’ve expressed enthusiasm about the toolkit so far.

“It’s great. It’s the right work,” said Jon Widmier, Jeffco’s student services director.

He said the kit, which the district will pilot in two elementary schools next year, lines up with the district’s emphasis on educating the whole child.

“The mental health piece of that is huge … This is so right in line with what we’re trying to accomplish on that,” he said.

Marnowski said the genesis of the toolkit was a listening tour the organization conducted in communities across Colorado two years ago. The group’s leaders heard from parents, educators, public officials and law enforcement officers who voiced concerns about the lack of access to mental health care, the desire for more mental health support in schools, and the state’s high suicide rate.

The toolkit is meant to give districts a roadmap from addressing some of the problems community members cited.

“Kids are in school so many hours a day that’s it’s very effective to do this when they’re [there], to get them the help they need,” she said.

Widmier said he sees the kit as a useful tool for all kinds of districts.

“We’re very fortunate in Jeffco because we ‘ve got a school board that really supports the mental health needs of our students … There’s a lot of school districts out there that haven’t focused on it that much and I think this is going to be such a great resource for them as well.”