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Co-Responder Team Bridges Mental Health Gap for Youth in Thompson School District

Mental Health Co-Responder Team stands in front of Mountain View High School

For Larimer County Sheriff’s Deputy Brendan Solano and licensed clinical social worker Maryann Ramos Flynn, each day they spend working as co-responder team members in Thompson School District is unpredictable. Still, they all have one thing in common: They provide a unique opportunity to advocate for youth. 

Larimer County Sheriff’s Deputy Brendan Solano and licensed clinical social worker Maryann Ramos Flynn stand in front of sheriff's vehicle

Providing support for the approximately 15,000 students in Thompson School District requires the work of hundreds of staff members, including the collaboration of people with all different areas of expertise. Thompson School District’s inaugural co-responder team is one of the best examples of how effective cooperative work can be.

As a sheriff’s deputy, Brendan has worked in schools as a school resource officer and is trained in working with students who are struggling with mental health issues. Maryann works for SummitStone Health Partners and has spent most of her career working with young people. 

Since last November, Brendan and Maryann have been Thompson School District’s first co-responder team, handling crises in our schools. The two contract with the school district through a program designed to partner with various stakeholders in the community to help students in need of mental health support. While Brendan can address the law enforcement aspects that sometimes arise with more severe incidents, Maryann provides support as a mental health professional. 

“Our biggest success is to be advocates for students,” Maryann explains. “We are unique in that co-response is a relatively new program in Colorado. It’s only offered in one other school that I know of. Kids have always deserved this service, and now Thompson School District is a leader in saying how much they care about kids. They are addressing it by providing this service to their kids.” 

Brendan Solano sits in chair in classroom

Brendan and Maryann are based in the district Administration Building but spend much of their workdays responding to calls in schools throughout the district. 

“The nation as a whole has discovered there’s an issue with mental health, and a lot of people in crisis don’t know what to do,” Brendan says. “It’s a problem, and we recognize the need.” 

In addition to providing schools with law enforcement support, Brendan and Maryann are also trained to respond to students in crisis and help provide families with care that is less limited than what school counselors can offer, including visiting families’ homes and helping students and their families secure assistance through more extensive community resources.

“Our primary focus isn’t the law enforcement – our school resource officers take care of that. We’re more focused on continuing care,” Brendan says. 

Maryann agrees that the goal is to connect students to whatever help they need and assist families in supporting their children. 

“Our goal is to be able to have kids be in school safely and function at a healthy level so they can be productive members of society,” Maryann says. “Sometimes what the school can provide is limited, and then families don’t know what to do next. That’s been my greatest joy of this job, getting information into families’ hands so they can continue to do the good work of caring for their families. Colorado needs to support their youth.” 

When Maryann and Brendan are not busy responding to calls, they do preventative work in schools, talking to students about how the co-responder team can help them and what other resources are available. The pair do not separate during the work day but rather work in tandem to address the multifaceted aspects of situations when students are experiencing crises.

The team has the added benefit of being bilingual, as Maryann is a Spanish speaker whose mother immigrated to the United States. Maryann says this allows the Thompson School District co-responder team to bridge additional gaps that maybe be happening between students and school staff. 

“Our youth today are more open to mental health care than ever before,” Maryann says. “We have youth who want to take care of their mental health, and we need to realize that part of whole-person care is addressing mental health needs.” 

Often that involves connecting families with outside agencies that can assist them and their students. 

“It’s important for them to know we are here to partner with them, not to take over care,” Brendan says. “We do believe that families most times are doing their best and kind of get stuck in how to support their student. We help families get what they need.” 

Staff Profile: Allison Aue – Transition Teacher, Community Connections; Extended School Year Coordinator; Secondary ILC Liaison

At Community Connections, every day is something new working with students with special needs, and for transition teacher Allison Aue, that’s exactly why she loves her career.

“Working with this population, no days are ever the same,” Allison says. “There’s no standard we have to meet; we are just making sure the families feel supported. We get to focus on what they’re good at.”

Community Connections is a Thompson School District program serving students who have already completed their four years of academic instruction in a TSD high school but could benefit from additional support for various reasons. Through Community Connections, these students can work on different life skills based on their ability level, learning everything from cooking to money management to community access and vocational skills.

In the state of Colorado, public school education ends for most students when they graduate from high school. But for some students who might need additional support, the state provides funding for districts to educate them through age 21. Community Connections students can stay in the program until the end of the semester they turn 21.

“We provide [a] transition for when they lose that regular school day support of the district,” Allison explains. “We are really just here to make sure they are set up for the future.”

Allison says the program is designed to individualize education based on each student’s needs and abilities.

“The instruction here is functional. It’s very specific to them and what they will use in their life,” she says.

This might mean finding a job or managing more complex household tasks for some. For others, it might mean making a simple meal for themselves or learning to be responsible for their belongings.

Since Allison started working at Community Connections three years ago, the program has grown significantly, doubling in size to almost 40 students. Allison credits the effective program and an extremely strong staff for the growth.

“I am very lucky to work with my teaching partners. Our [paraprofessionals] are also amazing. Everything that happens here is because we work so seamlessly as a team,” Allison says of the three teachers, six paraprofessionals, and administrative staff tasked with working with the Community Connections students.

For Allison, working at Community Connections was a surprising but natural career path that evolved from needing additional credits when she was working toward becoming a math teacher. She became a peer buddy and earned a bachelor’s degree in special education.

“I had never even considered working in this field, never even knew it existed,” says Allison, who has a master’s degree in Special Education Administration and Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. “My goal is to support each student in being as independent as possible – vocationally, socially, and in the community. We want them to have purpose and happiness.”

While the Community Connections students do not have a strict rubric or set of goals that have to be met, each of the students does have an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, which sets goals and provides structure for a student’s educational team to measure how well those goals are being met. “We’re not giving grades and credits,” Allison says. “Our focus is making sure that we’re meeting the needs of the students.”

Supporting students and families takes many forms, with one example being that each student has a cooking day where they plan a meal, shop for ingredients, and prepare the meal. Other programs include working with the Loveland Youth Gardeners to grow and sell produce and running Thompson Clothing Closet, which provides clothing items for TSD students in need. As Allison sees it, the students in Community Connections have just as much to contribute to their community as the community has to give back to them.

“So many of them have never been seen for what they can do,” she says. “That’s what we do, we see them for what they can do, and it gives them a place to fit in. I just want all of these families to feel like their student is the most important one to someone. Someone cares.”