What Really Keeps Us Safe

What really keeps us safe

With the recent violent events in the news, questions are bound to surface about what really keeps us safe. It’s enough to make our heads spin, keep us up at night, and second guess the safety measures we’ve put in place in our schools and workplaces. Events like what happened in Las Vegas can make many of us throw up our hands and wonder, “how can we possibly prevent something like that?”

After every incident of targeted violence, we learn a little more about how to protect ourselves and those for whom we are responsible. We do need to keep our doors locked and have consistently enforced check-in procedures at our entrances. We need to pay attention to who is in our buildings and be willing to question those we don’t recognize or who exhibit signs that they don’t belong there. We need to practice drills for all different types of emergencies, have a solid emergency response plan and effective communication system. We need to learn warning signs and have a process for intervening when we see them. Nothing has changed in that respect.

But there is one thing we come back to again and again.

It’s what really keeps us safe.

Relationships. Listening and taking concerns seriously. Paying attention and noticing when someone is struggling. Creating a welcoming and positive school climate. Stopping bullying, harassment and disrespect in its tracks.

These are not the glamorous, novel, or shiny new strategies. They are not the latest in technology or must-have safety gear.

But, they are what matters most.

After every mass shooting or incident of violence between individuals, we find someone who is unhappy, angry, feels dismissed or has suffered at the hands of someone else. When we dig deeper, we find that the person has often been in turmoil for a significant period of time and feels that no one is listening or helping to resolve the situation. We see the bullied and the bullies. We see those with a grievance who feel dismissed or disenfranchised. We find individuals who are at the fringes of the groups to which they want to belong. We see sadness, rejection and anger, and often an inability to make things better.

A sense of belonging is at the very root of human existence. Without proper bonding and positive interaction, infants fail to thrive. When children are neglected, they fall behind both socially and academically. When teens feel alone and unwanted, they become depressed, suicidal, and turn to all sorts of risky behaviors. When teens and adults have felt this way for years, they either turn the overwhelming feelings inward or outward. Often, they do both.

The best way to prevent this is to take a hard look at what we’re doing to build positive connections and an inclusive environment. We must look at this from the perspective of those we serve…our students. We may have programs in place that we believe address all of our school climate concerns, but if students don’t feel a sense of belonging, acceptance and concern from our staff and each other, we’re not doing the job as well as we think we are. If you need help finding a tool to assess how students perceive the school in these respects, take a look at this compendium of surveys or put together some focus groups and study the issue. Then, work together with all stakeholders to change what needs to be changed, and continue to monitor and evaluate until students and parents tell you that you got it right.

I was just about to ask…..

Are we becoming too complacent

I was just about to ask, “are we becoming too complacent?” In fact, that was the original title of this article. I recently noticed that we, as a society, might have allowed ourselves to put some aspects of school safety on the back burner because we hadn’t seen any major safety breaches in the past couple of years. I had begun to receive fewer requests for school safety and violence threat assessment training. Friends and acquaintances who work in schools had been commenting that security was getting a bit lax in their respective buildings.

And then, it happened. Before I could finish this article, there were 2 incidents…the stuff of our worst nightmares. Honestly, I knew it would.

On August 28, a 16-year old boy shot and killed 2 women and injured 4 others in a small community library in Clovis, NM. On September 13, a 15-year old boy shot and killed another student and wounded 3 others before being subdued by a heroic school employee.

I suspect we aren’t complacent anymore.

My phone has started to ring. But, it is not school administrators who are calling me. Rather, the calls come from reporters around the country who want to know how we can prevent this from happening again.

A recent Gallup poll called the Work and Education poll, was conducted in early August with a random sample of 233 parents of K-12 children. Gallup has administered this poll annually since 1977. This year, 24% of parents reported worrying about their child’s physical safety at school. The percentage has not been this low since August 2012, just a few months before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. After the Sandy Hook tragedy, parental fear rose to 33%.

Historically, this particular poll has shown that parental fear has increased following a school shooting:

  • After the Columbine High School shooting, parental fear rose to 55%, the highest in the history of the poll
  • After the Santana High School shooting in Santee, CA, parental fear rose to 45%
  • After the shooting at a Pennsylvania Amish schoolhouse, parental fear rose to 35%

The poll also asked parents, “Have any of your school-aged children expressed any worry or concern about feeling unsafe at their school when they go back to school this fall?” Just 6% of parents reported that their children expressed concern regarding their safety while at school, the lowest number in 18 years of survey administration. The average has been 11%.

I am certainly not saying that I want parents, school staff members and students to live fearfully. I simply want to encourage those connected to schools to be mindful that we must continue to employ the school safety and prevention measures we have adopted, even when we are experiencing a positive, less violent cycle.

Perhaps now is a good time to review your tolerance and bully prevention policies and programming, and take a hard look at school climate. This might be the year to administer a school climate survey to students, parents and staff members. We have recently witnessed several high-profile incidents related to hate and intolerance. While we cannot always control what happens in the larger world, we can foster a sense of belonging and ownership within our school communities.

Has your school assembled and trained a threat assessment team? A referral to this team is vital when students or staff members have concerns about behavior or threats. When asked whether warning signs had been missed in the recent Washington shooting, Sheriff Knezovich commented, “they are always missed.” While I’m not in complete agree with the sheriff, here’s how this can happen:

When we don’t have a process in place to gather extensive data and compare notes with others, each behavior witnessed seems like an isolated incident. We must put all the pieces of the puzzle together to make a true and accurate assessment of violence risk.

Do you have your threat assessment team in place? Have all team members received high quality training? I train school staff members using the very model employed by the FBI and Secret Service to assess threats. If you’d like to know more, simply contact me here.

For a quick recap of some key warning signs, you may want to listen to this recent radio podcast. For an extensive list of warning signs, read this.

Your Back-to-School Resource Guide

It’s the beginning of a new school year and you have a lot to do!

I’m a big fan of having research-based strategies and practices at hand, ready to implement when the time is right. I’m also a proponent of low cost training and resources to help school staff members do their jobs more efficiently. The resources below provide both!

Bookmark this resource guide for later use. It’s full of prevention and safety resources for your student services staff and building administrators.

Have a great beginning to the school year!

End of School Year Vigilance

With everything else on educators’ plates right now, we need to remind ourselves to practice end of school year vigilance. The spring months typically have the highest number of school violence incidents, and we have seen an increase in school threats over the past few weeks. While many are transient with no substantial plan, we must evaluate each one to ensure safety.

What to watch for

If you’re not sure what you should be looking for, you can refresh your memory with this list of warning signs.

We also want to watch for students who may dread the summer months and loss of structure and support that school provides. Unfortunately, the spring and summer months are also host to a high number of suicides. If you’d like to send some information out to parents along with other end-of-year correspondence, here are two options for you: warning signs of suicide and tips for parents.

If you find yourself with some free time, and are yearning to learn something new this summer, Youth Risk Prevention Specialists offers a free online school safety course that takes about 20 minutes to complete. A longer, more in-depth course is available for just $15, and takes about 2 hours to complete.

I want to thank you for all you do to help keep kids safe throughout the school year. I wish you an amazing, relaxing summer.

Threats to our schools continue in high numbers

Threats to schools

While we have been very fortunate in the past year not to have experienced a large-scale school attack, threats to our schools continue in high numbers. Just this week, I came across the following news stories related to school threats:

AMESBURY, Massachusetts – An Amesbury Middle School student was ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation after threatening to create an incident similar to Columbine as the anniversary of that shooting approaches, according to police.

COPPERAS COVE, Texas – Security was stepped up and attendance was down Monday at Copperas Cove High School, which was named in a shooting threat. Parents were notified Friday evening after the threat, “I’m going to shoot up Copperas Cove high school on 3/20/17,” was found spray-painted on a wall at an abandoned car wash on Casa Drive.

PEORIA, Illinois – In early February, police arrested a 14-year-old girl on multiple charges related to text messages and comments she made on social media threatening a school shooting. At Partridge Elementary, someone wrote on a bathroom stall in pencil, “school shooting March 30th.” At Alta Loma Elementary School, a 12-year-old student was booked into the Durango Juvenile Detention Center on a hoax charge after he made threats against Santa Fe Elementary School via Snapchat.

PUYALLUP, Washington – Puyallup police late Sunday detained a Kalles Junior High School student who allegedly made threats against the school, the department announced.

SPANISH FORT, Alabama – Two male juvenile Spanish Fort High School students are in custody after making terrorist threats through social media on Sunday (March 19) afternoon.

CORNING, New York – A Corning-Painted Post High School sophomore was arrested Thursday for allegedly threatening to shoot school staff members.

NEWTON COUNTY, Georgia – An 11-year-old boy is facing charges after deputies say he made threats against his school, showed a gun and then posted the video on social media.

IREDELL COUNTY, North Carolina – An 18-year-old is accused of making a threat toward North Iredell High School on social media.

DELMAR, New York – Three Bethlehem Central High School students were arrested and charged with making a terroristic threat after police say they threatened to “shoot up the school” on various social media sites.

ATLANTA, Georgia – A middle school student accused of bringing a gun and ammo to class will spend 30 days in custody. This comes amid allegations he also threatened to kill a teacher at McNair Middle School.

CABOT, Arkansas – Three Cabot students have been arrested in the past week and three other cases are being referred for criminal charges. This was the second threat reported in a week at this school, according to a Facebook post by the Cabot Police Department.

According to the Educator’s School Safety Network (ESSN), a national nonprofit that compiles data and provides training to deal with bomb threats and similar school safety concerns, U.S. schools have experienced 1,267 bomb threats during the 2015-16 school year, an increase of 106% over the same time period in 2012-2013. Since November, 2011 there has been a 1,461% increase in bomb threat incidents.

Amy Klinger, co-founder and director of programs at ESSN, explains, “people do it because it’s exciting and interesting to watch any chaos and confusion that it might cause. The best thing a school can do to prepare for bomb threats is to have a plan based in best practices and to give its teachers and staff training on how to respond.” According to Klinger, “some of the excitement that is created by confusion is because most educators have not gotten any training. But when a response goes well and it’s not total chaos, you find the number of threats goes down. … If the first threat was exciting and interesting, you’ll likely see more. But if not and it was dealt with in an orderly fashion, future threats are less likely.”

Ken Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services, states, “We are now dealing with ‘Generation Text. The rumors typically become greater than the issue, problem, or incident itself.  Rumors fly in minutes, not hours.” National School Safety and Security Services reviewed 812 threats made to schools during the first half of the 2014-15 school year. Bomb threats ranked highest at 44% of threats made, with shooting threats second, at 29%. Total threats increased by 158% over the previous school year.

We need to be sure we are doing all we can to prepare and train staff to respond in a calm and orderly fashion in the face of a threat. When staff members know that the school has a solid procedure for reporting, investigating and acting on concerns, they are able to respond more calmly. We are coming up on the anniversary dates of several school attacks, so it’s a good idea to increase staff vigilance around any behaviors that seem out of context or related to violent ideation, aggression, grievances, intolerance, revenge, or increasing anger. For a more complete list of warning signs of violence, read this.

As always, we want to focus on creating a welcoming school climate, which provides a protective factor for students and encourages them to come forward and report concerns to adults. We want to take all threats seriously, and have a process in place to investigate, assess and manage them. It’s also important to have an effective communication system so parents can receive information quickly, alleviating anxiety and concerns that may have been fueled by rumors or texts from their children.

If you’re wondering whether your school can do more to keep everyone safe, you may want to consider a comprehensive safety assessment. Summer is a great time to put together the staff and tools necessary to start your next school year, safer than ever.

 

Sources:

Seacoastonline.com

Campus Safety

Schoolsecurity.org, National School Safety and Security Services website

Achievement Despite Trauma

I often hear from educators that the number of students in their schools affected by traumatic life experiences is climbing. How do we bring out the best in these students, and help them find success and achievement, despite trauma?

It begins with an understanding of how trauma affects the brain. When a child is suffering from the aftereffects of trauma, his or her brain is in often in fight or flight mode. When the trauma continues over time, this pattern can become chronic. It becomes difficult to learn when our brains are in this state. Learning, memory, emotion and language skills are all affected.

If we can begin to calm the brains of trauma-affected students, we may have a chance to help lower this barrier to learning. One strategy includes teaching mindfulness to our students. When we are truly mindful and present in the moment, we can begin to leave the fight or flight response behind, if only for a few moments. That may be long enough to refresh the brain.

All of our students can benefit from daily breathing, stretching or yoga breaks to relax their bodies and minds. Some students have a low threshold for triggering fear, or shutting down and tuning out. Creating safe spaces in our schools and classrooms can provide a respite from the stress, overload and confusion that these students experience.

Consider creating a corner of the room where students can go to calm themselves. If you can block off an area with shelves and add soft furniture, pillows, fabrics, tactile objects and dim lighting, students can give themselves a break when needed. You can work out a system where either you or the student provide a cue that it’s time for a sensory break. A great benefit is that this helps the student learn to self-monitor and head off a more intense response by acting preventively.

For some additional resources on supporting kids who’ve suffered trauma, check out NEA’s Teaching Children from Poverty and Trauma handbook. One great tip is to greet each student authentically. If you haven’t already seen it, this video of a teacher in North Carolina is a great example of doing just that, and it will make your day.

Thinking about training your school staff in safety practices and behaviors to watch for?

For a limited time, you can get a free preview to see if the online Everyday School Safety course is right for your school. Contact me before March 5th for a free preview voucher.

Bullies in the Workplace

Schools are workplaces as well as institutions of learning. Bullying in the workplace occurs in all professions and across education levels.

Does your school safety plan include a protocol for addressing workplace harassment, bullying and violence?

I recently spoke with the principal of a school in a district where I’m training and developing violence threat assessment teams. This principal has concerns about the negative relationships she’s seeing between some staff members. Workplace bullying is its own problem, but at times, it can lead to violence.

Here’s how to avert that progression.

The first step is to put a workplace bullying or harassment policy in place. This will give you something to reference and enforce when you are faced with a bullying situation. It will also provide an opportunity for you to learn about the legal issues involved in workplace harassment. For example, it is illegal for someone to harass or discriminate based on gender, race, religious affiliation, disability and other protected categories.

If you are witnessing active bullying or harassment between employees or staff members, it’s important to intervene immediately and let the bully know that his or her behavior is unacceptable and violates workplace policy. This behavior should never be ignored. Boundaries should be put in place and monitored. Whether the person chooses, or is able, to respect those boundaries will tell you a lot about his or her mindset.

During your conversation with this person, you will want to observe him or her for unusual mood, behavior and language – something that is out of character for this individual. I recommend chatting a bit about successes and challenges the person is facing to gain some insight into anything particularly stressful or difficult in the person’s life. If you have an employee assistance program, now’s the time to offer it. While you are setting a boundary, you also want to convey that you are there to help and work with the person so solve the issues. Teaming up will help both of you, and will go a long way toward diffusing any anger that may exacerbate a grievance.

It’s vital to document all reports, conversations and interventions, and continue to check in and monitor the situation with all parties involved. If things escalate, you will need to take additional steps which may include mediation, suspension from duties or contacting law enforcement.

Duty to Warn

duty to warn

In my last post, I clarified the role of FERPA when it comes to the sharing of student information for the purpose of keeping others safe. If you are a counselor, social worker, psychiatrist or psychologist, you are no doubt familiar with the Tarasoff Warning. This legal responsibility stipulates that mental health professionals have a duty to warn if a client or patient threatens to harm someone. The Tarasoff Warning is the result of a case that occurred in 1969, resulting in the death of Tatiana Tarasoff.

In September of 1967, Prosenjit Poddar enrolled as a UC-Berkeley graduate student. He met Tatiana Tarasoff in 1968. They saw each other throughout the fall, but at one point, Tarasoff told Poddar that she was not interested in a relationship with him. Poddar began to stalk Tatiana. He became depressed and neglected his appearance, his studies, and his health. He often isolated himself, spoke disjointedly and cried frequently. This behavior worsened  throughout the spring and into the summer of 1969. Poddar and Tarasoff met only occasionally during this time.

Tatiana Tarasoff spent the summer of 1969 out of the country. After her departure Poddar obtained psychological help. He was a patient of Dr. Lawrence Moore, a psychologist at UC-Berkeley’s Cowell Memorial Hospital. Poddar confided that he planned to kill Tarasoff. Dr. Moore requested that the campus police detain Poddar, writing that, in his opinion, Poddar was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, acute and severe. The psychologist recommended that Poddar be civilly committed as a dangerous person. Poddar was detained but shortly thereafter released, because he appeared rational. Dr. Moore’s supervisor, Dr. Harvey Powelson, then ordered that Poddar not be further detained.

In October, after Tarasoff had returned to the country, Poddar stopped seeing his psychologist. Neither Tarasoff nor her parents received any warning of the threat. On October 27, 1969, Poddar carried out the plan he had confided to his psychologist, stabbing and killing Tarasoff.

Besides the duty to warn, there is another takeaway from this story. Persons can appear rational at times and still be dangerous. In my staff training on threat assessment, we talk at length about impression management, a behavior at which a number of past school attackers have excelled.

Following a lawsuit initiated by Tarasoff’s parents, The California Supreme Court found that a mental health professional has a duty not only to a patient, but also to individuals who are specifically threatened by a patient. This decision has since been adopted by most states in the U.S. and is widely influential outside the U.S. The specific laws in each state vary slightly, and can be found here.

As with the exceptions to confidentiality that exist with FERPA, the Tarasoff Warning provides for disclosure of specific client or patient information to protect others. Both of these should serve as a guideline for sharing necessary information with others who have a need to know, in order to protect those who trust us to keep them safe on a daily basis.

FERPA & School Safety

FERPA & school safety

Keeping students and staff safe is of utmost importance. But, what are the parameters around disclosing information that our school, or someone in it, may have been threatened?

What is your responsibility when you have someone in your building who may pose a threat to others? Confidentiality and individual rights are protected by FERPA, and we can get into hot water if we don’t follow the guidelines.

Fortunately, FERPA provides guidance for this type of situation.

Under FERPA, students have the right to limit the disclosure of records covered by FERPA to third parties, with several important exceptions.

FERPA permits disclosure of information from student records “to appropriate parties in connection with an emergency if knowledge of the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals.”

Also, for the purposes of health and safety, FERPA expressly permits the disclosure of information from a student’s education records to officials of other institutions at which the student seeks to enroll.

When discussing exceptions to confidentiality, we commonly use the terminology “if someone is at risk of harming him/herself or others.” Thus, any breach of confidentiality is for the purposes of preventing suicide, preventing harm to others, and assisting the person of concern.

In schools, we may feel more comfortable waiting for a direct threat. But, threats occur in a minority of cases. We do not want to wait for a threat to determine whether others’ safety is at risk. If you have concerns that someone’s behavior indicates a violent mindset, and believe that others are at risk, it’s critical that you share the information with those who can help contain the threat and assist the individual.

Remember, it is far better to face a possible, but unlikely, lawsuit for sharing information, than to do nothing and have to face the consequences of that decision.

The Most Dangerous Locations in Your School

Because schools have limited budgets when it comes to making safety improvements, it’s important to consider how to invest our dollars in a way that allows us to achieve our objectives and get the most impact for our money.

We already know that restricting building access and requiring sign-in procedures at the front entrance can go a long way toward keeping danger out of our buildings. We also know that security cameras can be very useful, if they are monitored. 

What may be news, is that there are certain locations and times that have historically been linked to higher rates of violence in schools.

The most dangerous times for schools:

  • Most school-associated violent deaths occur during transition times – immediately before and after the school day, and during lunch periods.

  • School-associated violent deaths are more likely to occur at the beginning of a semester.

  • We also want to be alert to anniversary dates of well-known incidents of school violence, as those planning a similar attack have been known to choose these dates to act. Currently, we are approaching the 4-year anniversary of the horrific violence that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School, on December 14, 2012.

Grade level distribution:

School-associated violent deaths that occurred between 1992 and 2010 (National School Safety Center) were distributed as follows:

  • 311 at the high school level, 71 at the middle school level, 52 at the elementary level, and 16 at alternative education facilities (no grade level stated). Clearly, no grade level is exempt.

The most dangerous locations in your school:

Homicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 5-18. Data from the National School Safety Center study indicate that between 1% and 2% of these deaths happen on school grounds or on the way to or from school.

  • Of school-associated deaths identified in the study, 105 occurred near school, 98 occurred on campus, 52 in the school parking lot, 52 in a classroom or office, 51 in a hallway, 31 in a bathroom or locker room, 28 on the athletic field or gym, 27 on the bus or at the bus stop, 11 in the school cafeteria, 7 in the school library, and 6 on the playground.

It is clear from this data that we need all staff members on board when it comes to vigilance during the transition times that occur each day. It’s also important to issue reminders to stay alert during semester changes and anniversary dates of prior school violence incidents. 

If you’re not sure what school staff members need to watch for, read this.

With first semester wrapping up soon, and the beginning of the second semester just around the corner, this is a good time to remind everyone about these facts. Don’t forget to include your specific procedures for reporting and intervening when there are troubling signs.

If you have found this information useful, please feel free to forward to others.

If someone has forwarded this newsletter to you, you can get your own safety updates here.  Safety strategies are sent out 1-2 times per month. I respect your privacy and will never share your information with others.

Sources:

National School Safety Center 1992-2010 data

School-Associated Violence Death Study (SAVD), CDC