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.

School Threat Assessment FAQ

School Threat Assessment FAQ

I frequently get asked questions about how the practice of violence threat assessment applies to schools. Threat assessment is seen as the emerging standard of care for assessing concerning behavior and threats. It’s an important safety practice that should be in place in all U.S. schools.

Q. What is a threat assessment team? Do we need one?

A. Threat assessment teams are comprised of staff members representing a number of disciplines. In a school setting, this includes at least one administrator, counselor, psychologist, social worker and school resource officer or local police representative. Each of these individuals brings specific expertise to the team, which is vital to a thorough and accurate threat assessment. Threat assessment teams are required in preK-12 schools in Virginia, and the state of Oregon has recently called for a consistent statewide threat assessment protocol for schools. If you want to be sure you’ve done everything you can to keep your students and staff safe, you need a threat assessment team.

ta-team

Q. How are threat assessment teams used?

A. When someone’s behavior or words indicate that the person may be struggling to cope with a situation, or shows signs of violent ideation, the team will evaluate the threat and develop a management plan that keeps everyone safe and assists the troubled person in resolving the difficulties.

Q. Can you explain the process of assessing a threat?

A. The process of assessing a threat includes a review of multiple areas of a person’s life, past and present behavior, verbal, written or otherwise communicated threats, family dynamics, social functioning, risk factors, triggers, behaviors indicating movement along the pathway to violence, and violence inhibitors. The team will meet to review the information they already have, determine what is still needed for a thorough assessment, and divide responsibilities for gathering additional information and interviewing others (teachers, parents, students). The team will then reconvene in a timely manner to complete the assessment and develop immediate safety and intervention plans along with a long-term management plan. A threat assessment identifies risk of violence at a given point in time and must be updated as new information is gathered and discounted. It often continues for an extended period of time.

Q. Have threat assessment teams been proven to avert violence?

A. The model of threat assessment that I use in schools is the same model used by the FBI and U.S. Secret Service to assess threats to public figures. This model is the best tool we have available to investigate and mitigate potential threats. While it is always difficult to prove that a practice has prevented something that did not happen, we know of at least 200 serious acts of school violence that have been prevented by someone coming forward with a concern that is followed up by  threat assessment and a management plan.

Q. Do threat assessment team members need specific training?

A. All team members should be trained specifically in the warning signs, best practices, procedures, and tools used for violence threat assessment. Training should include a thorough explanation of behaviors and what it is typically behind them, along with signs, activities and items that could signify a violent mindset. It’s important that this training include hands on practice with threat assessment tools, case study analysis, and support and follow up for the team as they work through their first few assessments.

Q. How will people know what to report to our threat assessment team?

A. While working with school threat assessment teams, I help them develop a plan and a framework for training students, staff and parents on what to watch out for, warning signs of both suicide and violence, and reporting procedures. It’s imperative that we get this information out to these individuals, as it is most often the swift action of student, parent or staff members that results in averted violence.

Q. Where can I find more information about school threat assessment?

A. There are a number of excellent resources available to help you. For starters, I recommend reading the publications Early Warning Timely Response and Threat Assessment in Schools.  You can also learn more about the threat assessment process here.

If you have questions about the process or want to know how to get started, please feel free to contact me.

Finally, for an inexpensive training tool for your entire staff, consider this.

You Won’t Want to Miss This

running-hurry

There are just a few days left to take advantage of special introductory pricing on the Everyday School Safety online training course for all school staff members. I’ve taken the training I provide for schools across the country, and adapted it to an online format that saves you time and money.

This is truly the most efficient, cost-effective way to train your entire staff. 

The training covers 7 key areas of school safety, providing a solid safety foundation for each and every staff member.

Testimonials:

“Wow, this was a quality course! It would be great if our entire school staff could complete this.” – Sharon J., School Social Worker, Pennsylvania

“The course was informative, very refreshingly easy to navigate and overall a top quality presentation. I was impressed with the quality of information…. Oh, and I loved the handouts.” – Michelle T., Community Member, New Mexico

Online Course FAQs:

How long will I have to complete the course?

You will have 1 full year from the date of enrollment to complete or revisit the course. However, you can easily complete it in 90 minutes. The handouts are downloadable, and yours to keep.

For whom is this course appropriate?

This course is appropriate for everyone who works in your school – teachers, custodians, paraprofessionals, substitutes, food service staff, front office and clerical staff, coaches, student services staff and administrators.

What if I’m unhappy with the course?

If the course does not live up to your expectations or help you create a safer school, simply contact me within 14 days for a full refund.

Click here to view the course curriculum. If you enroll before midnight on Friday, September 30, you can take advantage of an amazingly low introductory price.

Discounted spots are limited, so don’t wait!
If you know someone who could benefit from this information, please feel free to share. He/she will need to click on the links in this email to get the special offer.

A Common School Problem and How to Fix it

Many school districts I’ve encountered have a problem. Here’s the problem, and here’s how to fix it if it’s happening to you.

  • The administration, school staff members, parents, or school board members worry that they have a safety problem. They hope the problem will go away. They believe their district really isn’t at high risk for safety problems, anyway. Since these beliefs are not strategies and don’t actually change anything, the problem persists.
  • Next, instead of getting expert help, they do some research on their problem. They look online for answers, even though they aren’t entirely sure what they should be looking for. They ask colleagues and contacts for advice, even though these people lack the expertise they need. They piece together a few safety components and create a plan. Now, they have a plan, but it’s accompanied by a nagging worry about whether it’s a truly comprehensive plan.
  • Their problem then gets progressively worse. The school district now has the equivalent of a severe health problem that was ignored in the early stages and has worsened, demanding immediate action.

If we had a serious health problem, would we continue to ignore it while it got worse? We need to view school safety as the equivalent of that serious health problem.

Here’s how to fix it:

  • The first step is accepting that there’s a problem and that it won’t just disappear. Burying our heads in the sand does nothing to help the situation. In fact, it actually makes things worse.
  • The next step is to get the expert help we need. We’ll want to to find someone who understands the specific safety challenges we’re facing, and has experience fixing them. If we can find someone who has worked in, and understands, school dynamics and challenges, that’s even better.
  • Next, we need to eliminate obstacles. Often, the biggest barrier to increasing our school’s safety is concern about funding. Schools are juggling many mandates and requirements with ever-shrinking budgets. However, we always seem to find the money for the really important things. It’s a matter of mindset. We need to make school safety a priority.
  • Finally, we simply need to start. Implementing the steps above will get us going in the right direction, and help us resolve our school safety problem.

If you still aren’t sure where to start and want to bounce a few ideas around, I’m happy to have a chat with you. Simply contact me here with your questions.

If you’d like to explore both on-site and online safety training options, read this.

Wondering what parents can do to make their schools safer?

Woman thinking

Recently, a community member asked me what parents and community members can do to help make their local schools safer. This is a fantastic question! I started to wonder whether other parents and community members might have  the same question, which led to this article.

The following questions are a great place to start.

Ask your school’s administration or a member of the school board the following questions to get the conversation going.

  • What is your policy regarding contacting parents during an emergency?
  • Do you have a policy or protocol that outlines timely warning procedures in the event of a threat to safety?
  • Do you have a family reunification procedure. Has it been practiced?
  • When was the last time the district crisis response plan was reviewed and updated?
  • Are there protocols for response to fire, chemical spill, missing child, intruder, medical emergency, bomb threat, etc….
  • Do all staff members have a plan or flip chart in their offices or classrooms?
  • Have subs and auxiliary staff members been trained?
  • Do classroom doors lock from the inside?
  • What are your entrance security procedures?
  • Do you have a threat assessment team? (many districts still don’t know what this is) If so, have the members been trained in threat assessment?
  • What types of drills are you doing? How frequently?

These questions will get both parents and school staff thinking about what is working well, and what can be done better. To find out where to start with school safety, read this.

When Schools Should Notify Parents of a Threat to Safety

When schools should notify parents of a threat

As you may be aware, a troubling incident involving Eleanor Roosevelt High School in the Washington, D.C. area recently made national news. A 17-year old male, not a student at the school, made a threat to attack several individuals and “shoot up the school.” Police obtained an emergency search warrant and found an AK-47 assault weapon with 180 rounds of ammunition in the boy’s home. He was arrested before the violence could be perpetrated, thanks to the reporting of his ex-girlfriend who had received text messages threatening violence. The threats were reported on June 14; the attack was alleged to have taken place on June 17; a letter was sent to parents on June 20. The school district has come under fire for the delay in notifying parents of the situation.

This situation and ensuing dialogue over parent notification prompted Dr. Mike Robinson of Forest of the Rain Productions to contact me to clarify a few things for his listeners. Mike wanted to know my thoughts on exactly when schools should notify parents of the existence or possibility of a threat, and what types of considerations can impact that timeline.

I was happy to talk with him and it really started me thinking about the fact that most preK-12 schools do not have a policy in place that spells out this action. The Clery Act specifies the types of situations that must be included in a “timely warning” notification on college campuses. These details are discussed in the interview and transcript below, and can be found in the 2016 Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting.

Even though there is no mandate regarding a timely notification policy for non-postsecondary schools, I think all schools would be well-served by drafting this type of policy.

If you’d like to listen to the interview, you can access it here.

If you’d prefer to read the transcript, you can view it below.

Dr. Robinson: What are some of the factors you have to consider when determining when to notify parents of a potential threat of violence to a school?

Suzanne Sibole: That’s a great question. The school has to consider the safety of everyone, first and foremost. If the threat is imminent, it’s unlikely that there will be time for immediate notification of parents. Instead, the school will be focused on taking safety measures.

If the threat is not imminent but is still concerning, the first thing the school administration needs to do is contain it by assessing the person making the threat, and moving that person toward help or intervention. This might mean connecting him or her with a mental health intervention or contacting law enforcement.

It will most certainly involve contacting the threatener’s parents if the person is a student. Once necessary safety measures are in place, the school can think about contacting other parents. (Safety measures could include increased security, vigilance of the student, daily backpack or locker checks, and other management strategies, depending upon the level of threat and the timeline involved.)

Dr. Robinson: How do you balance safety, the desire of parents and the community to know details of a threat and the structure of a school or school system?

Suzanne Sibole: I think we need to recognize & acknowledge that parents are extremely worried and fearful of violence occurring in their child’s school. Clearly, it is not irrational to have this concern about schools and other public places, as we are seeing an increase in this type of targeted violence.

I think it’s smart for the school to reach out to parents as soon as feasible and let them know that their children are safe and they simply want to inform the parents of a situation that is concerning, and to assure them that they are taking action to ensure safety.

If the school has a threat assessment team, they should mention that the team has evaluated the threat and has put a number of safety and threat management practices in place.

If police have been contacted, they should say so, and provide at least enough information for parents to feel that their concerns are being acknowledged and respected. They can make a statement that certain details must be held confidential because the person of concern is a minor, or the investigation is ongoing and cannot be compromised. Parents will typically understand this, but they want to be told whatever can be shared.

If a person of concern threatens specific students, staff members or groups of students, I believe the school has a responsibility to let those targeted individuals (and their parents, if they are students) know, so they can increase their own levels of vigilance and make choices to protect themselves

Dr. Robinson: Do parents have the right to know if students bring or have been found on the grounds with a weapon?

Suzanne Sibole: I believe they do. They don’t need to know the names of students for the reasons mentioned earlier, but they should be informed about what has happened and the actions taken to deal with the situation. They need reassurance that the school is managing the threat effectively, so as many details as possible about police or other intervention should be given.

Shutting parents out is never a good idea. We want our school families to have confidence in our ability to deal with potentially dangerous or frightening situations, and we undermine that when we are not as forthcoming as we can be.

College campuses have an obligation under the Clery Act, to create policy around “timely warning” notification. The types of incidents included under that policy are:

  • Crimes reported to campus security authorities or local police agencies; and
  • Crimes considered by the institution to represent a serious or continuing threat to students and employees.

In the situation with the 17-year old that occurred recently in the Washington DC area, there was no continuing threat at that moment in time once he was arrested, but the first condition was met – it was a crime reported to police. While there is no such requirement in place for non-post-secondary schools, it would be good practice to follow similar guidelines.

Dr. Robinson: Does limiting the information to parents or simply not notifying parents about threat of violence jeopardize the safety of school staff and students once a threat has been made?

Suzanne Sibole: I would say that one danger of not notifying parents is that you have fewer eyes and ears being vigilant for further warning signs. The school may not be able to provide identifying details to parents, but they can tell parents to contact them if they see or hear certain signs in their child or a child’s peer.

Some of these might be:

  • Pictures of anti-heroes or past mass shooters on websites, social media or in a teen’s bedroom
  • A preference for videos, books or magazines with violent themes
  • Journals with violent writings or pictures
  • Rants about a grievance, humiliation or unfair treatment
  • Talk of plans, schedules, or getting even with someone, even if the person says they’re joking
  • Suicidal thoughts – talking as if the future doesn’t matter
  • Weapons of any kind

If we don’t include parents in this process, we might miss an opportunity to pick up on very helpful information that would create a clearer picture of the level of threat we’re facing.

Dr. Robinson: What are some of the reasons why a school may elect not to notify parents of a specific threat of violence to a school, especially one associated with mass violence?

Suzanne Sibole: One reason would be that the school has thoroughly assessed the potential threat and is confident that their training and expertise in this area provided an accurate assessment that the threat is not viable in any way. I would think communication to parents that this occurred would still be warranted, however. As a school, we would want parents to hear it from us and not from another source.

Another reason would be that the school administrators simply don’t know enough about how to handle this type of situation so it hasn’t occurred to them that notifying parents is a good idea, and could yield additional valuable information about the threat. Plus, they are very busy dealing with containment of the threat and ensuring student and staff safety, so it could just be an oversight.

Dr. Robinson: Is safety of the students and staff increased by limiting the information about the threat, as a means to decrease misinformation and thwarting an ongoing law enforcement investigation?

Suzanne Sibole: I would have to hear the rationale for that assertion and consider all angles of it. I think that in most situations, parents could be given some information, however minimal. As in a number of ongoing law enforcement investigations, the public is often given a brief summary and asked to report any information that could be helpful to law enforcement.

That said, it is possible that a school could have concerns that releasing information could spur a copycat.

Dr. Robinson: What role, if any, does the size of the school or the size of the school district impact the decision of school officials to notify parents?

Suzanne Sibole: I don’t think the size of the school or district should alter this course of action. It may take longer to send out notification in a larger district than a smaller district, simply because there are more layers through which decisions may have to filter.

Dr. Robinson: How can school districts temper the need for parents to know, especially in this day of technology, with policies that may require many checks and balances before information is released?

Suzanne Sibole: Again, I think it’s very important to respectfully acknowledge parents’ desire for information and to provide at least some information about the events.

I think school staff can review policies and regulations so they will know ahead of time, which types of information can and cannot be released. Most administrators have an excellent working knowledge of these, and probably most teaching staff do as well. But, there may be school employees who’ve never had this type of training and it could be beneficial for them.

There are actually media protocols in comprehensive school safety plans that outline some ways information can be inadvertently passed along inappropriately, and reviewing these with staff is a good idea.

The reality is that misinformation can spread like wildfire and we can’t really control all of this. If the school district provides a consistent statement to students, parents and any media outlets that inquire, that’s the best they can do.

Dr. Robinson: Where can people contact you if they have questions or would like to bring your services to their school district?

Suzanne Sibole: They can contact me through my website, youthriskpreventionspecialists.com or email me at suzanne.sibole@youthriskpreventionspecialists.com. I’m happy to talk with anyone about making their school safer.

Keeping Schools Safe – a Podcast

Keeping Schools Safe Podcast

I recently had the pleasure of working  with Dr. Mike Robinson of Forest of the Rain Productions, an educational affairs agency. Forest of the Rain Productions provides a wealth of education resources that I think you’ll find useful.

Dr. Robinson also produces a series of podcasts based on just 3 questions. This format keeps the podcasts brief enough for easy listening, yet gets to the heart of important educational issues.

You can listen to the most recent 3 Questions podcast, Keeping Schools Safe with Youth Risk Prevention Specialists, right here.

If you’d like to know more about anything you hear, feel free to contact me. I’m always happy to answer your questions.

Preventing School Vandalism

Preventing School Vandalism

Did you know that the number one predictor of school vandalism is a lack of bonding and attachment to school and school staff? When students feel connected to their school community, they are far less likely to deface or destroy the physical space around them.

Preventing School Vandalism

Here are some creative ways to build connections and a sense of ownership in your school:

  • Create a “vandalism account.” To provide an incentive to students, schools can designate a specific dollar amount that would ordinarily be used for vandalism-related repairs. If the building remains clear of damage and graffiti, the funds can be used at the end of semester for something students desire such as a pizza party, field trip or dance (Idea courtesy of Center for Problem Oriented Policy, 2015).
  • Have all classrooms adopt a location in the school and maintain it regularly. For details and a free downloadable “Adopt a School Location” poster, visit Intervention Central.
  • Allow students to create artwork, murals and other welcoming spaces in the school to facilitate ownership and bonding.

Of course, a good deal of vandalism occurs after school hours, so you’ll want to be sure you also have adequate lighting, cameras, signage and controlled entry during the off-hours. Putting all of these practices in place will go a long way toward preventing school vandalism and promoting a more positive learning environment.