There is one thing you can do

There is one thing you can do
It has happened yet again. Today marks the 18th school shooting this year. Each and every one of them is devastating. As educators, we mourn with the families, students, and school staff members who have suffered. We look at our own schools and workplaces and wonder whether we’ve done enough. I don’t know what each of you has done to create a safer school, but I do know there is one thing you can do.

If your school hasn’t yet trained and developed a violence threat assessment team, maybe now is the time. We can’t prevent all mass shootings, but we can decrease the number by knowing what to watch for, identifying struggling individuals, and linking them to help. We can connect the dots that spell out warning signs and disrupt the pathway to violence before it reaches a harrowing conclusion.

For a snapshot of what setting up a threat assessment team involves, read this.  If you have considered taking action to train your staff in violence warning signs, threat assessment, and threat management, could there be a better time?

Youth Risk Prevention Specialists provides schools nationwide with the peace of mind that comes from knowing they have done everything they can to create a safe school environment. To learn how the comprehensive SafeAware© program delivers that, simply click here.

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.

The Problem with Threat Assessment Checklists

The Problem with Threat Assessment ChecklistsThere are a number of violence threat assessment checklists and tools available to guide an assessment of someone who may pose a danger to him/herself or others. In fact, it is vital that we use such tools to ensure that we are gathering the most relevant data on an individual’s history, social supports, past and current behaviors, possible threats, mental health, and a number of other variables. Yet, there is a problem with violence threat assessment checklists.

Checklists alone will not answer all of our questions.

A checklist cannot clearly tell us what type of risk is posed by a person others avoid because they feel nervous and fearful around him or her. A checklist won’t explain what’s happening we feel discomfort or unease, but can’t put our finger on the reason.

To perform a thorough violence threat assessment, we need to have a keen understanding of what the threats and behaviors mean to the person of concern. We should be familiar with the violence escalation process. We must have a number of trained professionals at the table to gather missing data and interpret the findings of our assessment. We’ll want to be cognizant of the group dynamics that can affect our assessment. We need to practice our threat assessment skills.

The stakes of assessing violence risk are high, and to minimize risk and liability, we need to develop the skills necessary to do so as effectively and accurately as possible. Equally important, we’ll sleep better at night knowing we are using a solid practice based on the exact model used by the Secret Service and FBI to assess and manage threats.

Checklists are important, and there are a number of excellent tools available to you. But, they should not stand alone. Your threat assessment skills will be much better if you obtain adequate training and practice before using them. The tools will guide your inquiry, but much will be missed without a deeper knowledge of the threat assessment process, risk factors and warning signs associated with targeted violence.

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What’s the Best Threat Assessment Tool?

The Best Threat Assessment Tool

The best threat assessment tool is awareness. Being aware of our surroundings and paying attention to anything that seems out of place, out of context, or causes us to hesitate, is a vital tool for threat assessment.

According to Gavin de Becker, our intuition informs us at all times, even when we are busy attending to other business. Those feelings of fear, apprehension, hesitation, and doubt are signals from our intuition that something is wrong and we need to pay attention. Too often, we ignore or minimize these signals.

This week, I’d like to ask you to pay close attention to your surroundings and the nuances of others’ behavior. Listen to your intuition and see what you can learn.

You might notice some unusual activity in an area of your school that is normally off limits. Perhaps you notice something out of place, someone you don’t know in the parking lot, or behavior that seems unusual.

We need to be able to recognize that which is typical of someone’s behavior, so we can notice when something atypical is happening. If a previously calm and steady student, parent or staff member suddenly erupts in anger or becomes increasingly combative or agitated, we are being given clues that demand our attention.

Is someone complaining that  he or she is “always a victim”? Is a middle school student reporting increased bullying?  Does a freshman boy seem more withdrawn than the last time you spoke with him? Is your English teacher experiencing increased work, family or other stress?

Make attention your best tool for one week, and let me know what you learn by contacting me here. I look forward to hearing from you!

If you have found this post helpful, please forward to your friends and colleagues. If you have had this post forwarded to you, you can get your own copy by subscribing here.

School Threat Assessment – What You Need to Know

School threat assessment

When you hear a student threaten another student verbally or through writing, email or social media, should you be concerned that violence will follow? The answer depends on several things.

School Threat Assessment – What You Need to Know

First, it is always imperative to conduct an investigation. You will need to gather information about the individual, circumstances, relationship between the threatener and the target and any previous threats or violence perpetrated by the threatener (subject). It’s critical that you include staff members, law enforcement and agency staff representing various disciplines on your threat assessment team. This will enable you to collect information from a number of individuals who have experience with the subject, and to view your data through multiple lenses.

Does the subject have a history of violence? Does he/she have a pattern of making threats or of inappropriate communication, with no action toward violence? A threat is like a promise – a statement that a future action will take place. But, promises are often easier to make than to keep. Sometimes, it is the same way with threats.

What we want to pay particular attention to are the behaviors engaged in by a subject of concern. Does the subject display a contextually inappropriate fascination with violence, weapons or previous attacks? Is the subject increasing his/her target practice? Has the subject been seen on school grounds at odd times and in unusual places? Has the subject spoken to others about a desire to inflict violence or a plan to do so? Has he/she taken steps to acquire weapons? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, make it your mission to find out. Convene your threat assessment team and gather information on any and all incidents and observations involving the subject of concern. To not do so risks letting critical information fall through the cracks.

If a picture of progressive actions toward violence begins to emerge, your concern should be elevated. Keep investigating, take appropriate safety measures and involve the student’s parents or guardians. Law enforcement will want to consider a search warrant if parents are not forthcoming with information or cooperative with a search of the subject’s home. If you see steps toward intended violence, an attack has already begun and it is vital to intervene before it’s too late.

Need help assessing a potential threat? Learn more here.