This past year we’ve watched the horrific news unfold yet again as students are evacuated following school shootings.
Each time these cross the news feed, they wash over me with both the memories and the lessons learned from each of the shootings I’ve responded to over the years. And for each of the students, staff, and community members who’ve been through a tragedy, these stories bring back traumatic memories as well. I stay in touch with districts when I’ve been a part of their responses so I can continue to hear insights they’ve gained during recovery. But it yields far more insight to be in the trenches over a period of time following an event. I was able to continue on-site response support for several months following a recent incident. This experience again confirmed the need we have to put practiced multi-disciplinary student threat assessment teams in place for all districts.
Here are just two reasons this extended on-site time was so important: copycat threat assessment and the need to set up a threat response team.
Copycat Threat Assessment After an Event
We expect people to “come out of the woodwork” and make additional threats following major events. One of the critical challenges for schools in the immediate aftermath is to sort out which threats are credible. Threat assessment includes deciding which require a lock-down and which may not. Law enforcement is closely involved at those times. Threats phoned in from New Zealand are handled differently than threats posted by a local student on social media.
Also, it isn’t uncommon that schools go into repeated lock-downs as a precaution with the wave of threats that tend to occur following an event. But I certainly learn a great deal about the ongoing trauma it is for those who survive these events when I’m on site and we repeatedly go into lock-down. As soon as a lockdown is lifted, teachers who held it together for the sake of their students have stress reactions ranging from heightened anxiety to full-blown panic attacks.
Developing a Threat Response Team
The stakes are high any time there is a threat. And no one person should ever carry the entire weight of making a decision about the seriousness of a threat. Nor should one person carry the responsibility for the plan a school should follow in order to assure the safety of all. The stakes are too high not to have the best system in place. And that means having a multi-disciplinary team who are all providing input on threat assessment.
There’s an important key to developing an effective threat assessment team. Adequate teams for student threat assessment predominantly comprise key staff from various community agencies. All these agencies serve youth in some capacity. This can range from drug and alcohol counselors, local law enforcement, and juvenile services and staff from a range of other organizations. School representation should be well under half of those seated at the table. Bringing the best minds from divergent disciplines together from your greater region will serve your schools in a way we (educators) can’t attain by ourselves.
Note: Districts smaller than 20,000 students probably need to join together into regional teams. This way there are enough threat assessments to keep the team well-practiced. (And meeting weekly so they can hone their skills!)
How to Get Help In Developing a Threat Response Team
The national leader in the field for Student Threat Assessment in Dr. John VanDreal, a school psychologist with Salem-Keizer Schools in Salem, OR. His website provides information, forms and procedures. All districts would do well to send a small team to his annual training in the fall or bring him to their sites. Check out his website at www.studentthreatassessment.net. If you’d like to send a team to his fall training and you don’t find a registration option on his site, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to make sure you connect with John and his work. There are many “generalists” in workplace violence and mass shootings. Student threat assessment is its own animal and districts would be wise to choose guidance from those who specifically “live this work” day in and day out in the school environment.