School violence can be prevented. A predictable “pathway to violence” can be observed as school shooters plan out their attacks ahead of time, disclosing these plans through friends, social media, and assignments. Often multiple adults are troubled by their behavior, but lacking the whole picture, they fail to communicate these concerns with each other.
Dr. Marisa Randazzo, co-founder of Sigma Threat Management Associates and co-author of the Safe School Initiative, the largest federal study of school shooters in the United States, provides these tips to help schools recognize these pathways and develop violence prevention strategies:
Teams should be multidisciplinary; involve not just teachers, but administrators, counselors, school resource officers, and security staff. Depending on your district, a team can be assembled for each school, or one team can serve multiple schools. Consider a district-level oversight team to ensure everyone is on the same page and has access to the same resources.
Beware of training vendors that proliferate after high-profile incidents; engage high quality, credentialed threat assessment trainers. Try to train everyone at once so that different perspectives can be shared and communication “silos” are broken down. Tabletop exercises, such as example case studies, are helpful in actually practicing school threat assessment procedures, instead of just listening to lectures.
School psychologists, social workers, and counselors may not have the specialized expertise required to address all aspects of school violence; communities and even neighboring districts may have critical mental health resources available to help. For example, a school staff member may become despondent due to financial difficulties; a credit counselor may be able to intervene. Develop a list of support and intervention resources and points of contacts for each.
Reporting allows something to be done. Regardless of team training and resources, issues cannot be addressed if the team doesn’t hear about it. Dispel any misconceptions about what threat assessment is. Often teachers and instructional staff are worried they will lose their connection with a student. Threat assessment is a support focused process to maintain safety and connect a person with the help they need to solve underlying problems; maintaining that staff member’s positive relationship with the student is essential to that goal.
It’s often difficult to gauge “how safe” students and staff feel in individual schools – physically, emotionally, and procedurally. Consider surveys aimed at specific constituents (students, staff, parents, etc) to get effective feedback from all viewpoints. These surveys can give schools a much clearer picture of how to address their climate effectively. Share the results, even if the outcome isn’t flattering, to establish trust that everyone’s input is considered fairly.
Students who feel they have at least one adult they can confide in and trust for guidance are at far greater risk to perform violent behavior. This powerful and protective factor can be enhanced by asking staff to simply reach out to one or two students a day. One school assessed which students staff are most unfamiliar with and assigned them a mentor.
School threat assessment, as a process and a program, can identify and address anyone on the “pathway to violence” and keep them off that path. Critical threat assessment team components include properly trained, multi-disciplinary team members with a broad array of intervention resources. Enhancing a school’s climate not only increases school safety, but fosters stronger connections between students and adults both in the school and the community.