Ideas We Should Steal is a regular feature of the Philadelphia Citizen, which will be holding an Ideas We Should Steal Festival in late 2018.
By the time Nikolas Cruz walked into a Florida high school with an AR-15 semiautomatic weapon, it was too late to stop him from killing his former classmates.
But what if the school had intervened months earlier, when Cruz was still a student at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School? What if the teenager had received counseling and/or medication, had had his guns removed from his home, had connected with adults who made him feel less isolated and hopeless?
Could that have prevented the attack? There’s evidence to show it might have — if done the right way.
Hundreds of schools around the country have threat assessment teams, made up of educators, mental-health professionals, and police, that identify and manage threatening behavior before it turns violent. The teams are trained to determine if threats are real; to assess the students’ mental and emotional state; to take legal action if necessary; and to provide the students with the mental-health services needed to get past their anger or isolation.
In Virginia, which became the only state to mandate threat assessment teams in every K-12 school after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut in 2012, the results are clear: A University of Virginia study of 1,865 cases in 785 schools found that 30 percent of investigated threats were serious; after the team’s intervention, only 1 percent of the acts were carried out — and none resulted in the shootings or stabbings that had been threatened.
The research by forensic psychologist Dewey Cornell, director of UVa’sYouth Violence Project, also found that only 1 percent of students assessed were expelled from their schools, and that there was no racial disparity among those who were found to be an actual threat — a striking difference from the zero-tolerance policies at many schools. Instead, students were left in school to learn and access the services they needed to no longer be a threat.
“There is no way to 100 percent predict human behavior, “ says Melissa Louvar Reeves, past president of the National Association of School Psychologists and a senior consultant at Sigma Threat Management Associates, which trains threat assessment teams. “But there are things we can do to be proactive. There are many, many, many cases across the country when people came forward when they saw the signs and law enforcement was able to come in and prevent shootings before they happened, and put in place things to get students help.”
After Parkland, Florida Gov. Rick Scott allocated $450 million to school safety measures, including the establishment of threat assessment teams in every Florida school to include a teacher, principal, a police officer, human resource officer, Department of Children and Families employee, and a Department of Juvenile Justice employee. Each team will meet monthly to assess threats to the school.
School assessment teams have different models, but they work in essentially the same way: Children are not subtle; they rant on social media, threaten one another in the hallways, boast about their guns. It’s usually other students who report them to an adult. Once alerted, the assessment team steps in to investigate. Reeves stresses that professional training is key here: Every member of the team undergoes research-backed training in how to spot and manage a threat, often in the least invasive way possible.
Usually, as Cornell’s research has shown, the threats are meaningless. At times, though, the team will discover a student on the verge of an explosion.
“Connectedness is the number-one thing that prevents kids from causing harm to themselves and others,” Reeves says. “It’s when people reach a place of helplessness and hopelessness that they think they’ll carry out that act. Assessment teams look at the individual and what’s going on in themselves, at school, home, socially. The goal is to ID concerns, and get the student help, and get them off the pathway to violence.”
In a statement to Congress, Cornell pointed out something worth repeating: School shootings, even in America, are rare. They make up a very small percentage of the total deaths or injuries by gun. “Over the past 20 years, the United States has experienced an average of 22 students murdered at school each year,” Cornell said. “However, outside of schools, 1,480 students are murdered each year. In other words, students are 67 times more likely to be murdered outside of school than at school.”
That is certainly true in Philadelphia, where young people are shot in their own neighborhoods. Spending money to prevent kids from getting to that point can have ripple effects outside of the school walls as well — in reducing violence on the street, and treating the trauma that precedes it.
It shouldn’t take a deranged student with a gun in school for Philadelphia to act on ensuring the safety of our children. But it also does take resources beyond what we have seen in the last several years — as well as a commitment to spend some of the new proposed tax revenue on needed support staff in school.
There is some indication that federal funding for threat assessment teams may be on the horizon. Reeves says Congress recently increased funds for Title IV’s support of safe and healthy schools and students, and opening up Title II money — usually reserved for teachers — to mental-health support staff. Let’s hope this will help provide an avenue for mental-health support in Philly schools, including the establishment of threat assessment teams.
Roxanne Patel Shepelavy is executive editor of the Philadelphia Citizen, where a version of this piece originally appeared.