By Teachers, For Teachers
It’s more than cameras and locked doors – it's about behavior.
While the visibility and horror of school shootings have made them a hot political issue, violence in schools has actually declined, according to recent federal data. That may ease some minds, but other data suggests one other troubling fact: Most students generally think about a shooting at their school once a day. And some experts say we shouldn't be lulled into thinking we have resolved the school safety issue, nor that if we create even more security things will change.
"In the maelstrom of targeted violence and mass shootings, it is tempting to land upon a singular, purchasable solution to the problem of violence," says Brian Van Brunt, a private consultant on school security and executive director of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association. "But the real solution (to school safety) is prevention."
Lisa Kovach, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Toledo and director of the Center for Education in Targeted Violence and Suicide, clicks through the most visible school shootings and notes that often the attacker has had emotional problems that could have been spotted.
"How is it that non-normative life events are ignored?" she says, noting that often school shooters have faced very difficult issues in their past. "The Virginia Tech shooter experienced tremendous social isolation in his early years. The Parkland shooter, at the age of 5, watched his loving father die of a sudden heart attack, then lost his mom a few months before the shooting. It’s the little things we fail to realize are the big things to some."
Van Brunt and other experts say that while we should continue to explore options that will increase security in schools, they will be safer when we identify students likely to commit violence of all types, help them and stop them before they act.
A school crime and safety report was released from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about a month after the shootings at a Parkland, Fla., high school killed 17. Several other incidents have happened since.
It says that over the last 20 years, student homicides and suicides at schools have stayed consistently lower, and that school weapons possessions and crimes have declined. In addition, it suggested that schools have dramatically increased security measures, especially the use of surveillance cameras, and it has caused students to feel safer.
At the same time, by the end of May, CNN was reporting that there had been on average a shooting once a week, and others have suggested that lesser crimes may have declined but other more dangerous attacks have increased – and become a bigger worry for students, parents and educators.
For Van Brunt and other experts, there are a number of well-documented measures schools can take to increase security and train students and staff members about how to respond. But, they say, it would be most effective now, and solve other problems in school culture, if identification and prevention were the focus.
"A better approach, along with security measures, is investing in the early identification of risk factors and applying a behavioral intervention approach that is designed to stop the attack before it starts," he says.
Increasingly schools are developing behavior intervention teams (BIT), which work in three stages, he says.
"They identify, assess, and manage threat and dangerousness in school communities. A group of professionals with expertise in student behavior and discipline, security and law enforcement, and mental health gather this information and apply an objective-risk rubric and violence risk or threat assessment."
Brett Sokolo, president of the NCHERM group, which consults with K-12 schools and universities on safety issues, says such teams generally are made up of representatives from counseling, administration, security and the staff. They are now required in three states, he says: Florida, Virginia, and Illinois.
Van Brunt's organization NABITA in August released new standards and guidance for these teams. He says they should be given power to investigate all complaints and have the appropriate training and expertise about what circumstances and behaviors are most threatening. Counselors also must be better trained, too, he says, noting that students who are a threat are distinct from mental health concerns counselors typically are educated to spot and treat.
A Call for Action produced after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last winter gained national attention and endorsements from more than 2300 experts in the field, 200 colleges and universities, hundreds of school districts and related organizations and nearly 5000 individuals. It calls for the universal use of intervention teams and broader changes to schools.
"Following school shootings, there is a tendency to focus heavily on security measures such as metal detectors, cameras, and armed guards," says Matthew Mayer, a professor at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, who was one of the two professors who initiated the effort. "They make politicians and school administrators appear as if they are doing something meaningful, but while school security is very important, they have only limited benefits, and often, they displace the much more needed work."
He believes that while schools must prioritize security, he prioritizes an awareness about vulnerable students through systems like BIT and improvement of school climate.
He says schools need to establish well-run threat assessment teams, provide supports for students with mental health and other other concerns, and create school climates with more attention to social and emotional problems among students. He also notes that laws about the privacy of student data must be reformed to allow the assessment teams and others to share information about students at risk.
Sokolow notes that students and the staff of a school must be trained in what to look for and how to report a problem about a student is having.
They should know to report a student is excessively angry or seems depressed or changes dramatically. That means that a structure is in place for appropriate persons to be designated for reporting (different schools do it differently some leaving it to counselors and administrators and others expecting everyone to handle such reports) and for confidentiality. Then the BIT should meet regularly to assess the concerns, and handle immediate threats.
Experts say that a plan for handling an incident is also key.
George Roberts, who was principal at Perry Hall, Md., High School when a shooting incident took place, says preparation is the key – a plan and practice. At his school, a student was shot by a classmate, and a staff member was nearly wounded about six years ago, and Roberts has spoken and written on the topic of school safety since. He is now a community superintendent in Baltimore schools.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be prepared,” he says “It is very important to have comprehensive plans, study it and practice it. Then it becomes instinctual.”
Roberts says he believes schools need four plans for emergencies: One for a regular evacuation like the traditional fire drill, one for moving students further away from building or to an alternative location, an “Alert” status to keep students from leaving the school, and a lockdown with doors and windows closed and covered. Each staff member should understand clearly their role in each of these scenarios. He says often school plans are not comprehensive enough – or they are too detailed and confusing to the staff.
Then, he and other experts say, there should be a regular schedule for practicing the plans.
Here are some resources that can help schools handle violence in schools
The National Behavioral Intervention Team Association resources
The National Association of School Psychologists school safety and crisis resources
The National Education Association school safety resources
The Department of Homeland Security has a variety of material on the topic
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network also has this information: