States (Wisely) Not Waiting for the Federal Commission on School Safety Report: The Guidance You Need is Here and Available
As we begin the 2018-2019 school year, school safety is on the minds of every parent, educator, and community. . . many students. . . and many state legislatures. And while more have already been reported in August. . . since the beginning of 2018 and as of June 25th, there have been 41 deaths and 74 injuries in school shootings. And this does not include the countless number of hidden “injuries” for those present and emotionally harmed by these events.
And while the “lightning rod” for much of the recent discussion and action still is the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL., based on my work in schools during the past month (e.g., from Alaska to Philadelphia), there is a pervasive and continuing sense of anxiety and concern relative to “Who’s next?”
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Critically, though. . . a related, but less discussed topic involves the school violence that falls short of a school shooting. Indeed, Education Dive’s Jessica Campisi recently reported (August 23, 2018) that there were 3,654 violent incidents and threats in schools last year—a 62% increase from the 2016-2017 school year.
Fully half of these incidents occurred in ten states: California, Florida, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Illinois, North Carolina, and Virginia.
So clearly, contradicting some media reports and numerous national professional association pronouncements—including recent testimony provided to the Federal Commission on School Safety—schools were increasingly more dangerous last year than the year before.
Focusing on last year’s “top ten” most violent school states, the Education Dive article went on to describe an Educator’s School Safety Network analysis that noted:
- The ten states of concern are geographically spread throughout the country.
- They have different gun control policies and school security measures.
- Except for Virginia, these states are among our 10 most populous states.
- Many of these states have a great number of school districts, resulting in more difficulty coordinating services and staff, and less funding for teacher training.
But the biggest “take-away” from this analysis is that demographics do not predict violence. That is, there are few functional “common denominators” across these ten states to help us draw large-scale conclusions that will prevent or address future school violence on a broad scale.
This “un-pattern” is similar to that emphasized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s United State Secret Service... as it recently reconfirmed that there is no single profile of a student attacker as it relates to school violence.
The Federal Commission on School Safety: Most States are (Wisely) Not Waiting
Immediately after the Parkland shooting (in March, 2018), President Trump appointed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to lead the Federal Commission on School Safety. Consisting only of the Secretaries of Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and the Attorney General, the Commission was charged with:
. . . (Q)uickly providing meaningful and actionable recommendations to keep students safe at school. These recommendations will include a range of issues, like social emotional support, recommendation on effective school safety infrastructure, discussion on minimum age for firearms purchases, and the impact that videogames and the media have on violence. There is not one plan that fits all schools across the country, so the Commission will be focusing on all variations of school size, structure, and geographic locations with their final recommendations.
(In a political move—inappropriately taking advantage of the Parkland tragedy, the Commission was also charged with making a recommendation on retaining, eliminating, or adapting the Obama-era guidance putting schools on notice that they were at-risk of violating federal civil rights laws if their discipline-related policies, procedures, or practices led to disproportionately higher rates of discipline for students in one racial group.)
While its report is forthcoming, a review of the Commission’s hearings and activities. . . and advanced releases of its likely content. . . suggest that its “meaningful and actionable recommendations” will be thin if not non-existent.
This prediction is strengthened, with all due respect to the different sites and participants, by the site visits and experts chosen by the federal government to participate in the Commission’s thirteen formal events—largely held during this past summer.
These events included the following:
March 28, 2018
Organizational Meeting: Washington, DC
May 17, 2018
Commission Meeting: Washington, D.C.
Meeting with Experts and Survivors of Mass Shootings
May 31, 2018
Field Visit: Frank Hebron-Harman Elementary School, Hanover, MD
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports
June 6, 2018
Public Listening Session: U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.
June 21, 2018
Commission Meeting: Washington, D.C.
The Ecology of Schools: Fostering a Culture of Human Flourishing and Developing Character
June 26, 2018
Public Listening Session: Lexington, KY
July 11, 2018
Commission Meeting: Washington, D.C.
Curating a Healthier & Safer Approach: Issues of Mental Health and Counseling for our Young
July 24, 2018
Field Visit: Adams County, Wisconsin
Transforming School Climate and Culture to Meet the Behavioral Needs of Students: Wisconsin’s School Mental Health Initiative/Trauma-Informed Care
July 26, 2018
Commission Meeting: Washington, D.C.
Proactively Protecting Our Schools
August 1, 2018
Field Visit: Pearcy, AR
Proactively Protecting Our Schools
August 7, 2018
Public Listening Session: Cheyenne, WY
August 16, 2018
Commission Meeting: Washington, D.C.
Creating a Citadel of Learning: New Tools to Secure our Schools, Inside and Out
August 23, 2018
Field Visit: Las Vegas, NV
Best Practices for School Building Safety
August 28, 2018
Public Listening Session: Montgomery, AL
Once again, with all due respect to the different sites and participants, numerous independent reports have expressed concerns with (a) the topics and content chosen, (b) the researchers and presenters invited, (c) the specific sites visited, and (d) the restrictions placed on those presenting at the “open” Public Listening Sessions.
The biggest concerns centered around beliefs that the federal governmental agencies leading the Commission were controlling the agenda (i.e., what was highlighted, discussed, and not discussed), and that they were singularly “giving voice” to people and programs that they were funding (or had funded for many years).
As such, it appeared that the Commission’s agenda and meetings were driven more by politics and the need to manage (or limit) the discussion, than by open-ended inquiry and the pursuit of the best ideas to make our schools, staff, and students safer.
- The discussion regarding guns was virtually ignored—except as related to arming educators.
- Many of the invited presenters were researchers (rather than practitioners), and/or were researchers affiliated with grants or Technical Assistance Centers funded by one of the federal agencies seated on the Commission.
- A common (largely unresponded to) plea to the Commission was to take a broader, proactive, multi-faceted climate and relationship-centered approach to school safety—going beyond the emphasis on “hardening schools” through technology, physical security measures, active shooter drills, and a “bunker” mentality.
- The “mental health” discussion occurred most directly during the Wisconsin visit. But the focus was largely on trauma-informed care, a presentation of the state’s system of mental health supports, and the importance of interagency collaboration and parental advocacy. There was virtually no discussion of school shooters, or the relationship of this mental health approach to successfully addressing school violence.
Tragically, the Department of Education’s (and Betsy DeVos’) “consideration” as to whether federal funds can be used by schools to purchase weapons, appeared to get more attention than all of the previous discussion on the diverse ways needed to make schools safer.
What Have the States Done Since Parkland?
Added to the Commission issues above is the fact that Congress has done virtually nothing to directly address school shootings in our country—other than to slightly increase the funding available for school safety.
Thus, the “good news” (given the federal government’s leadership gap) is that state legislatures, some state departments of education, and many districts and schools have not waited for the Commission or Congress to act.
Indeed, state legislatures have considered at least 261 school safety bills since the Parkland shooting, with most of the proposals focusing on law enforcement and school police, adjusting laws related to carrying guns in schools, and providing additional school safety funding. From this, at least 29 bills and six resolutions have passed—including measures increasing the penalties for school threats and creating ways for students to anonymously report safety concerns.
Relative to funding, at least 26 states have appropriated at least $960 million for school safety programs this year—with additional states ready to weigh in when their biennially-scheduled legislatures meet this coming year.
Critically, though, most of this school safety funding has targeted upgrades to help school facilities to be more physically protected and technologically sophisticated. Precious little money has been allocated to address students’ health, mental health, interpersonal, and/or wellness status and/or concerns.
In this latter area since Parkland, a number of states passed bills establishing school safety task forces. Whether by legislation or executive order, the following states (at least) have formed school safety task forces: Nevada, Utah, Ohio, Michigan, Texas, Mississippi, Wyoming, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
Some states have already (recently) issued new school safety reports: Florida, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.
And some states (e.g., Massachusetts) issued comprehensive reports within the past two to five years.
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The point is that: Collectively, there is already a great amount of excellent information available to help districts and schools analyze and address their preventative and responsive needs in the area of school safety, student violence, and school shootings.
And while the Federal Commission may (being kind) add to the information, most states are already taking action, and—for the states that are waiting, the wait may cost lives.
School Shootings and Students’ Health, Mental Health, and Wellness
Over the years in writing this Blog, I have addressed the issue of health, mental health, and wellness innumerable times. I have always emphasized that the goals and primary targets need to be students’ social, emotional, and behavioral self-management skills.
Said a different way, children and adolescents need to be (in a developmentally-sensitive way) taught, prompted, reinforced, and corrected (when needed) as they demonstrate and apply their interpersonal, prosocial problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills.
Most students learn these skills through directed and consistent instruction at home and in their classrooms as part of a Social-Emotional Learning and classroom management process. Other students (including those with apparent mental health issues) need different intensity levels (tiers) of services, supports, programs, and interventions. Ultimately, these interventions are identified through a diagnostic assessment process—similar to what a medical doctor does for a persistent or serious physiological condition.
I have also detailed the necessary science-to-practice of self-management components for districts and schools: Positive Relationships and School/Classroom Climates; Identified Behavioral Expectations and Skill Instruction; Student Motivation and Accountability; Consistency (in implementing the above four components); and Applications to Different Settings, Students (Peer groups), and Individual Student Circumstances (e.g., bullying, trauma, disability, homelessness, home, or medical situations).
The point here and the relationship to school shootings is:
When students learn and consistently demonstrate interpersonal, prosocial problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills—individually and from peer-to-peer—the probability of a school shooting or other acts of violence decreases.
Moreover, when schools are implementing all five of the self-management components with integrity, the probability of identifying and serving students with significant mental health needs increases.
This again decreases the probability of a school shooting or other acts of violence.
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For more details about these skills, components, and multi-tiered approaches—based on our work across the country for over 35 years, please check out the following previous Blogs:
February 24, 2018 [CLICK HERE]
School Shootings: History Keeps Repeating Itself. . . What We Already Know, and What Schools, Staff, and Students Need to Do (Part I)
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March 10, 2018 [CLICK HERE]
School Shootings, Comprehensive Prevention, Mandatory (Mental Health) Reporting, and Standardized Threat Assessments: What Schools, Staff, and Students Need to Do, and the Help that They Need to Do It (Part II)
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July 7, 2018 [CLICK HERE]
Elementary School Principals’ Biggest Concern: Evidence-based and Multi-Tiered Solutions to Students’ Behavior and Emotional Problems
Already Known: Enhancing School Safety Using Threat Assessments
Another area that states, districts, and schools do not need to wait for involves conducting threat assessments. In fact, the U.S. Department of Human Services (which ironically is directly seated on the Federal Commission on School Safety) published, Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence two months ago while the Commission was still deliberating.
Quite honestly, this Report represents an important contribution to the school violence/shooting prevention conversation. Without being too cynical, it may well surpass any contribution that comes out of the Commission as a whole.
Below is the most essential information from the Department’s website summarizing this important document.
In conjunction with physical security and emergency management, a threat assessment process is an effective component to ensuring the safety and security of our nation’s schools.
Threat assessment procedures recognize that students engage in a continuum of concerning behaviors, the vast majority of which will be non-threatening and non-violent, but may still require intervention.
The threshold for intervention should be relatively low so that schools can identify students in distress before their behavior escalates to the level of eliciting concerns about safety.
Everyone has a role to play in preventing school violence and creating safe school climates. Students should feel empowered to come forward without fear of reprisal. Faculty and staff should take all incoming reports seriously and assess any information regarding concerning behavior or statements.
Creating a Targeted Violence Prevention Plan
The goal of a threat assessment is to identify students of concern, assess their risk for engaging in violence or other harmful activities, and identify intervention strategies to manage that risk. This process begins with establishing a comprehensive targeted violence prevention plan where schools:
Step 1: Establish a Multidisciplinary Threat Assessment Team. A multidisciplinary threat assessment team of school personnel should include faculty, staff, administrators, coaches, school resource officers, and related services/mental health professionals who will direct, manage, and document the threat assessment process.
Step 2: Define Behaviors. The Threat Assessment Team should specify and define those behaviors that should trigger an immediate threat assessment and/or immediate intervention.
A valid and reliable threat assessment protocol and process needs to be identified—with appropriate initial and updated/ongoing booster training conducted. A strategic “immediate intervention” process should be established for different qualitative kinds of threats—again with appropriate training and resourcing.
Step 3: Establish and Provide Training on a Central Reporting System. A technologically fluid and available central reporting system and data-base should be put into operation. Available to staff, students, parents, and others in the community, the reporting system should provide anonymity to those reporting concerns, and it should be continuously monitored by personnel to ensure a timely investigation and response to all reports.
Step 4: Determine the Threshold for Law Enforcement Intervention. Given the Behaviors in Step 2, a threshold for law enforcement intervention should be mutually established for different threats and threat levels.
Step 5: Establish Threat Assessment Procedures. Expanding on Step 2, agreed-upon and developmentally-sensitive threat assessment procedures are developed and implemented to include practices for maintaining documentation, identifying sources of information, reviewing records, and conducting interviews.
These procedures should include the following investigative themes to guide the assessment process:
- Motive: What motivated the student to engage in the behavior of concern? What is the student trying to solve?
- Communications: Have there been concerning, unusual, threatening, or violent communications? Are there communications about thoughts of suicide, hopelessness, or information relevant to the other investigative themes?
- Inappropriate Interests: Does the student have inappropriate interests in weapons, school attacks or attackers, mass attacks, other violence? Is there a fixation on an issue or a person?
- Weapons Access: Is there access to weapons? Is there evidence of manufactured explosives or incendiary devices?
- Stressors: Have there been any recent setbacks, losses, or challenges? How is the student coping with stressors?
- Emotional and Developmental Issues: Is the student dealing with mental health issues or developmental disabilities? Is the student’s behavior a product of those issues? What resources does the student need?
- Desperation or Despair: Has the student felt hopeless, desperate, or like they are out of options?
- Violence as an Option: Does the student think that violence is a way to solve a problem? Have they in the past?
- Concerned Others: Has the student’s behavior elicited concern? Was the concern related to safety?
- Capacity: Is the student organized enough to plan and execute an attack? Does the student have the resources?
- Planning: Has the student initiated an attack plan, researched tactics, selected targets, or practiced with a weapon?
- Consistency: Are the student’s statements consistent with his or her actions or what others observe? If not, why?
- Protective Factors: Are there positive and prosocial influences in the student’s life? Does the student have a positive and trusting relationship with an adult at school? Does the student feel emotionally connected to other students?
Step 6: Develop Risk Management Options. Risk management options and individualized risk management plans should be linked (as needed) to different threat assessment results. These plans should include (as above) when and how quickly to notify law enforcement (and others) if a student is thinking about an attack, how to inform and ensure the safety of potential targets, how to de-escalate potential violence situations, how re-direct a student’s motive, and how to reduce the effect of student stressors.
Step 7: Create and Promote a Safe School Climate. Finally, the Threat Assessment Team—supported by administrators, other school committees (e.g., The Discipline/SEL Committee), staff, students, parents, and community groups—need to create and promote a safe school climate built on a culture of safety, respect, trust, and emotional support. Students need to be encouraged to take the lead in these proactive efforts, to share their concerns regarding students and situations, and to safely intervene in conflicts or incidents involving (on-site and social media) teasing, bullying, or peer ostracism.
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Beyond this document, and as noted above, states, districts, and schools are encouraged to look at the existing work and deliberations of others.
While new, innovative practices are always emerging, there already are many excellent school safety blueprints and examples of successful practices. If anything, there probably are more ideas and suggestions than any district or school could reasonably implement.
Given the Federal Commission on School Safety’s politicized decisions regarding what topics to emphasize, which speakers to invite, and what locations to site-visit, its Final Report will need to be reviewed through a lens of objectivity and practicality relative to preventing and responding to school shootings.
Critically, this is also true of the other already-existing reports and recommendations.
Indeed, we cannot afford to be investing time, money, training, and other resources on school safety strategies that have not been objectively evaluated for their efficacy and impact. We cannot risk any more lives on financially-motivated promotions, in contrast to evidence-based practices.
In the end, we must be guided by the following “truths”:
- Districts and schools must re-evaluate their current understandings of the multi-tiered characteristics and factors that will keep their facilities, students, and staff safe. Even if this was done last year (especially before Parkland), new assessments are recommended now.
- While district and school facilities need to be physically safe—both structurally and technologically, leaders need to strategically plan for the health, mental health, and wellness factors that help these facilities to be safe on a social, emotional, and behavioral level.
- To this end, districts and schools need to evaluate how they “match up” and what they are systematically and planfully doing relative to the five Science-to-Practice Components of student self-management described above.
- Districts and schools need to look at their threat assessment processes, along with the school, district, and community resources needed and available to facilitate these processes. They need continually ensure that people and processes, assets and agencies are aligned and coordinated on an ongoing basis.
- Districts and schools need to review their data-bases to identify current students who may need additional multi-tiered services, supports, programs, and interventions—helping them to be more successful relative to their interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills.
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While there are still so many things to do at the beginning of this new school year, school safety must be at the top of the list.
As noted earlier, the federal government and many states have made millions of dollars available to help our schools, staff, and especially students be safer. Thus, to a large degree, money is not the problem.
The problem is how districts and schools are going to use the money.
And if money is not invested in the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students, all of the funding devoted to our schools’ physical, structural, and enforcement status will not matter.
If there is anything that I can do to assist your district or school in its social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health arenas, please do not hesitate to contact me.
As many of you know, I have been working in these areas for virtually my entire career. I am NOT chasing the “school safety ambulance.” I have been advocating for and helping schools to be safe even before the first wave of school shootings back in the 1990s.