By CONNIE POTTER
When student suicides, school shootings and other violence hit the news, officials always grapple with two questions: Could we have known these events were being planned? And could we have prevented them?
Members of the Oregon Task Force on School Safety believe the answer to both is a resounding yes, and they have come up with solutions they believe will make schools safer.
Oregon is initiating a statewide tip line that will allow students, staff and parents to anonymously share information about potential threats. To make sure schools have the tools to deal with the tips they receive, the task force will ask legislators to establish and fund a statewide threat assessment system. The cost is estimated at about $2 million per year.
It's a one-two punch that takes a comprehensive approach to identifying and assessing potential acts of school violence, said Dave Novotney, superintendent of the Willamette Education Service District and task force co-chair.
"We think it's an excellent way for the state to go," he said. "The benefits are tremendous."
The Oregon Task Force on School Safety was established by the Legislature as part of House Bill 4087, enacted in 2014. Its call was to bring together representatives from police, fire, schools, legislators and others to identify resources and develop recommendations to strengthen school safety.
They came up with four recommendations, two of which have been completed. The tip line will be active at the end of January, and the state already has adopted common terminology for schools and first responders to use (lockdown, lockout, shelter in place and evacuate). Developing a statewide threat assessment system is the next big focus. A fourth recommendation is to develop a statewide school floor plan database.
Focusing on prevention and mitigation gets “the most bang for the buck,” said Peggy Holstedt, OSBA’s director of policy services, and member of the task force. “It only makes sense if we want safer schools.”
While some acts of violence are random, studies show that most active shooters preplan their acts and have shared their plans with a peer, Novotney said. The FBI has identified a number of potential school shootings that were prevented, he said, because students reported a threat to authorities.
The FBI, U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education recommend that schools adopt a threat assessment approach to preventing targeted acts of violence, he noted.
The FBI reports that 39 active shooter incidents occurred in education environments nationwide between 2000 and 2013, resulting in 117 deaths and 120 wounded. That's a startling statistic, said Novotney, but the proposed threat assessment system is not just about active shooters in the schools.
"This is more than that," he said. "It's also about identifying and helping students who exhibit reactive violence, self-harm issues and sexual predatory behavior. It's a very comprehensive system to help schools, students and families."
Equally disturbing is the number of youth suicides in Oregon – 344 between 2009 and 2013.
"It's extremely alarming," said Novotney. "We really need better systems in place to support these students and families and also the staff who deal with them."¬
The statewide threat assessment system would be modeled after Salem-Keizer School District's highly acclaimed system, which is considered a national model. Their threat assessment protocol follows a leveled approach, based on the severity of the threat.
he goal is to intervene as soon as possible to help stop the violent or self-harming behavior and provide wraparound support to help students and families deal with what's contributing to those behaviors.
A level 1 assessment is done at the school level, with a team that includes a school administrator, a counselor and a law enforcement officer, working together to understand the threat, the risk and the resources the school has to address it.
If the school team determines that the situation is high risk, it calls for a level 2 assessment. This is a community-based assessment that involves a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary team of education, mental health and law enforcement professionals. The assessment team assists in management and intervention planning and ensures there is a safety plan in place.
Under the task force's proposal, the state would be divided into multiple regions, each overseen by a full-time regional threat assessment specialist. Fourteen full-time specialists would support schools throughout the state and one program administrator would oversee the entire system.
The role of the specialists would be to:
- Train key school staff to use level 1 protocols in school-based threat screenings
- Consult with school and community-based threat assessment teams
- Coordinate level 2 protocols, deploying multi-disciplinary teams to schools to assess risk and assist in supports and interventions
- Prepare threat-assessment summaries
- Serve as a representative on regional multi-agency threat assessment teams that review level 2 assessments and help provide a pathway to community services
- With this system, the teams work with students, families and the community to provide wraparound supports designed to break negative patterns and steer youth in a positive direction.